When Barry Sanders ran for 2,000 yards

Teammates hoist Barry Sanders after he topped the 2,000-yard rushing mark on December 21, 1997.

It’s one of the most exclusive clubs in sports.

In the long history of the National Football League only seven running backs have rushed for 2,000 yards in a season. Eric Dickerson holds the single-season record with 2,105 yards, having accomplished that for the Rams in 1984.

In the last 13 years three runners have topped the 2,000-mark, but when Detroit’s Barry Sanders joined the club in 1997 he became only the third man to do it in three decades.

In the Detroit Lions’ final regular season game, on December 21, 1997, Sanders rushes for 184 yards in a 13-10 victory over the New York Jets at the Silverdome. With his big day, Sanders ended his incredible regular season with 2,053 yards on the ground. It was all the more remarkable given the fact that Sanders got off to the worst start of his career that season, butting heads with a new head coach.

For the first eight years of his career, Sanders had played under Wayne Fontes, a player-friendly oaf who goaded his team into the playoffs four times. But like most NFL head coaches Fontes was often-criticized, and after a last-place finish and 11 losses in 1996, “Big Buck” was fired. His replacement was Bobby Ross, fresh off five seasons with the San Diego Chargers, where he led that team to their first Super Bowl appearance.

Ross was known for being a no-nonsense disciplinarian who wouldn’t hesitate to have a sideline tirade if the mood hit him. In many ways he was the polar opposite of Fontes, a man for whom Barry had great respect. The relationship between Ross and Barry didn’t get off to a good start.

In Week One of the ’97 season, Barry carried the ball 15 times for only 33 yards in a victory over the Falcons at the Silverdome. It was a rare quiet performance by Sanders in a Lion win. But what happened the next week was shocking and caused a rift between the star running back and head coach.

Again at home, this time against the Buccaneers, the Lions lost 24-17 in a lackluster performance. The team trailed 17-3 at halftime with the offense sputtering. Barry had only six carries at the half. In the second half Ross ordered his offense to go to the air to fight back against Tampa Bay, virtually ignoring the running game and his superstar back. Sanders only carried the ball four times in the last two quarters, ending the loss with only 20 yards. He did scamper for a 66-yard touchdown on a swing pass from Scott Mitchell, as if to remind his coach that he was a pretty skilled player. But the 20 yards on the ground was the lowest output of Barry’s career.

After two weeks of the 1997 season Sanders had 53 yards rushing and was averaging 12.5 carries per game, well below his career average workload. For most of his career Sanders had let his legs do the talking (he never even spiked the ball), but after the Tampa game he told teammates and some media members that it was “frustrating” to be left out of the offensive scheme. Ross was mum, but it was obvious that he and #20 were not best buddies in their first season together in Detroit.

The next week, Ross had Mitchell hand the ball to Barry more often, and Sanders responded with 161 yards against the Bears at Soldier Field. He had 113 yards the next week in a loss at New Orleans before  scorching the Packers for 139 yards on 28 carries in a 26-15 win at the Silverdome. In that contest against their division rival, Sanders was the centerpiece of the attack.

Barry had a record 14 straight 100-yard games after the two frustrating games to start the ’97 campaign. As they usually did in that era, the team got hot after Thanksgiving, winning five of their last six games. In Week Seven, Sanders had 215 yards against the Bucs in Tampa. In Week 12 he had 216 in a win over the Colts, and four days later on Thanksgiving he ran for 167 more against Chicago. The little back with the joy-stick moves was unstoppable.

Going into the final game of the regular season, a must win for the Lions to make the postseason, Barry had 1,869 yards, only 14 yards below his previous season high.

Detroit struggled to find the end zone in that final game, but not because of Barry, who was like a steam engine. With Dickerson in attendance to see if Sanders could become the third member of the 2,000-yard fraternity (O.J. Simpson had been the first), or possibly even top his record, Barry got off to a sluggish start, gaining just 20 yards in the first half. Then he electrified the Detroit crowd at the end of the third quarter when he made a 47-yard run to more than double his daily yardage. Entering the final quarter the Lions trailed the Jets 10-6 and Barry was 61 yards shy of 2,000.

Then Barry darted through the defense for a 24-yard touchdown to change both of those things. The Lions led 13-10 and Barry was now 37 yards away. On the go-ahead scoring drive, Barry had rushed for 73 yards of the Lions’ 80 yards. Everyone in the Silverdome fully expected #20 would reach the milestone.

On the Lions’ next drive, Sanders shot for 20 yards, then eight, then a two yard run. The crowd grew louder and paused a moment to boo when Ross removed Sanders for a breather after his two-yard run. The clock showed under four minutes left in the game. With the Lions just over the 50-yard line and in Jet territory, Barry ran up the middle for four. He was sitting at 1,997. On third and three, he was met by defenders who held him to one yard. The Lions were forced to punt with Barry at 1,998 yards and the game still in doubt. A New York win would put them in the playoffs and knock Detroit out. Just over four minutes were left in the game.

In the ensuing Jet possession, the Lions held and forced a turnover, giving Detroit the ball with 2:14 left in the game and clinging to a 13-10 lead. On first down, Mitchell handed the ball to Sanders, who squirted forward for two yards. After a New York timeout, the officials were given the word that the run put Barry at 2,000 and handed him the ball. Sanders was surrounded by his linemen and other teammates. Wide receiver Herman Moore playfully grabbed the ball out of Barry’s hands, and Sanders humbly accepted congratulations from the crowd and his team. But he didn’t raise his hands or show up the other team, ever humble as he’d always been.

“He’s as modest a superstar as I have ever met in all of sports,” broadcaster Dick Enberg said as he watched the action.

On the first play after the celebration, Barry added an exclamation point the only way he knew how – with his legs. Taking a handoff, he ran left and then shifted to run through a hole up the middle. The next thing you saw was Sanders running around and past linebackers and defensive backs. He went all the way to the three-yard line for a thrilling 53-yard run.

Sanders ended on that note, having iced the win for the Lions and a playoff spot. His 2.053 yards were second all-time and he did it in only 335 carries, the fewest of any back to reach 2,000 yards to that point.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.