Like the average football fan, Barry Sanders was impressed with how
Megatron had a season for the ages, one that added to his stature as one of the NFL's best players at any position.
He set the one-season record with 1,964 yards. He also led the league in receptions with 122.
But as one Lion great – called by many the best and most exciting runner in football history – looking at another, it was the kind of season Sanders has expected, and predicted, Johnson to deliver at some point in his career.
"I'm not surprised," Sanders said Sunday afternoon. "I don't remember the specific interview, but I think several times over the last few years I said he'd probably rewrite the record books in terms of receiving yardage. I wasn't terribly shocked."
Sanders shared his thoughts while out shopping with his kids. As is typical of those who've been in touch with him over the years, he was in a light-hearted mood, and joked about his kids "tearing the place up" while shopping. In other words, making dad buy.
Sanders said he will head to New Orleans in the middle of the week to take part in promotional activities leading up to Super Bowl XLVII.
Sanders, whose low-key personality belies the keen insights and passion he has for football, is curious to see how the Lions continue to find ways to get the ball to Johnson. He faced coverage combinations unlike any used on other receivers.
One example was the way teams covered Johnson in the red zone, having two defensive backs flank him on either side – the same technique used on punt-return units to double-team gunners trying to get downfield.
"We're still trying to figure out some of those other options as well, so the ball comes to him a lot," Sanders said.
Sanders knows all about defenses designed to stop one man. He faced them throughout his career as a Lion, from his rookie season in 1989 through his last season in 1998. Not many found success.
Former Detroit Lions quarterback Charlie Batch said it was almost useless to watch films of how opponents played the run because they never used the same defense against the Lions.
Sanders went over the 1,000-yard rushing mark in all 10 of his seasons. He rushed for a career-high 2,053 yards in 1997, his ninth season. When he retired on the eve of training camp in 1999, Sanders ranked second on the all-time rushing list with 15,269 yards.
Walter Payton held the record at the time with 16,726. Emmitt Smith is No. 1 with 18,355 yards in 15 seasons, most of them with the Cowboys. Sanders gained his yards in 10 seasons. Payton played 13. Payton and Sanders still rank second and third on the all-time list.
Sanders and Johnson played different positions, and they could not be less alike physically. Sanders is 5-8 and played most of his career close to the 200-pound mark.
Johnson is 6-5, 237 pounds. His size and freakish athleticism are what inspired former teammate Roy Williams to give him the nickname "Megatron."
Sanders and Johnson share some qualities – one of them being acknowledged as the best at their position during their career. They also share a strong work ethic, and neither was a diva or a showboat.
Sanders never spiked the ball after any of his 99 rushing touchdowns or the 10 he scored on pass receptions.
Johnson's biggest display after scoring a touchdown is to dunk the ball over the crossbar. Most often, he either hangs onto the ball or flips it to the nearest official.
Sanders considers it a compliment to be categorized with Johnson for displaying class and professionalism on the playing field.
"Oh, absolutely - without question," Sanders said. "He seems to have the right approach. Just kind of a workman approach to it. I think that endears him to a lot of folks around here."