I was not around for Barry Sanders.
It was the summer of 1999 when the NFL’s third-leading rusher of all-time shockingly announced his retirement, one year before I was born.
Sanders had just rushed for 1,491 yards in his age-30 season, and ran for 2,053 yards the year before, the fourth-most ever in a single season by a running back. At the time, it was the second-most ever.
Sanders was in his prime. In nine seasons, he never rushed for less than 1,115 yards in each. He ran for 1,500+ yards four times, and within nine yards of making it five times in his final season.
Now, we would say he would have never gotten better. That those last two seasons of his career had to be his best. No running back was going to continue producing like that into his 30s. Running backs now produce for 2-3 years and are toast.
With Sanders, we never knew what he could have done.
Perhaps the one thing that we could count on with him was that NFL’s all-time rushing title. No matter how much Sanders declined, he was going to eventually reach it. He retired just 3,086 yards short of Emmitt Smith’s record.
It could have been a slog to reach it. He also could have done it in just two seasons.
Perhaps Sanders retired worried that the first sentence would be the truth. Perhaps playing just to reach that mark wasn’t worth it. Sanders’ numbers speak for themselves over the years. Did the rushing title really make us think differently about him? Did it make him think any differently about himself?
In his case it didn’t. In our case, I don’t really believe so. Sanders not being the leading rusher in NFL history doesn’t make me think any differently about him.
Despite that and Sanders not showing any real signs of slowing down, Sanders’ career felt decently complete. He didn’t have anything left to really prove.
Andrew Luck did.
We never saw Luck’s peak. Luck had four seasons out of six where he threw for 4,000+ yards, including one in which he threw for 4,761 yards and 40 touchdowns. He led the second-largest comeback in NFL playoff history against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Colts couldn’t capitalize on it. Despite making the playoffs four out of Luck’s six seasons, they never won a Super Bowl. They never even made it. The closest they came was during the 2014-15 season, when the Patriots stomped them in the AFC Championship Game 45-7.
Luck put up those numbers and made it that far in the playoffs with one of the league’s worst offensive lines and defenses at the same time.
We never saw Luck’s peak.
This season could have been it. The Colts turned around the issues that plagued them for most of Luck’s career last season. They invested in the offensive line by drafting Quenton Nelson, someone who everyone thought could be an All-Pro and then was right away. They improved the defense by drafting Malik Hooker and Darius Leonard, both of whom are absolute studs. They got Luck some better weapons by utilizing Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines and turning Eric Ebron into a functional NFL player. They hired an offensive mastermind in Frank Reich.
They lost to the NFL’s most high-powered offense in hellacious conditions in the second round of the playoffs in the first year of a new start. No one was going to see that as an unsuccessful season.
This year was supposed to be the year. Luck’s year. The Colts’ year to maybe make the Super Bowl.
Luck’s prime was still coming because he’d never had this much talent around him before.
And it was that lack of talent in previous years that made him step away.
Luck’s retirement is the most shocking one since Sanders, and might even be bigger. Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis and Chris Borland’s all come to mind as well; this is easily the craziest NFL thing to happen since that Megatron retirement. Luck’s is bigger because he was what made the Colts into what they could have become this season. The Lions were still going to underperform with Megatron gone. The 49ers lost two massive parts of their defense in Willis and Borland, but no two players combined are more valuable than Luck. Sanders had done practically everything he could have in his career except for accomplishing one giant feat, which at the end of the day probably means less than we thought it did. Luck had more value and so much more to accomplish. The magnitude of it is hard to comprehend. I’m not sure any of the names above had that hallmark at the end of their careers.
More to come