By: Jamie Samuelsen
The greatest running back that most of us ever saw snuck out of town in 1999 with a single playoff win. Barry Sanders may not be the best of all time, but he’s certainly in the conversation. And the fact that he played ten years in Detroit and only advanced once in the postseason is a crime that most Lions fans will never forget. Sanders’ closest rival and contemporary Emmitt Smith won three Super Bowls, 12 playoff games and even took home a Dancing with the Stars title as part of his Hall of Fame resume.
But for Barry, it was that single, solitary win over the Cowboys following the 1991 season.
I thought of Barry yesterday as I watched Calvin Johnson carve up the Colts defense for a career high 13 catches for 171 yards and a touchdown. Johnson now has five straight games with at least 125 yards receiving. He’s very much on pace to break Jerry Rice’s single-season yards record of 1848 set back in 1995. Six weeks ago, some of us (guilty hand raise) wondered out loud, “What’s wrong with Calvin?” There were even some that happily brought up the old Madden Curse, which was completely ludicrous. Now six weeks later, we have our answer. Nothing at all is wrong with Calvin. He’s re-asserted himself as the very best wide receiver in the game. And he’s right back where he belongs in the conversation for best player in football.
And here he sits looking up at Barry Sanders in terms of career playoff victories. Barry has one. Calvin has zero.
How pathetic is that?
Is it possible that within a 25-year span, the Lions will have the greatest running back and the greatest wide receiver ever to play the game, and the two will combine for a single playoff win?
Of course it’s far-fetched to reach that conclusion as Johnson is just now entering his prime. The man is 27 years old and has the body and the athleticism to dominate this game for years to come. And the Lions are only twelve games separated from that one playoff game earlier this year against the Saints. But as the Lions put the finishing touches on another wasted game that officially turned 2012 into a wasted season, you had to consider the fact that Johnson wasted another year of his career. He’s been a Lion for six years, and the team has lost at least nine games four times and seem destined to do it for a fifth.
You could blame almost every single player and coach on the roster for the 35-33 loss to the Saints. The defense collapsed at the end. The offense didn’t cash in on enough first half opportunities, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns when they could have put the game out of reach. The return game did nothing. And the punt game delivered a measly 25-yard punt in the final two minutes when a 35-yard punt might have meant the ball game. You could blame everyone except Johnson who turned in another superlative game. Even head coach Jim Schwartz admitted afterwards that Johnson is always bright spot – and maybe should have been on the field for the final defensive stand. And not a single person disagreed with him.
The Lions ownership and front office desperately want to win. They know their horrid history. They know how long the fans have waited. So this isn’t just about one player. And sports are full of great athletes who have checkered postseason resumes. But you’d have to look long and hard to find a franchise in any sport that did less with two more exceptional athletes than Sanders and Johnson. Barry finally got so fed up that he walked away. Johnson isn’t anywhere near that point.
But the Lions owe it to themselves and to Johnson to make sure it never gets anywhere close.