The 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Seeks Consistency, Improvement
INDIANAPOLIS - When he thinks of it, it's hard for Bob Sanders to believe.
But there, next to the veteran safety's name on the Colts' roster, is a number. It's a number denoting the number of seasons a player has played.
Next to Sanders' name is a five.
Meaning next season will be Sanders' fifth, which means he is long removed from the player the Colts selected in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft. It also means he is not only the most experienced player in the Colts' secondary, but very much an NFL veteran.
And while Sanders understands that, and while he likes the responsibility, he won't say the idea isn't a bit . . .
Well, it's just sort of weird.
"I was just talking about that the other day, 'You know what: I'm going into my fifth year . . .' " Sanders said this week as the Colts continued their off-season conditioning program at their Training Facility.
"It's amazing how fast time flies. I feel like I was just a rookie last year. It's gone so fast. I feel like I went to my first Pro Bowl last year. Five years - it's like, 'Man, where has time gone?' That goes to show you have to really enjoy this time you're in the league. It goes by fast.
"You have to enjoy every day and every moment of it. It definitely doesn't last forever."
Not that Sanders has wasted time. Not in any remote sense.
In four NFL seasons, he has been to two Pro Bowls, made four playoff appearances, helped the Colts to the Super Bowl XLI title, and has been named the Associated Press' NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The latter award came this past season, a season in which he was named the defensive player of the year by nearly every publication. He also was an AP All-Pro selection, and named to start in the Pro Bowl for a second time in three seasons.
It was, by any standards, a career season, and one in which Sanders achieved his goal of staying healthy throughout and establishing himself as one of the NFL's top players at his position.
What it wasn't, he said, was the peak of potential. Nor was it really that close.
"Every year I'm always trying to get better - regardless of what I've accomplished," Sanders said. "If I accomplish every goal, it's still not enough. You always can do better. That's my thing. I made defensive player of the year - that's being the best safety and defensive player in the NFL. That's a great honor. I accepted that honor, but I went back and watched my film and I was like, 'Man, there are so many plays I left out there – imagine if I would have made this play or that play or that play or this play. Imagine what it could have been.'
"I'm going to grow off those plays and try to be more consistent, more mentally sharp in my game every play."
Sanders started 15 games in 2007, finishing second on the Colts with 132 tackles. He also had 3.5 sacks, two interceptions and six passes defensed.
The Colts went 13-3, their NFL-record fifth consecutive season with 12 or more victories, and they extended their franchise record with a fifth consecutive division title. The season ended with a 28-24 loss to San Diego in an AFC Divisional Playoff at the RCA Dome.
"I'm always the type of guy where I'm able to take my losses, take the punches and roll with them," Sanders said. "I think you get better when you don't play your best, so you have a game where you question some of the things you did, the mental errors . . . just in life, period, going through hard times, having tough times, those are the times you grow and get better.
"For me, it doesn't take long. I'm always excited. OK, we didn't make it to the Super Bowl, but you know what? We have this next upcoming year to build off that, see where we did things wrong, see where we can improve."
In four NFL seasons, Sanders has started 37 games, missing 10 games with injuries as a rookie in 2004 and 12 games in 2006 before returning to be a key performer in the Colts' run to Super Bowl XLI. Since returning for the 2006 postseason, he has missed just one game with an injury, and in four seasons, he has 319 tackles, four interceptions, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
The idea now, Sanders said, is to improve, and to do so on a consistent basis – week to week, and season to season.
"You want to be consistent throughout your whole career," he said. "You want it be known, 'When he was out on the field, he made plays. He made the majority of the plays out there every time he was on the field. He was consistent. He did his job.' With winning Defensive Player of the Year, it's tough. That's the highest personal honor you can get in the league. Where do you go from there? People will question that, but my thing is to be more consistent. You show everybody this year wasn't a fluke. It's something where I grew and now you'll see more signs of me getting better, more areas I can get better."
Sanders' season coincided with one of the best defensive seasons in franchise history. After ranking 32nd in the NFL against the run and 21st overall in 2006, the Colts ranked 15th against the run in 2007. They finished last season third in the NFL defensively, their highest ranking since 1971, and did so despite three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney missing the final seven games of the season.
Defensive end Robert Mathis missed the last three games of the regular season, and middle linebacker Gary Brackett was the only linebacker to start every game.
"I know if we keep guys healthy, we've got a chance to do great, great things," Sanders said. "I can't explain to you how excited I am to get started.
"That's a reason why I'm here early, getting things going. I'm excited about the year. The future is bright for our younger guys, the corners, the safeties. I think we have a good core group of guys here already that will be able to do some great things in the near future.
"We had so many guys go down last year – just to see us progress and get better from the previous year, even though we had a lot of guys go down, it's exciting to come into this year knowing we're going to have most of our guys back healthy and we're going to have a fresh start."
Which is just one reason Sanders said he is in Indianapolis in the off-season, and has been since before the start of the off-season program last week. As big a reason, he said, is to set an example for younger players, a group that includes every player in the Colts secondary.
"Me being a veteran guy, I think it's imant," he said. "Not only for myself, but for the team, for the incoming guys, the young guys. The rookies we had last year didn't go through this period. They went through OTAs (organized team activities) after they got drafted. They didn't actually go through it starting in March all the way through.
"It's a time where you want those guys to be able to see you, see what you do, see the way you handle things, see the way you work outside of during the season. I think it's definitely important those guys see what you're doing and they grab on to it. They say, 'If Bob's here doing it and he doesn't really have to be, then I definitely need to be here.' Or, 'If (Colts quarterback) Peyton (Manning) is here doing it, I definitely need to be here during this work.'''