What if the Packers had picked Barry Sanders ahead of the Lions in the 1989 NFL Draft?
Four Hall of Famers were taken in the first five picks of the 1989 NFL Draft.
Dallas took Troy Aikman with the No. 1 pick. Barry Sanders went No. 3 to Detroit. Kansas City and Atlanta took Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders at No. 4 and No. 5, respectively. Green Bay missed out on the Hall of Fame parade by taking Tony Mandarich at No. 2. The 6-6, 330-pound tackle from Michigan State did not live up to the “Incredible Bulk” label and lasted just four seasons with the Packers.
That still leaves an interesting hypothetical more than 30 years later. What if the Packers had drafted Barry Sanders, who rushed for 15,269 yards in 10 seasons with the Lions?
That might have changed the direction of both franchises heading in the 1990s.
Here are a couple reasons why:
Sanders leads ‘Cardiac Pack’
The Packers finished 10-6 under second-year coach Lindy Infante in 1989, and they inherited the “Cardiac Pack” label after a series of close games in the second half of the season.
The team had Don Majkowksi, also known as the “Majik Man,” and Pro Bowl receiver Sterling Sharpe, who had 1,423 yards and 12 TDs. Now add Sanders, who won Rookie of the Year honors with the Lions, and perhaps Green Bay makes the playoffs instead of the Vikings, who won the NFC Central Division.
The Majkowski-Sanders-Sharpe trio would have been formidable in the short term, but would it have been sustainable long-term?
Do Packers still get Brett Favre?
This is tough to play out. The Packers went 10-22 the next two seasons, and Infante was fired. General manager Tom Braatz was fired after the 1990 season. If the Packers draft Sanders, then it’s a good bet both are given a longer leash.
In a sense, missing on Sanders allowed the Packers’ rebuild to happen. Ron Wolf was hired in 1991. He hired Mike Holmgren in 1992. The Packers traded for Brett Favre the same year, and he replaced an injured Majkowski. Green Bay signed Reggie White in 1993.
That chain reaction built the franchise into a Super Bowl contender.
It is fair to wonder whether the Packers could have had Sanders, Favre and White all on a loaded roster, but Sanders might have made too much of an impact early. Detroit made the NFC championship game in Sanders’ third season under Wayne Fontes.
Had the Packers drafted him, then they would have made organizational decisions to build around the Hall of Fame running back.
Dennis Green in Green Bay?
The Packers hired Holmgren before the 1992 season, and he compiled a 75-37 record from 1992-98 and led the Packers to a victory in Super Bowl 31.
The Vikings hired Dennis Green the same season. Green finished 97-62 with Minnesota from 1992-2001, with a 15-1 season in 1998 that ended in the NFC championship game.
Let’s say the Packers bottom out with Infante. Would they have hired Green, instead? Green utilized veteran quarterbacks and an offense built around Robert Smith and Cris Carter for most of the 1990s before drafting Randy Moss, and the Vikings were Green Bay’s biggest hurdle in the division for most of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Had Green Bay hired Green, perhaps its offense would have revolved around a veteran quarterback such as Warren Moon along with Sanders.
Green Bay would have been a playoff team, but would it have been good enough to topple the 1990s’ greatest football dynasty?
How about the Cowboys rivalry?
Sanders is always compared to Emmitt Smith, who is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards. The Cowboys knocked the Packers out of the NFC playoffs in three straight seasons from 1993-95 and were the biggest roadblock that prevented Green Bay from winning more in the 1990s.
The Packers were 1-9 against the Cowboys in that decade.
Picture that rivalry with Sanders on the field. The Lions beat the Cowboys, 38-6, in the 1991 NFC divisional playoffs, but that was before Dallas’ dynasty kicked into high gear.
It would have been interesting — and perhaps far more entertaining — to see two of the greatest running backs of all time in high-profile NFC playoff games.
Would it be different?
The Packers’ run in the 1990s was launched with a pair of wild-card victories against the Lions.
Green Bay beat Detroit, 28-24, on Jan. 8, 1994, in a game in which Favre threw the game-winning TD pass to Sterling Sharpe. Sanders had 169 rushing yards in the loss. The following season, Green Bay won, 16-12, in a game in which Sanders had 13 carries for -1 yard.
Sanders retired after the 1998 season, and Favre stayed with Green Bay through the end of the 2007 season. The Packers have been much more stable than the Lions since, and a big reason is the quarterback play.
Green Bay fans probably would not trade all that success for a once-in-a-lifetime running back. Unless, of course, they could have somehow had a backfield that featured both Favre and Sanders.
The truth is drafting Mandarich was a mistake Green Bay needed to make.
Missing Sanders might have actually helped the Packers realize that.
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