Barry Sanders is long gone, and he can never truly be replaced, but we look for meaning (and promise) in the backfield we got

Visions in the backfield

I don't watch Detroit Lions football to watch the team win (who would?). I watch the team because I've been doing it my entire life, and it helps me make sense of it. This is generally unhealthy but also pretty accurate. It's the simplest way to follow a football team. 

Like most fans, my personality is shaped by my team's performance. Every Patriots fan I've ever met feels an unearned sense of success. I don't blame them. I envy homeless guys in Drew Bledsoe jerseys. 

Which brings us to this year's squad. A quarter into the NFL preseason, Ameer Abdullah took the ball and ran it 45 yards. It wasn't just a run; Abdullah didn't just blast into the hole. The man sidestepped, juked, and flat out smoked the Jets' defensive backs. I'm a Lions fan living in Brooklyn, N.Y., and my phone blew up immediately. Friends wanted to know what round to draft Abdullah for fantasy, if Joique Bell was worthy of drafting at all or even an NFL roster spot. I didn't care that it was only the preseason. This was the most exciting Lions run since Barry Sanders retired. It was the only run that made you think Sanders was still out there.

I'm still waiting for the next Sanders. I think the team is too. Kevin Jones. Jahvid Best. Reggie Bush. Many players have been brought in to fill No. 20's shoes and fallen short. NFL offenses have changed in the past decade. While more successful teams opt for a more balanced attack that renders running back a niche position, the Lions seemed hell-bent on finding a game-changing superstar at the position. When Jones, Best, and Bush went down, the success of the offense followed. 

Ask any football fan about Sanders and they go on like you asked them, "What's your favorite food?" His runs are discussed the same way Italians talk about their grandmothers' chicken parm. 

I tell myself Abdullah is the next Sanders, but I don't want to curse him. You can't love a player from the start. When a fan connects to a player, it isn't because he's the best but because somehow you connect with this stranger's career. I want to cheer for a player with the traits I want in myself. I want to work hard, take pride in my job, and honor my hometown. One player exemplifies these traits over all others: Joique Bell.

It's normal to overlook Bell. He's the No. 1 running back on the depth chart, but his name has rarely been uttered this offseason. It makes sense. He was an undrafted player out of Wayne State who first made the team as a security guard at Ford Field. He had his first NFL carry in 2012 but entered the league in 2008. Vincent Papale would've laughed at the guy's chances of making it, but against all odds he's having himself a career. 

Bell's simplicity stands out among the shiny tools of the Lions' offense. He is a decent runner, solid pass catcher, and able blocker. Rather than make plays, he does his job. For two seasons, I've watched Bell become the most consistent player on this offense — not through athleticism, but by being a guy who shows up and does his job. He's become a beloved player too. At the local sports bar where I watch Lions games, every Bell carry is accompanied by cries of "Joique's on you!" (We're super creative, obviously.) He's one of the few players able to make me proud of this moribund franchise. I love rooting for a guy who knows what it's like to have hot dogs for dinner. I wouldn't be surprised if Bell becomes the Lions' Fred Jackson — a player he was once cut in favor of. 

There's a chance Abdullah becomes a superstar, but it's just as likely Bell stays a solid starter who beats a prized upstart for his job each year. Bell hasn't made a Pro Bowl. It's unlikely he ever will. Bell's most memorable moment as a Lion is attributing a win to praying with his mama the night before. "When you pray with your mama, good things happen," said Bell. Sanders will go down as the greatest running back of all time, and he didn't inspire fans to have a better relationship with their mothers. Think about it that way.

I make sense of the Lions by relating them to my own life. I was inspired by Barry and am intrigued by Abdullah, but I've learned a lot from Bell. By watching Bell's career I see that if I work hard and keep my ambitions, good things will happen. Just like praying with my mama.

—Joel Walkowski

Your cautious guide to falling completely and madly in love with Ameer Abdullah

After last season, there was a sense of dread coming into this year. The Lions lost Ndamukong Suh, which meant the entire team was going to fall apart.

But slowly, reports out of training camp about Ameer Abdullah, the Lions' second-round draft pick out of Nebraska, offered a glimmer of hope. Players and coaches talked about his quickness and agility, but it was just talk until he was unleashed on the world.

All it took was one preseason game for everyone to forget about Suh and refs taking flags back. Abdullah was darting around tackles, juking defenders, and bursting downfield like that old Lions running back no one should ever compare anyone to, much less a rookie. (OK, he looked like Barry Sanders.)

At 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds with moves that leave defenders going the opposite direction, the comparisons to the 5-foot-8, 200-pound Sanders might not be far-fetched.

And it wasn't just the fans who thought so. Jets head coach Todd Bowles said Abdullah's quickness reminded him of Sanders. Grantland had a story titled "Ameer Abdullah Is Imitating Barry Sanders, Football Is Back." So, yeah. We're already past playing it cautious. The entire country is on the Abdullah hype train. While Lions fans have been excited about rookies before that haven't exactly worked out (see Kevin Jones, Jahvid Best, Charles Rogers, Mikel Leshoure, and, oh god, Mike Williams), everything about Abdullah seems different. Namely, he hasn't suffered a catastrophic injury or had trouble with the law, separating him from everyone else on that list.

Despite sharing an alma mater with Suh, he's basically the opposite of him in every way.

The Alabama-born Abdullah graduated with a history degree, becoming the final of his nine siblings to have a college degree. He talks about getting a law degree when he's finished with football. He was recruited elsewhere to play cornerback, and given his height, people thought he would be too small to be a running back but went on to score 39 touchdowns while rushing for 4,588 yards in his college career.

Scouts raved about his character on and off the field. He was named to the academic All-Big Ten team. He does yoga. He can't grow a beard. He has never stomped on a quarterback.

And if that's not enough, he returns kicks too.

Not to make him out to be the most perfect running back ever or anything — he did fumble 24 times in college — but he's worked on that.

He's expected to split carries with Joique Bell, who has missed time in training camp with injuries, and he might be playing himself in to a larger role. After the Lions finished 28th in the league in rushing yards last year, Abdullah could be the difference maker this year for the team. And for many years after that.

He has all the makings of Detroit's first Muslim star athlete. Or even more simply, he has the makings of Detroit's next star athlete.

—Scott Bolohan
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