"This is my sixth year watching him, and he's phenomenal. He's one of a kind. I consider it a privilege and an honor to be on the same team with him." -- Detroit Lions defensive end Tracy Scroggins on running back Barry Sanders.
Think of the current athletes, in any sport, who truly perform at an awe-inspiring level.
We're not talking about someone who just makes plays, great or otherwise.
We're talking about someone who consistently does the spectacular -- whose movement defies logic and, quite often, the laws of physics. Someone who causes fans, teammates, opponents, coaches, and just about everyone else to watch in drop-jawed amazement.
Someone like Michael Jordan.
Someone like Tiger Woods.
And someone like Barry Sanders.
Granted, Sanders is several championships and -- despite the $5.76-million-per-year contract he signed last July -- millions of endorsement dollars away from Jordan and Woods in their respective sports.
But the same reverent tones used to describe what Jordan does on a basketball court and what Woods does on a golf course are also heard in reference to what Sanders does on a football field.
With his incredible elusiveness and breakaway speed, the Detroit Lions' running back can't merely be described as a ball-carrier.
He is an artist -- so beautiful to watch, so maddening to bring down.
Long before kickoff, opposing defenders concede that Sanders is going to make them look bad. They know, at some point, they will lunge one way as he darts another. They know, at some point, they will grab for what they are certain is his 5-foot-8, 200-pound frame and wind up with an armful of air.
"What's the most frustrating thing about facing Sanders?" a reporter asked defensive end Phil Hansen as he and his Buffalo Bills' teammates prepared for Sunday's game against the Lions.
"Taking crap from all of your teammates after the game," Hansen said. "But everybody has been made to look foolish by Barry Sanders."
"Really, it's like throwing a chicken in the boxing ring and then having three or four guys try to catch it," New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Zaven Yaralian said. "That's how quick he is. You don't know where he's going to go."
But you do know where Sanders will usually end up -- many yards downfield.
Sanders' 12,191 career rushing yards put him in fifth place on the NFL's all-time list behind Walter Payton (16,726), Eric Dickerson (13,259), Tony Dorsett (12,739) and Jim Brown (12,312). He won his third NFL rushing title last year, and is the only back in league history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first eight pro seasons.
The numbers, however, are not the main reason Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, a long-time college and pro coach, calls Sanders the best back ever to carry a ball.
"He's the best back ever to carry a ball because he can go the distance at any time," Shurmur said.
Shurmur was speaking after Green Bay's 26-15 loss to Detroit last Sunday. He had just watched Sanders run for 139 yards on 28 carries. Worse yet, with his defense stacked to stop the run, Shurmur had just witnessed Sanders gain 37 yards on nine plays to set up Jason Hanson's clinching field goal.
It was Sanders' third consecutive 100-yard game and brought his season total to 466 yards, third-best in the NFC. It also silenced rumbling that began early last month that something was amiss with the Lions' running game.
After Sanders produced only 53 yards on 25 carries in Detroit's first two games -- a victory over Atlanta and a loss to Tampa Bay -- all sorts of questions were burning up the talk-show lines. Was the decision of new Lions coach Bobby Ross to switch from a one-back to a two-back scheme the problem? Or perhaps Sanders, at 29 and in his ninth NFL season, was losing a step?
Always one to be low-keyed with the media, Sanders never lost his cool. He preached patience, noting that the Lions "always seem to get things clicking eventually."
Ross also took some heat off of Sanders by taking the blame for the running back's career-low rushing totals in back-to-back games.
"If anybody was hindering him, it was probably me because we weren't running the ball enough," Ross said. "What we've got to do is get him the ball somewhere between 20 to 25 times, either by way of the run or the pass."
After spending most of the last eight seasons in Wayne Fontes' one-back set, Sanders needed a little time getting used to the two-back approach full-time. But he and his offensive teammates immediately recognized how much more effective the rushing attack would be with additional blocking from a fullback -- Tommy Vardell in normal situations, Cory Schlesinger in short-yardage/goal line.
"I think it's interesting that people raise that (two-back) issue so much," Sanders said. "If they look at my stats, they'll see I have some huge games with the two-back offense (including a 220-yard, four-touchdown performance against Minnesota in 1991 and a 194-yard outing against Dallas in 1994)."
Bills linebacker Chris Spielman -- Sanders' teammate for seven of his seasons in Detroit -- scoffs at any suggestions that the man he was never allowed to tackle in practice might be slowing down.
"Somebody said Barry lost a step," Spielman said. "No. He gained a step. He's awesome."
Lions offensive tackle Ray Roberts doesn't see anything missing from Sanders' game, either. He still marvels over his ability to make defenders miss.
"It's some slight shoulder movement or hip movement," Roberts said. "You watch it on film, and it's like, 'Man, that little-bitty move makes a guy just about blow his knee out.' "
Bills assistant head coach/running backs coach Elijah Pitts has not been at practice since Wednesday, when he complained of not feeling well, and it is unknown whether he will be on the sidelines Sunday.
Pitts underwent tests at an area hospital, according to Bills director of media relations Scott Berchtold. Berchtold said Friday he did not know the nature of the tests and did not have any specifics on Pitts' condition.
Bills defensive end Jim Jeffcoat has been scratched from Sunday's lineup because of torn cartilage in his knee. It will be the first time he has missed a regular- or post-season game in 15 NFL seasons, the first 12 of which were spent with Dallas.
Other Bills who will be inactive are wide receiver Mitchell Galloway, defensive back Ray Jackson, and defensive tackle Pat Williams.