It was 1999, and on the eve of training camp, Barry Sanders announced he was retiring. The future Hall of Famer gave no warning that he was going to quit football despite quietly making his feelings known about then-head coach Bobby Ross and General Manager Joe Schmidt and how he felt they were not committed to putting together a winning organization. Sanders was expected that year to break Walter Payton's all-time rushing record and still would have had a few solid years of playing left in him after that.
Nonetheless, the team played on, and unexpectedly, the Lions found themselves 8-4 heading into December. Their second-year Quarterback Charlie Batch had been hampered by a swollen thumb that did not want to heal and that left Coach Ross with the decision to play Frerotte when the team was 6-4. Frerotte won two games and failed to win another the rest of the season.
Even though the Lions stumbled into the playoffs going 8-8 and then losing to Washington in the first round, Frerotte played well, despite the Lions' diminished capacity to run the football.
“Barry Sanders just retired, and nobody expected us to do well,” Frerotte said. “We still had crowds in there, and the place still loves the Lions. Detroit loves the Lions, and they still get people to come to games. The (Silverdome) got loud when I was there. We were able to do some good things despite not having Barry.
“It’s hard to believe that with the money the Fords have put into it and everything that things haven’t turned around for the Lions.” - Gus Frerotte quoted by Nic Cotsonika, a Lions' beat writer for the Detroit Free Press.
I remember thinking back then it was a bad idea to let him go. The following season, Frerotte went to Denver and the Lions signed Stoney Case to back up Charlie Batch. Despite improving to 9-7, Detroit did not make the playoffs and that led to a disastrous eight-year reign of Matt Millen as President of my team.
Sidenote: 1999 was the same year the Lions did something to annoy me that most people probably would just soon blow off as unimportant: they moved the TV numbers from the sleeves to the shoulders. For some reason, I just hate it. You won't notice it today given the more pronounced changes to the team uniforms (black piping and black alternate jerseys). But maybe it's all for the best.