ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz was part of a team that held Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders to 41 yards on 19 carries in the final game of the regular season 14 years ago.
Schwartz was a 32-year-old defensive assistant at the time for the Baltimore Ravens, who defeated the Lions, 19-10.
It was Dec. 27, 1998, a day that Lions’ fans will never forget.
Seven months later, Sanders rocked their world by faxing a statement to the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, his hometown newspaper, saying that he was retiring from football.
That was the day Lions’ fans wish they could forget.
Sanders’ controversial retirement story is part of a new NFL Network documentary, “Barry Sanders: A Football Life,” which Wednesday night aired for the first time.
“I was part of the last game he played,” Schwartz said Wednesday following his team’s practice. “It was one of those weeks you don’t sleep very well the whole week. You lose about 10 pounds because there’s no scheme that can really stop him.”
The Ravens somehow found a way to stop him in that farewell performance, and Sanders decided to officially call it quits on the eve of training camp the following summer.
The Lions’ running game hasn’t been the same since, not even close. Call it the Barry Sanders Curse.
Barring a major breakout in the final four games by Mikel Leshoure, the Lions will fail to have a running back rush for 1,000 yards in a season for the eighth straight year.
In the last 13 years, since Sanders’ sudden departure, the Lions have had a 1,000-yard rusher only three times — James Stewart twice, with 1,184 yards in 2000 and 1,021 in 2002, and Kevin Jones with 1,133 yards in 2004.
The closest anyone has come over the last seven years was Kevin Smith with 976 yards in 2008.
Leshoure, a second-round pick in 2011, has 591 yards in 10 games. He was suspended the first two weeks after getting arrested twice during the off-season for possession of marijuana.
Leshoure needs to average 102.3 yards a game the last four weeks to reach 1,000. He is currently averaging 59.1 per game.
It’s been an ongoing glaring hole ever since Sanders said goodbye.
The Lions used first-round picks to try to fix the problem in 2004 (Jones) and 2010 (Jahvid Best).
Jones was constantly injured after his rookie year and lasted only four seasons with the Lions, five in the NFL. Best hasn’t played since Oct. 16, 2011, after sustaining a series of concussions. His career is in serious jeopardy.
The Sanders Curse.
Leshoure, who missed all of his rookie season following surgery for a torn Achilles’ tendon, has shown flashes that he could be part of the answer in the future, but he hasn’t yet had a major impact. It will be easier to make an accurate evaluation of him next season, after he’s had more time to fully recover from last year’s injury.
The Lions are currently averaging 103.6 yards per game rushing, which is actually an improvement of more than 8 yards a game from last year.
Still, it’s not very good. They rank No. 21 in the NFL.
This would be the eighth straight year that they fail to finish in the top-20 in rushing offense. The streak includes finishing No. 30 in 2008, No. 31 in 2007 and No. 32 in 2006.
It all goes back to that day, or so it seems, when Sanders shocked everyone by leaving the game at age 31, when many thought he was in the prime of his career.
At the time, Sanders trailed Walter Payton by 1,491 for the career rushing record. Sanders finished with 15,269 yards, Payton had 16,726. Emmitt Smith ended up surpassing both with 18,355 yards.
In the NFL Network documentary, Sanders admits that he lost his “drive, determination and enjoyment” for the game at the end.
The Lions made the playoffs five of his 10 years, but they were entering a transition period, which included releasing center Kevin Glover, one of Sanders’ close friends, for financial reasons.
“Over the next few years, it looked like we would be rebuilding,” Sanders said in the documentary interview. “We had gotten rid of some good players. I just felt like it was time to make a change.”
The Lions had fallen back to 5-11 during what turned out to be Sanders’ final year. They were 8-8 and 9-7 the next two seasons.
The major drop-off actually didn’t begin until 2001, when they won only two games, the first of 10 straight losing seasons.
Sanders kept his feelings quiet, but he claims now that he he knew going into that game in Baltimore in ’98, two days after Christmas, that he probably wasn’t going to play ever again.
“I remember after that game, I just broke down,” Sanders said. “I didn’t really say what was going on. I was glad to get out of there.”
Schwartz said he admires Sanders for stepping down when he did.
“It’s rare nowadays that guys retire when they’re at the top of their game,” the coach said. “There’s something to be said for guys that walk away on their own terms. Jim Brown did it. Barry Sanders did it. I think that’s pretty good company.”
Many fans around here, however, were distraught and appalled by Sanders’ decision. They felt cheated because they were so close to witnessing history.
Sanders likely would have been the all-time leader in rushing yardage with one more season.
“I understood full well who Walter Payton was, what he accomplished,” Sanders said. “The record for me wasn’t important enough to force myself to stay around.”
It’s clear now that Sanders might have felt different if he didn’t think the Lions were headed in such a bad direction.
In the end, it only got worse without their game-breaking running back.
A lot of guys have tried to replace him over the last 14 years, none very effectively. Maybe it’s time for Barry to lift that curse.
Schwartz, on whether troubled receiver Titus Young will undergo knee surgery after being put on the season-ending injured list: “Yeah, most likely … unless he doesn’t show up for it.”
… Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, on being accused of celebrating an opponent’s injury after a Lions’ interception during Sunday’s game against Indianapolis: “I am the type of person that would never celebrate anybody being injured. I was celebrating my team playing well.”