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Original Issue

Inside The NFL

The clock is ticking on Barry Sanders as he chases an elusive

So this is what it's like trying to tackle Barry Sanders. "Come
on," he said to me over his shoulder, and with a deft move past
a minicam crew, Sanders turned the corner and headed toward an
exit in the Lions' locker room, trying to escape the commotion
after Detroit's 27-20 upset of the Packers at the Silverdome
last Thursday night.

Sanders froze for an instant outside the locker room door to
sign an autograph, so I began to ask about whether he might be
the best player never to win a Super Bowl. "Do you--?" But
Sanders knew what I wanted to talk about and quickly cut me off.
"No!" he said. "I don't agree."

It seemed an appropriate time to raise the subject. He had just
rushed for 155 yards against one of the premier teams in the
league, galloping 73 yards for a touchdown and having an 80-yard
run for another score called back because of a holding penalty.
Yet the Lions' win only evened their regular-season record at
75-75 since they drafted Sanders third in 1989. As he bounded up
a back stairwell, I wondered, was Sanders's NFL life passing,
unfulfilled, before his eyes?

Even if he shatters Walter Payton's career rushing record (he
needs 2,310 yards), it's debatable whether he's the best of an
elite group of players never to have won a Super Bowl, which
includes Dick Butkus, Dan Marino and O.J. Simpson. Regardless,
Sanders is admired by teammates and even by the Lions' fiercest
rivals for his transcendent breakaway runs and his humility. If
he ever reaches a Super Bowl, he might have more people cheering
him on than John Elway did last season. Unlike the Broncos,
however, the 2-4 Lions aren't championship material. How many
more years can Sanders maintain his performance level?

Of a possible Super Bowl shutout, Sanders said, "I guess it
could happen." Then motoring to the lobby off the Lions'
offices, he added, "But I've got too much life to live, too many
games to play."

In the lobby Sanders took a left past a man in a trench coat,
sidestepped a woman in a faux leather coat and power-walked
through the revolving front door to freedom. "Let me read you
something from Lomas Brown," I said to Sanders's shadow. Brown
was Detroit's left tackle from 1985 through '95 but now plays in
Arizona. Sanders turned his head slightly to listen.

"Here's what Lomas says," I began, reading from my notes. "'I
don't think not winning a title has been that hard on Barry. He
wants to win, believe me. But he's not consumed with
self-gratification. He's just consumed with being the best he
can be. You won't see him lose sleep over it. Not to say he
doesn't care. But football is not his whole life.'"

"Lot of truth to that," Sanders said, opening a brown paper bag
that contained one overripe banana, which he peeled and ate as
he talked. "But you know, this is a great team game, where so
many people have control over who wins and loses. If I could
transfer my skills to the NBA, I could have more control over
who wins. No matter how well one guy plays in football, he needs
a lot of help to win a Super Bowl."

According to some of Sanders's acquaintances, however, the
losing is starting to bug him. Asked last week about the Lions'
1-4 start, Sanders replied quietly, "Same old s---." One
reporter says it was the first time he had heard Sanders swear.
"A lot of times after a bad loss," said Sanders, now standing by
his fire-engine-red Range Rover, "I go home, and I'm ready to
quit. Can't stand it."

He never won a high school state football championship while
playing in Wichita, Kans., never won a Big Eight title at
Oklahoma State and has come no closer to the Super Bowl than the
'91 NFC Championship Game, which the Lions lost to the Redskins
41-10. Still, the thought of playing in the Big One, he says,
keeps him going.

"I envision playing in a Super Bowl," he said. "I really do. I
don't dream about it, just think of it sometimes when I'm awake.
Packed stadium, laying it on the line, taking over a game. I can
see it happening."

Even if no one else can.

Jake Plummer

Trailing the Giants 17-7 on his team's first possession of the
third quarter on Sunday, Cardinals second-year quarterback Jake
Plummer rolled right and forced a deep sideline pass into heavy
coverage. Strong safety Percy Ellsworth intercepted, and New York
was on its way to a 34-7 win. "I'm bulletproof, I'm Jake the
Snake," Plummer said sarcastically after the game. "I thought I'd
slip it in there."

Anointed as a young Joe Montana coming into this season (SI,
Aug. 17), Plummer has been having some rough days at the office.
Against the Giants he completed 12 of 21 passes for 139 yards,
threw one touchdown pass and a pair of interceptions, and was
sacked seven times. After Marc Trestman took over as offensive
coordinator in the off-season and installed a variation of the
West Coast attack, Plummer had to learn his second system in as
many years. Though he has completed 59.5% of his passes, his 11
interceptions are third highest in the league, and he has thrown
for only six scores.

Plummer is also taking a beating behind perhaps the league's
worst offensive line. Last season Arizona quarterbacks were
sacked 78 times, the second-highest total in NFL history.
Although the Cardinals are on pace to shave 21 sacks off that
number, Plummer has still gone down two dozen times. Bottom
line: It's ludicrous to dump on this guy when he's often under
an avalanche of pressure.

"This is a process that'll take a while," says Trestman. "I like
where he's going. We can't treat it as Armageddon when he
doesn't play great."

Trading Deadline

As the 4 p.m. EDT trading deadline approached on Oct. 13, Giants
general manager Ernie Accorsi took one call from a fellow G.M.
who asked if Accorsi would like to acquire a marginal player.
"No interest," replied Accorsi. The discussion took all of 15

"I've got him beat," says Bills general manager John Butler. "We
got no calls for trades [that day]." The Bills didn't put out
any feelers either.

On the day of the major league baseball trading deadline last
July, 14 deals were struck. By comparison NFL teams made one:
The Bears sent running back Bam Morris to the Chiefs for a
conditional fifth-round pick in 1999. In-season trades have
become rare in the NFL, largely because it takes too long for a
player to pick up his new team's systems.

The salary cap can also pose problems. Most teams are at or near
their cap limit, meaning they'd have to restructure contracts to
make room for a new player. Also, if a player who is not in the
last year of his contract is dealt, the remainder of his signing
bonus is immediately applied to his former team's cap. Thus
deals that might make football sense don't add up economically.

Still, with more than half the season remaining, it's hard for a
trade maven such as Packers general manager Ron Wolf to believe
that teams can't figure out ways to acquire players. "Teams
don't trade because [front-office] people are afraid of their
own shadows," says Wolf, who tried unsuccessfully to upgrade
Green Bay's secondary.


Panthers kicker John Kasay missed a 47-yard field goal with five
seconds left, sealing the Bucs' 16-13 win. "It was a perfect
snap and perfect hold," said Kasay. "I hit it completely square.
Believe me, that ball should have moved right, and it went left.
I can say with absolute confidence that God did not want me to
make that field goal." ...

The league will address one of the problems of a 31-team
schedule in '99 by giving byes in the final four weeks to the
four teams that finish with the worst records in '98. This is to
alleviate concern that a potential playoff team would benefit
from a week off late in the year.

The End Zone

In their first 37 years the Cowboys never lost a game 13-12. In
their last 16 games they've lost by that score three times.

COLOR PHOTO: VINCENT MUZIK Sanders continues to eat up yards, but he has no Super Bowl ring to show for his work. [Barry Sanders in game]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Plummer is learning a new system with Arizona, but he's taking the same old pounding. [Jake Plummer diving with football in game]


1. Colts 31, 49ers 20 We've corrected the score because referee
Walt Coleman's crew robbed Indianapolis blind at 3Com Park on
Sunday and handed San Francisco a 34-31 gift. Peyton Manning
really beat the Niners with a fearless, three-touchdown,
no-interception day.

2. Mount Ditka erupts With this postgame explanation of how the
Falcons beat his club 31-23, Saints coach Mike Ditka showed why
it's great to have him in the league: "They smacked us in the
mouth and said, 'You like that?' Evidently we said yes, because
we let them smack us in the mouth again. This game is not about
tricking people. You hit them in the mouth enough times, their
eyes start watering. We didn't hit anybody in the mouth today."

3. No Place Like Home On a Sunday when all 11 home teams won,
the Oilers picked up their first win ever in Nashville. Best
news for Tennessee fans? Fourth-year quarterback Steve McNair
had his finest day as a pro, completing 16 of 21 passes for 277
yards and one touchdown and running for another score in the
44-14 victory over the Bengals.