The Detroit Lions hope Barry Sanders can take them back to the future.
The Lions, desperate for help with their punchless offense, made the Heisman Trophy-winning tailback out of Oklahoma State the No. 3 pick in the NFL draft Sunday.
It was the first time Detroit has gone for a big name running back since they took Billy Sims, another Heisman winner, in 1980. The Lions last were in the NFL playoffs in 1983--with Sims in the backfield.
“I look for him to make a tremendous impact,” said Detroit coach Wayne Fontes, smoking a big cigar. “I remember a few years ago the impact Billy Sims had on this city and this team. I look for Barry Sanders to have the same impact.”
Fontes said he’d like Sanders, who wore No. 21 in college, to wear Sims’ old No. 20 for the Lions.
“I told you people when I took this job over we were going to restore the roar,” Fontes said. “This player will do that.
“One player will never win a championship, but it we get a few more players of this caliber, we’ll be on our way.”
Sanders, in a telephone hookup from his home in Wichita, Kan., said that was fine with him.
“Billy Sims was a boyhood hero of mine,” Sanders said. “They can give me No. 99 for all I care. I haven’t played a down yet. I hope I can put up half the numbers Billy Sims did.”
The Lions used their second-round pick to take Virginia wide receiver John Ford. In the third round, Detroit selected Mike Utley, an offensive guard out of Washington State, while in the fourth round, the Lions picked Baylor defensive back Ray Crockett.
The Dallas Cowboys, with the first pick, signed UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman on Thursday. The Green Bay Packers made Michigan State hulk Tony Mandarich the No. 2 pick just before Detroit, which finished 4-12 last season, selected Sanders.
“I’m the kind of guy who always wants to play for the underdog,” Sanders said. “That’s why I’m thrilled to be playing in a place like Detroit. I didn’t want to play for one of the leading teams.”
The Lions, who ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing yardage last year, had been set to draft Florida State defensive back Deion Sanders. But the other Sanders, only a junior, changed their minds when he decided to leave college a year early.
“I had to do what I felt was best for Barry Sanders,” Sanders said. “It was my decision to come out.”
The do-nothing Detroit offense was 28th in yards per rushing attempt with only a 3.2 average in 1988 and made by far the fewest rushing first downs.
Although it’s uncertain how they will use Sanders in the new single-back stretch offense, implemented after Fontes succeeded Darryl Rogers as coach, the Lions obviously felt they needed a big-play threat.
Sanders, a 5-foot-8, 203-pounder, fills that need with speed enough to run 40 yards in 4.39 seconds.
“My only reservation is about the Lions offense,” Sanders said. “You’ve got to understand, I’ve been an I-formation back ever since I was in the fourth grade.”
Fontes predicted Sanders would carry the ball as much or more than he did in college.
“We tried to compare him with all the great running backs--O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson--and he has all those traits,” Fontes said. “The big thing is not how big a man is, but can he play football. Barry Sanders can play football.”
But, as so often happens with the Lions, the drafting may be only half the battle. Detroit has had trouble signing top draft picks in the past and Sanders also could be a problem.
“I have a very optimistic attitude,” Sanders said. “The hardest part is yet to come. We’ve got a lot of things to be worked out.”
Sanders is represented by two attorneys and one of them, David Ware of Atlanta, only a week ago was urging the Lions to draft somebody else. A day before the draft, however, Ware said he had been convinced the Lions were sincere in their commitment to Sanders.
“Barry’s been very comfortable with Coach Fontes and (vice president for personnel) Jerry Vainisi,” said Ware, who will represent Sanders in contract talks along with Denver attorney Lamont Smith.
“Our concerns always were how he would be utilized in a pure run and shoot offense, but it appears they may not run a pure run and shoot. It’s going to be a modification,” Ware continued. “I’ve talked to Barry about how teams adjust their offense to the personnel who are there.
“As you look at this offense, the way it’s designed, if that S-back gets the ball 30 times a game, he should get about 1,500 yrds a year.”
Ware said he isn’t sure how Aikman’s six-year, $11.2 million contract with Dallas will affect the rest of the top picks.
“I don’t think it does,” Ware said. “At least in my mind it doesn’t impact on us. All it does is establish a market.”