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Few take exception with the notion that when it comes to building a professional football team, Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian is a genius.
A genius perhaps, but hardly infallible. But then again, who among us is?
The gridiron Einstein’s legacy has taken two big hits recently. Exhibit A: Tony Ugoh. Exhibit B: Bob Sanders.
Polian was so sure Ugoh was going to be a star on the Colts’ offensive line that he traded away a 2008 first-round draft pick to take him in the second round of the 2007 draft. The move was hailed as pure genius, with Polian getting the offensive lineman he was going to need in 2008 a year early.
Ugoh, who was canned earlier this month, suffered this season with a bad toe. But footwork was a real problem for the player that has been called one of Polian’s worst draft busts ever, right from the beginning. And he would have been cut a lot sooner had Polian not gambled so much on him.
Ugoh had real problems blocking anyone resembling a quality lineman, and if Peyton Manning didn’t have such a quick release and a sixth sense, Ugoh would have looked a lot worse. That’s why no other NFL team is likely to pick him up.
Sanders is slightly more complicated. It’s difficult to fault Polian for taking Sanders 44th overall in the 2004 draft. No one, short of the Almighty, can predict the kind of injury problems Sanders has had since coming out of Iowa.
And No. 21 has certainly had his shining moments. The man former Colts coach Tony Dungy called “The Eraser” was named the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and was a big reason the Colts won Super Bowl XLI.
Dungy gave Sanders his nickname for his ability to cover up mistakes. There have been plenty of mistakes to cover up in the Colts defense during the Sanders era. The one mistake, however, Sanders might uncover is the big one made by Polian.
Polian’s mistake with Sanders came in late 2007, when signs of Sanders’ tendency to be injury prone were surfacing. Polian locked him down with a five-year, $37.5 million contract, with $20 million guaranteed. That’s why Polian is stuck with Sanders at this point. He’s simply invested too much—of his reputation and Jim Irsay’s money—to turn back now.
Polian is nothing if not pragmatic. That’s the hallmark of any great architect. But listening to him talk about Sanders and his prospects to stay healthy is like listening to another person, way too emotionally involved to see (or admit) the reality of this situation.
The reality is, the Colts have rolled the dice. One snake eye has turned up, but they can’t walk away from the table. Not while there’s still even a chance that the other snake eye might tip over and turn up six. The Colts have simply already bet too much on Sanders. They’ve already committed to pay Sanders about $30 million including this season. That’s the reality.
Another reality that makes the Sanders’ case even more interesting is that the Colts have proven they can win without him. At least they can get to the Super Bowl. I suppose you could argue that with him last year, the Colts would have shut down the Saints. Who knows, maybe he covers up enough mistakes to make Curtis Painter a winner. Well, I don’t think even Polian would go that far.
So was the Sanders re-signing gamble a good one? It’s difficult to argue that it was at this point. Consider, Sanders' average annual salary of $7.5 million under the extension is nearly $1 million more than what Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu got in his new deal the same year, and the guaranteed money is more than what Ed Reed got from Baltimore when he signed an extension with the Ravens in June 2006.
You'd have to think the Colts could have paid for some pretty critical support players if all that money wasn't going to the largely inactive Sanders.
But if Sanders recovers from his current elbow injury, has a miraculous run of good health, and snags a second Super Bowl ring, no one will even remember Ugoh’s name.
And Polian’s record of infallibility will be restored.