Few people were bigger fans of Bob Sanders than me. Almost immediately after the Colts drafted him in 2004, I was singing his praises. Even now, following his recent release from the team, I am holding out hope he will return to Indianapolis. That said, the move to release him came as no surprise, as the team had no alternative. With Sanders being owed $5 million in 2011, considering his injury problems, it would have been irresponsible on the front office’s part not to cut him. As I mentioned before, I would in fact welcome the Colts resigning him, but only if his contract had little guaranteed money and was based largely on incentives. Even this seems unlikely, so it is time to see how the Colts move forward at the position.
The media liked to say how big an impact Sanders had on the Colts defense, and how different the unit was without him. For the most part, they were absolutely right in saying this. As early as his rookie year in 2004, which unfortunately like most of his other NFL seasons was injury plagued, the Colts defense looked better when he was on the field. In 2005 and 2007, the two years in which he remained mostly healthy, the Colts played their best defense in the Peyton Manning era. The statistics back this up. Those two seasons, the Indianapolis defense ranked 2 and 1 respectively in terms of scoring, the only two years since Manning was drafted in 1998 that the Colts were in the top two in the league in this category. I would go as far as to argue that the 2007 Colts were the best team Manning has played on. It is no coincidence that this was also Sanders’s finest season, as he was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Still, the best case of the difference Sanders can make had to come during the 2006 playoffs. During the 2006 regular season, which saw very little of Sanders, the Colts defense was historically bad, and that may be putting it lightly. The team was awful against the run, allowing 2768 rushing yards for the season, worst in the league. Once the playoffs started, however, things changed almost immediately. Prior to the team’s opening round game against the Kansas City Chiefs and the league’s second leading rusher Larry Johnson, there was talk of Johnson setting records and breaking 300 yards in the contest. Instead, Johnson was held to 32 yards. During a playoff run that culminated in a Super Bowl title, the once-porous Colts defense contained the run-heavy offenses of Baltimore and Chicago, allowing only 82.8 rushing yard per-game in the postseason. What factors contributed to this difference in the regular season and playoffs? The return of Sanders must rank foremost among them, as he was healthy for the entire Super Bowl-run. In the 2006 postseason, Sanders recorded 17 total tackles, had a pair of interceptions, and forced a fumble, while also making a game saving pass deflection in the AFC Championship.
So what will losing Sanders mean for the Colts in 2011 and beyond? Less than what these previous two paragraphs might imply.
In 2010, like in 2008 and 2009, the Colts lost Sanders to injury. Since his brilliant 2007 season, he has appeared in only 9 NFL games, and has reached a point where the number of games he has missed exceeds the number of games he has played in. While a player of his caliber is not easy to replace, his 2010 injury by itself was not devastating. What truly was catastrophic was the loss of Melvin Bullitt, Sanders’s backup, in week four. Losing Sanders in week one hurt, but losing his backup as well meant disaster.
Playing in Sanders’s absence the last few seasons, Bullitt has developed into a good NFL safety. While he is not the playmaker Sanders was, he has been a solid starter when called upon, and his presence was able to soften the blow of Sanders’s recent injuries. For example, in 2009, despite Sanders only playing in two games, the Indianapolis defense was able to hold itself together, and the team went to the Super Bowl.
Moving forward, the Colts are now thin at safety, as what was once an area of strength is now an area of concern. Heading into 2010, the team had three quality players at the position in Sanders, Bullitt, and former Pro Bowler Antoine Bethea, but injuries quickly claimed two-thirds of this group. Bethea will be back with the club next season, and while Bullitt is currently a free agent, he is expected to return as well. Still, lack of depth at the position remains an issue, especially with Bullitt coming off of surgery. This has fueled speculation that the Colts will look to pick a safety in April’s NFL Draft.
All things considered, it is sad that injuries have limited Sanders’s promising career, making his release both inevitable and necessary. That said, going into the future without him will not devastate the Colts, seeing as they have already spent most of the last three seasons without him as well.