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Just The Sports: 2009-11-01

Just The Sports

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Pulling Back The Curtain

The time has again come for me to expose another NFL player as a charlatan and illusionist and disabuse people of their fallacious notions about him. By now, even casual observers of the NFL know that Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders has extreme durability issues. The knowledge is so widespread that when news came down that Sanders was once again out with a season-ending injury, the reaction was extremely pedestrian. Only the nature of the injury was a surprise; the fact he injured himself was inevitable. Yet, even though it is widely acknowledged Sanders cannot be counted on for an entire season, there are those who still think that when he does play, he is one of the top safeties in the game. The way in which Sanders has convinced people to see that which is not there marks the work of a great illusionist.

In order to expose any illusionist's trick, it is required to elaborate on what the illusionist is hoping to accomplish. As I already alluded to in the first paragraph, when healthy, Sanders is looked at as having an immediate positive impact for the Colts defense. With Sanders on the field, supposedly the Colts defense will be significantly better. If that is true, then one would expect there to be a considerable drop off when Sanders is not in the line-up. Instead, what happens is that the Colts defense plays basically the same even without the top-paid safety in the NFL.

With or without Sanders, the Colts played the same level of pass defense. When Sanders was in the game (55 games), opposing quarterbacks completed 65.3% of their passes for 5.8 net yards per pass attempt; sans Sanders in thirty games, opposing quarterbacks completed 65.8% of their passes for 5.7 net yards per pass attempt. The near-mirror image quality of those numbers should come as no surprise since it is well-known Sanders is not that proficient in pass coverage. However, Sander is well known as a good run stopper so he should be expected to really make a difference in the run game when he is in there. There is a slight decrease in opposing rushing totals, from 4.7 yards per rush to 4.3 yards per rush, from when Sanders is not in the game to when he is, but it is certainly not a large enough decrease to warrant all the praise that is heaped upon Sanders's shoulders.

Now that the illusion of Bob Sanders has been explained and debunked, it is time to investigate the misdirection that he uses. In extremely physical sports like football where most of the athletes are on the larger end of the stature spectrum, any starter who is on the smaller side such as Sanders, who stands 5'8 and weighs 206 pounds, is going to be looked at as a kind of Superman and will be immediately noticed and praised for making it to the professional level. People will then assign to these players skills they might not even possess. Sanders is also helped out by the fact he is one of the hardest hitters in the NFL. This leads to his being on highlights and the natural assumption is that the players who make the highlights have to be the best or no one would be wasting time talking about them. Again, attributes will be credited to these players even if they are undeserving. The aura surrounding Bob Sanders is stronger than the reality.

When Sanders is healthy, he is a decent to good safety, but one of the best, he is not. If he were truly one of the best safeties in the NFL and a game changer like his contemporaries Troy Polamalu, Darren Sharper, and Ed Reed, then he should probably have more than six interceptions, two forced fumbles, and three and one half sacks for his career. Bob Sanders is not a great safety, but he should find consolation that he is one of the greatest football illusionists in the game today.