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Sports Business

Players' desire to avoid playing for Colts head-scratching

January 22, 2014
KEYWORDS Sports Business

An amusing story emerged this week about agent Leigh Steinberg helping his then client, quarterback Ryan Leaf, avoid getting drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1998.

The story came from a book penned by Steinberg and recently published. To recap, Peyton Manning went No. 1 overall to the Colts and Leaf went No. 2 to the San Diego Chargers in 1998.

According to Steinberg, Leaf intentionally skipped a meeting with Colts brass, including then coach Jim Mora and team president Bill Polian, so Indianapolis would pass over him and he could play for San Diego. Headlines over the last two days have screamed ‘Leaf, Steinberg sabotage draft.’

That notion to me is laughable. For the record, Polian said this week he was leaning hard toward drafting Manning all along.
But something else not so laughable came out of this goofy story. Leaf isn’t the only player who apparently has tried to dodge playing for the Colts.

Most know the well worn story of John Elway trying desperately to avoid playing for the Colts in 1983. He even opted for professional baseball until the Colts traded him to Denver. But that was when the Colts were led by unpredictable owner Robert Irsay.

Ancient history, right? Apparently not.

Several news sources while reporting the Leaf story also reported that Robert Griffin III had a strong desire to play for the Washington Redskins rather than the Colts. During the 2012 draft, Andrew Luck went No. 1 overall to Indianapolis and Griffin went No. 2 to Washington.

Of course, there are other teams too that players have tried to avoid. Eli Manning and his representatives brokered a deal to strong-arm his way out of San Diego in lieu of the New York Giants when he was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2004.

There are so many things I don’t understand about a prospective NFL player not wanting to get drafted by or play for the Colts, I’m not sure where to start. This has nothing to do with the fact that I’m an Indianapolis native. And I’m certainly no Jim Irsay apologist.
It’s easier for me to understand Elway’s motives. But when former Colts owner Robert Irsay died in 1997, many of the concerns about playing for the Colts should have died with him.

First, the Colts play mostly indoors—unlike when Elway was drafted. That should be ideal for just about any quarterback, running back or wide receiver looking to put up big numbers and become an NFL star.

Jim Irsay has done nothing but prove that he’s committed to winning and willing to pay his star players big money ever since he took over the team. He’s also made sure the team’s facilities have stayed top-notch.

And if Manning proved anything, he proved you don’t have to be in a big NFL market to be a mega star. The NFL’s national television contract and its massive popularity almost make it irrelevant where a player plays. If an NFL player is a star, he’ll be exposed by the league’s well-oiled marketing machine.

Leaf’s and Griffin’s stories are particularly puzzling. San Diego and Washington would be at the top of the list of teams—right along with Dallas and Oakland—that NFL players should be trying to avoid.

Those teams’ owners either lack commitment, judgment or both to make them consistent winners. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and Cowboys’ Jerry Jones are two of the most meddling owners there are. And not in a good way.

Dating back more than a decade, the Spanos family that owns the Chargers has made a series of decisions regarding general managers, head coaches and players that blow the mind. The Spanos family has become so polarizing in their own home city that they can’t parlay the support needed to get financing for a new stadium.

The track record over the last 15 years of Al Davis and his family—which is equal parts wackiness and futility—in Oakland speaks for itself. From the non-stop carousel of coaches to Al’s lawsuit against the league years ago, the drama with the Raiders never seems to end. Along with that drama, has come a lot of losing.

I’ve had enough head-scratching interviews with Jim Irsay not to be blind to his, ahh, quirkiness. I certainly don’t profess to understand the man. But aside from his Twitter babbling, Irsay mostly lets his guys do their jobs. And he gives them the resources to do so.

Irsay seems to understand a basic premise of winning forwarded by the Cowboys’ founding president and general manager Tex Schramm years ago. The best teams, Schramm once pontificated, are the ones where “owners own, coaches coach and players play.”

 Maybe guys like Leaf and Griffin are in the minority. Yeah, they probably are.

Still all this makes an idle mind wonder if at times this thinking by players hurts the Colts’ chances of signing the best players available. That may be especially true in free agency, where players have a lot more control over where they go than when drafted.

Owners can own and coaches can coach all they want. But if the players won’t play for a team, where does that leave it?


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