Barry Sanders optimistic, but realistic, about Lions’ chances

DETROIT — Former Lions running back Barry Sanders said Monday he was “somewhat surprised” the team took a step back during last year’s 4-12 season but he does see promise in this year’s team.

“I think we’re trending in the right direction and I’m not too disappointed in last year because I realized we’re still relatively young,” the Hall of Famer said. “And that playoff team we saw a couple years ago, that’s the team that’s still coming into its own, but it’s not there yet.

“We’re not a consistent face in the playoffs at this point. Too many things went wrong last year and some things almost seemed like the football gods were just against us, like that play that happened on Thanksgiving against the Texans; the guy’s knee being down and running for a touchdown. I can’t remember the exact details, but just one of those unusual fluke things.”

In a phone interview with the Free Press to promote his cover appearance on EA Sports’ upcoming “Madden NFL 25” video game and his new Pepsi Max commercial, “Disappearing Sanders,” that can be seen below, Sanders touched on several subjects concerning the Lions.

“Yeah, I watch a good deal of it,” he said. “I haven’t seen much of the preseason. But I definitely watch most, if not all, of the games. I’m interested with not just the Lions but also the division and how the games are played and how competitive it is and that kind of a thing. So, yeah, I’m definitely still a fan.”

That much is evident in Sanders’ words. He’s 45 and speaks much like a fan these days, exasperated with one playoff victory in the Super Bowl era while other teams, especially division rivals, manage to overcome challenges. In the past seven seasons, the three other NFC North teams have made it to at least the conference title game.

“Hey, look, the Vikings have been through a lot of turmoil, (but) they’ve been able to get into the playoffs every year or two,” Sanders said. “And so we need to be able to do that as well here.

“Look at what all (the Vikings have) been through. They were down a couple years ago when Brett Favre left and now they’re back in the playoffs. My point is it’s going to be a dogfight and (the Lions have) just got to be up for it and ready.”

Sanders is optimistic but realistic about the Lions.

“I think they surely can win the division,” he said. “I think going in you would probably still place the Packers as the favorite. And obviously the Vikings were a playoff team last year. But certainly we should, on paper, kind of be fighting for that second spot with the Vikings in the division.”

The way Sanders sees it, the Lions faltered last year because they took a misstep just as they were finding their footing during the 2011 season.

“So my point is we couldn’t afford to take any steps back,” he said. “But that can happen with a young team who’s trying to come into their own. So I think it was a big move to get Reggie Bush and bring him in here.

“But you’re going to have to be able to play good defense and stop those passing offenses that are very efficient like the Green Bay Packers and even, for that matter, stop the run game and stop guys like Adrian Peterson on the ground. So you’ve got to be able to shore that part of the game up as well, and hopefully we can do that.”

Sanders isn’t sure whether he will attend the Lions’ season opener against Minnesota on Sept. 8. He might be too busy watching his oldest son, Stanford sophomore running back Barry Sanders Jr., play in the Cardinal’s season opener the day prior.

But Sanders is tentatively scheduled to attend the Lions’ annual alumni game Oct. 27 against the visiting Dallas Cowboys.

Sanders abruptly retired in the summer of 1999 and he said it’s hard to believe it has been that long. He’s thankful that his video-game alter ego has kept him around in football fans’ consciences — and this year more than ever after he won a fan vote in April for the “Madden” cover.

“It’s been 14 years and fortunately for me games like ‘Madden’ have kept me sort of current and familiar, to some degree, with a lot of the fans that didn’t see me play,” Sanders said. “For me, it’s a real thrill to be able to do things like this. Those 14 years have definitely gone pretty fast.”

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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