Prime numbers

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 05, 2006



By Cold, Hard Football Facts senior writer John Dudley
 
With baseball now underway and the NFL draft rapidly approaching, fans of both leagues are able to feed their dual indulgences. Of course, the gridiron gluttons here at Cold, Hard Football Facts have always been partial to pigskin over cowhide. (Don't have a cow – we realize that both balls are actually made of the same leather.) But just as we have a taste for a variety of animals, we can equally appreciate the unique talents required to excel at each sport.
 
Very few men have simultaneously played football and baseball at the highest level, and only one has participated in both a Super Bowl and a World Series. In the same way that we ravenously consume both swine and bovine, this retiring Raven could adroitly juggle two sports. Quite simply, Deion Sanders (pictured here in his spotlight- and pigskin-stealing Dallas days) is one of the greatest athletes ever to strap on a helmet, and he deserves a tip of our greasy John Deere cap.
 
Drafted fifth overall by the Falcons in 1989, Sanders was a cornerback with unparalleled cover skills. He could blanket the best receivers, generally rendering them non-factors. Offensive coordinators had to game-plan around him, and quarterbacks were often forced to throw to the other side of the field – or else risk adding to the highlight reel of "Prime Time."
 
A nickname was never more appropriate, because when Sanders got his hands on the ball, he put on a show. He holds the NFL career record with 19 touchdowns on returns, having scored on nine interceptions, six punts, three kickoffs and a fumble recovery. He also caught three TD passes as a wide receiver, and while playing for the Cowboys in 1996, he became the first two-way starter since Philly's Chuck Bednarik in 1961 (Bednarik played until 1962, but last played both ways in 1961).
 
Sanders' back-breaking jaunts to the end zone were generally punctuated by high-stepping, posing and dancing. This flamboyant, cocky style tended to polarize the pigskin public. Fans celebrated his showmanship and lauded his ability to dominate a game. Critics complained that Sanders wasn't tough enough and didn't tackle well.
 
But Sanders was a savvy strategist. If his receiver was always tightly covered, he knew that throws wouldn't come his way. Therefore, he sometimes baited quarterbacks by playing off the receiver. When the ball was in the air, his blazing speed enabled him to close on it, and a deflection or interception was usually the result. In tackling, Sanders used the sideline as an extra defender and took angles that minimized contact. He was preserving his body – for good reason.
 
By '89, the time was prime for a football-first two-sport athlete. Sanders may have followed the career path of Bo Jackson, who began double duty in 1987, but Sanders played the more physically demanding game full-time (except for 1992, when he committed to baseball for the entire season). Jackson, meanwhile, was showing glimpses of gridiron greatness, but he never realized his full potential in the NFL since baseball was his top priority.
 
Sanders largely moonlighted as a baseball player, but he put up some impressive numbers on the diamond as well. With the Braves in '92, his 14 triples led the majors. That same year, he hit .533 and stole five bases in the World Series (Atlanta lost the six-game series to Toronto).
 
In typical "Neon Deion" fashion, Sanders also shined on football's biggest stage. Super Bowl XXIX saw him record four tackles and an interception during San Francisco's 49-26 victory over San Diego. The next year, he caught a 47-yard pass to help Dallas beat Pittsburgh 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX.
 
Although Sanders recently said that he is hanging up his cleats for good, the announcement has received considerably less fanfare than would be expected. One explanation might be that he already retired once, after the 2000 season. But his uneventful two-year stint in Baltimore should take nothing away from his accomplishments.
 
An overlooked aspect of Sanders' comeback is that so few football players even attempt them – and even fewer enjoy much success upon returning. Chronic turf toe had ended his career prematurely, but spending three seasons out of football allowed him to resume playing. Most other players aren't as fortunate.
 
Former Packers wideout Robert Brooks provides a case in point. He assumed the role of Brett Favre's go-to receiver after perennial Pro Bowler Sterling Sharpe was forced into his own early retirement by a neck injury suffered late in the 1994 season. The next year, Brooks ascended to an elite level by catching 102 passes, 13 of them for touchdowns. He set team records for both receiving yards (1,492) and number of 100-yard games in a season (9), besting Sharpe in both categories.
 
Following a litany of injuries, including one to his right knee in '96 that tore his anterior cruciate ligament, patellar tendon and medial collateral ligament, Brooks was forced to retire before the start of the 1999 season. After sitting out a year, he briefly came back with the Broncos in 2000 but caught just three passes.
 
Conversely, former Redskins running back John Riggins (pictured here in Super Bowl XVII against Miami) is the rare example of a player doing extremely well after returning. Unlike the vast majority of players who attempt comebacks, Riggins did not retire the first time because of injuries. He had just become frustrated, both with the way his 1979 season ended (a heartbreaking 35-34 loss to the Cowboys) and with the team's refusal to renegotiate his contract. He announced his retirement in late summer of 1980 and spent the year on his farm in Kansas.

New Redskins coach Joe Gibbs convinced Riggins to return the next season, and it proved to be a wise decision. Riggins played five more years and amassed 4,530 rushing yards. He also led Washington to a 27-17 victory in Super Bowl XVII, running for a then-Super Bowl record 166 yards and claiming MVP honors.
 
The possibility of winning a championship was also a motivation for Sanders, but his comeback in Baltimore didn't find the same success that Riggins had in Washington. "Prime Time" did, however, continue to climb the ladder for interceptions, now ranking second all-time in return yards. Here is a look at the top five:
 
Player
Team(s)
INTs
Yards
Avg.
TDs
Rod Woodson
Steelers, 49ers, Ravens, Raiders
71
1,483
20.9
12
Deion Sanders
Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys, Redskins, Ravens
53
1,331
25.1
9
Emlen Tunnell
Giants, Packers
79
1,282
16.2
4
Dick Lane
Rams, Cardinals, Lions
68
1,207
17.8
5
Paul Krause
Redskins, Vikings
81
1,185
14.6
3
 
That Sanders achieved his yardage total on only 53 interceptions – at least 15 fewer than the other four players on the list – is a testament to his game-changing ability. Every time he picked off a pass, his average return was a quarter of the length of the field.
 
Given his age (he turns 39 in August), the uncertain state of the Ravens (coming off a disappointing 6-10 year) and the new opportunities available to him, officially ending his playing career makes sense for Sanders. He is likely to land an analyst gig on one of the network pregame shows, with ESPN and FOX both being interested.
 
Five years from now, there is no doubt that Sanders will be a first-ballot inductee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He should rightly be recognized as one of the game's most electric athletes and the quintessential "shutdown corner." In every measurable way, his career was a home run.

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