If Barry Sanders Didn’t Retire: Projecting Sanders’ Career Stats

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Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders high steps past Tampa Bay’s Demetrius DuBose (93) during a first half run at Tampa Stadium, Florida on Oct. 2, 1994. Sanders rushes for 166 yards during the Lions 24-14 loss to the Bucs.
(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
BetMGM @BETMGM Jun 21, 2022, 9:35 PM

Shortly after Barry Sanders rushed for 41 yards in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the 1998 regular-season finale, the six-time All-Pro “felt that [he] probably would not return for the 1999-2000 season” but needed “as much time as possible” to make an official decision, he later said.

That decision didn’t come until seven months later when, on July 27, 1999, Sanders announced his retirement after 10 seasons and 15,269 rushing yards. At the time, he ranked second on the NFL’s all-time rushing list, second in rushing yards per game (min. 750 career attempts), and fifth in career rushing touchdowns.

If Sanders didn’t retire and instead played two, three, five, or more seasons for the Detroit Lions, where would he have sat – and currently sit – in the NFL record books?

Career Rushing Yards

Barry Sanders led the league in rushing four times and only once rushed for fewer than 1,300 yards in a season – 1,115 yards in 1995 while playing only 11 games. He averaged at least five yards per carry in five of his 10 seasons, including his dominant penultimate MVP season of 1997.

Even with a career-low 4.3 yards-per-carry average in 1998, Sanders still had 1,491 yards to reach 15,000 for his career and ultimately finish with 15,269, just 1,457 behind Walter Payton for the most in league history.

Fourteen years later, he’s still fourth, narrowly behind Frank Gore (16,000) and more than 3,000 yards behind Emmitt Smith (18,355).

If Sanders played just two more seasons, he would’ve needed to average 1,543 yards per season to finish with Smith’s final tally (from 2004). Another three or four seasons likely would’ve made him the league’s only player with 19,000 and 20,000 career yards.

Career Rushing Yards Per Game

Sanders had 71 yards on only nine carries in his first career game and never slowed down for the next decade. He averaged 98 yards per game (in 15 games) en route to winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and leading the Lions to the league’s second-best record against the spread (11-5) in NFL betting in 1989.

His 93.2 yards-per-game average in 1998 slightly decreased his career per-game average to 99.8, but he still sat second in NFL history; only Jim Brown averaged more yards per game (104.3).

Could Sanders have caught Brown? 

If he retired after the 1999 season, he would’ve needed a per-game average of 148 yards over 16 games. (He never averaged more than 128 yards in a season).

If he retired after the 2000 season, he would’ve needed a per-game average of 126 yards over 32 games.

Career Rushing Touchdown

Sanders had 43 rushing touchdowns through his first three seasons and appeared on his way to obliterating Walter Payton’s then-record of 110. But he inexplicably only scored 19 touchdowns over the next three years despite registering more than 4,000 yards.

He finished with 99, just 11 shy of Payton but 24 shy of the new record, 123 touchdowns (Marcus Allen). Others eventually surpassed Sanders, including the new leader, Emmitt Smith, at 164.

Sanders could’ve finished with more than 164 if he averaged 11 – which he scored exactly in three straight seasons from 1995-97 before scoring four in 1998 – for six full seasons.

If he returned to his early-career rate of more than 14 per season, it would’ve taken only four and a half seasons.

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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.