1999 NFL Preview
Weekly lineup

 Tuesday, September 7
Replacing the irreplaceable
By Barry Wilner
Associated Press

 Bye-bye Barry. Arrivederci, Reggie. So long, Super John.

 Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders' sudden retirement left the Lions with a big hole in the backfield.

A huge void exists in the backfield of the Detroit Lions, on the defensive line for the Green Bay Packers, and in the huddle for the Denver Broncos.

Barry Sanders, Reggie White and John Elway have walked away from the NFL, and it could take until the day they walk into the Hall of Fame in five years before those teams find suitable substitutes.

You simply don't replace the irreplaceable.

"That guy left here wearing a 26½ shoe," Detroit's Greg Hill joked about Sanders. "I come here wearing 11½. I can't stick both of my feet in the same shoe he left out of here with."

But according to Lions receiver Johnnie Morton, "We don't even talk about Barry anymore. It's kind of getting blown out of proportion. It seems as if he's seen in a supermarket, everyone writes about it, and then we're asked about it.

"If he's retired, just let him be."

Fine and good until next Sunday, when the Lions open at Seattle, and Ron Rivers or Hill, acquired from St. Louis last week, or rookie Sedric Irvin is lining up at halfback in place of the NFL's No. 2 career rusher. Rivers hasn't been on the field for as many career minutes as Sanders had yards.

"I know it's going to be a difficult situation," said Irvin, a cousin of Dallas receiver Michael Irvin who was chosen in the fourth round of the draft. "Fans are going to be booing and stuff. Whoever is at that tailback spot, it's going to be a tough situation."

It's also going to be tough for coach Bobby Ross, who has a second-year quarterback in Charlie Batch. Ross' job can't be very secure coming off a 5-11 record, either.

"We're not going to ignore the running game," Ross said. "That's going to be a big part of it. But we've got some skilled people we have to take advantage of."

Indeed, star receiver Herman Moore, Morton and Germane Crowell need to make big contributions, and Batch must continue his maturation after a decent rookie season.

"We can't stop a season just because he stopped playing," Batch said of Sanders' retirement last month.

The Lions won't miss the aloof Sanders much when it comes to team leadership. That certainly is not the case in Denver and Green Bay.

In addition to White's spiritual guidance as an ordained minister, his barely faded skills as a pass rusher will be sorely missed. He was, after all, the 1998 Defensive Player of the Year.

White, the career sacks leader, had 16 in his final season. That's a lot of big plays that Vaughn Booker, Keith McKenzie and Vonnie Holliday must make up for.

"You just don't replace a guy who brought as many things to a team as Reggie did," new coach Ray Rhodes said. "All we can do is plug the hole in the line and hope other guys pick up the leadership he brought. They can't really do it, but you hope they can get close."

And close to the quarterback.

Rhodes moved Holliday, a top rookie last year, from right end to the left side and put McKenzie in Holliday's vacated spot. When McKenzie didn't show much in preseason and Booker excelled, Rhodes moved Holliday back to the right and made Booker the nominal replacement for White.

"We know the defense takes its tone from us, and the things we're harping on now are the things Reggie used to do," said tackle Santana Dotson, Green Bay's most accomplished defensive lineman. "We have to realize that we're the ones who have to make the plays now, and we're doing that. It's a big responsibility."

Big, but not as humongous as taking over for Elway. No position is more visible than quarterback. No quarterback is more visible than the leader of a two-time champion.

"The quarterback, whoever he is, is always in charge," receiver Rod Smith said. "With John, you kind of thought he'd been there forever and knew how to get us through anything. It was a confidence thing, because he had done so much for so long."

Already, the job has changed hands. Bubby Brister, who was 4-0 as a starter when Elway was injured last year, struggled throughout the preseason. Second-year quarterback Brian Griese, son of Hall of Famer Bob Griese, was brilliant. So coach Mike Shanahan switched to the youngster.

"The pressure to replace a guy like John Elway is tremendous, and the scrutiny by the media is something that is overwhelming," Shanahan said.

Griese led Michigan to a national championship. He lacks Elway's elan and Brister's fire, but he's a cool operator, which will come in handy.

"Will it be different without John there?" offensive coordinator Kubiak asked. "Yeah, it will be a little different. But that's our challenge, and it's time to get started on it."


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