Sean Dawkins: Timing is Everything

Former Colts receiver Sean Dawkins had his timing down pat in college, but rarely did it work in his favor after he began his NFL career with the Indianapolis Colts.

During the 1993 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts selected WR Sean Dawkins out of the University of California. Cal's most valuable player during his season year, Dawkins was one of the most prized receivers in that year's draft class. And now, Dawkins will be honored by the University of California on October 14th and 15th with induction into their Athletic Hall of Fame.

Dawkins caught the Colts eye with his propensity to make the big play, pulling in 14 TD passes to lead the PAC-10 during his senior year, simultaneously setting a single season record for the school. That record, along with his 31 career receiving touchdowns, still stands today.

But Dawkins learned during his career with the Colts that timing can be everything. And quite frankly, it was a terrible time to be joining the Indianapolis Colts as a receiver.

During his first season, Dawkins endured the final season of QB Jeff George's sideshow antics. It was a nightmare start as Dawkins watched George toss just 8 TDs and 6 INTs while getting sacked 26 times. At times it appeared the Colts offensive line wasn't even trying to protect the belligerent signal-caller. Mired in controversy and lackluster production, the team turned to Jack Trudeau as they prepared to trade George during the offseason. The Colts won just four games and Dawkins caught just 26 passes and 1 touchdown as the #3 receiver behind Reggie Langhorne and Jessie Hester.

But in 1994, Langhorne, Hester and George were gone. Jim Harbaugh and Floyd Turner arrived with rookie RB Marshall Faulk. Dawkins and Turner worked together as the starters, and with a more balanced and consistent offense around him, Dawkins posted 51 receptions for a team-leading 742 yards, averaging a healthy 14.5 yards per catch. His touchdown productivity rose to 5, one short of Turner's team leading count for receivers.

Dawkins took over the lead role during the Colts' storied 1995 campaign that ended one dropped pass short of going to the Super Bowl. He was a key target for Harbaugh throughtout the season, catching 52 passes (tops for receivers) and posting a team high 784 yards. But he failed to get much glory, pulling in just 3 TD passes as Harbaugh spread his TD passes around to the likes of Faulk, Turner, Aaron Bailey and TE Ken Dilger. Still, his star was finally on the rise.

Optimism was high that the Colts could make another run at a Super Bowl in 1996. Floyd Turner had moved on to the Ravens, so it appeared that Dawkins would clearly be the focal point of Jim Harbaugh's passing efforts. With just Aaron Bailey and Brian Stablein penciled in beneath him on the depth chart, he would clearly have the opportunity to shine in 1996.

But Dawkins would once again be victimized by bad timing -- and by former Colts QB Jeff George who had helped ruin his rookie campaign. At the point when Dawkins should have been alone in the limelight -- a clear standout surrounded by mediocre receivers -- the Colts used a draft pick they had received as part of the Jeff George trade two years earlier to select a wide receiver. Marvin Harrison arrived in Indianapolis out of Syracuse, with the same hopes and desires that Dawkins had back in 1993.

Harbaugh clicked with the sure-handed rookie who ran crisp routes. Harrison grabbed ten more passes than Dawkins that year (64-54) en route to a team-leading 836 yards. Dawkins amassed 751, just a slight drop off compared to his '95 campaign. But where Dawkins clearly lost out was when the highlight reels ran on Sunday and during Monday Night Football. Harrison was the recipient of half of Harbaugh's 16 TD passes that season while Dawkins crossed the goal line just once. He was becoming the antithesis of the receiver he was in college -- a player who caught plenty of passes, put up plenty of yards, but didn't score the points for the team.

In 1997, Dawkins came into camp and rose to the challenge, practically matching Harrison's output in receptions and yardage. He was due to become a free agent at the end of the year, so this was his time to prove that he was worth a big contract -- if not with the Colts than at least to another team's general manager. They became a highly balanced duo with Harrison (73-866) barely nosing Dawkins (68-804) as the team's receiving leader. And although neither man raised many eyebrows with his touchdown production that year, Harrison scored three times as often by a count of 6-2.

But the Colts had an awful season, winning just 3 games. Head coach Lindy Infante was fired, Jim Harbaugh's future in Indianapolis was unclear, and the Colts were fully preoccupied with one decision during the offseason -- picking Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf with the #1 pick in the the 1998 draft.

Dawkins looked back at his five years with the Colts and clearly saw plenty of productivity in catches and yardage. He already ranked ninth in career receiving yardage and catches with the team. He wanted the kind of contract that Darnay Scott and Johnnie Morton had just signed -- a multi-year deal averaging $3 million a year.

But once again, Dawkins' timing couldn't have been worse. Bill Polian had just arrived from the Carolina Panthers to help pull the Colts out of the muck.And he would be the one that would handle the negotiations with Dawkins' agent.

Polian acknowledged that Dawkins was a good player. But it didn't take a player personnel expert of Polian's caliber to see that Dawkins wasn't as tough and sure-handed as he had been during his glory days at Cal. He was still plenty fast, but he sure wasn't lighting up the scoreboard with just 12 touchdowns after 5 years. So when Polian heard that Dawkins wanted $3 million per year, he made the comment that ultimately closed the door to Dawkins' return -- calling him out publicly as a ".250 hitter."

"Bill Veeck said many, many years ago in the days of $100,000 baseball players that he didn't mind paying Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle $100,000," Polian said back then. "It was the .250-hitting shortstop that would demand $50,000 that bothered him.

"Well, right now in free agency we have a lot of .250 hitters asking for $3 million. Dawkins is a reasonably good football player, but he is not among the top 10 receivers in the league."

Despite his frank comments, Polian put a 4-year deal on the table worth $10 million dollars. Dawkins turned it down and said he would test free agency as an unrestricted free agent.

"It wasn't good enough," Dawkins said. "I had a lot of people tell me I was crazy, and that may be true. But to me, football isn't all about money.

"Because you're going to be happy playing the game and you're going to be out there excited like it's all new again. It wasn't new for me out there. It was old. I was getting tired of football. I was thinking about life after football and what I could do. I was just sick of it."

Dawkins never got the $3 million contract that year. He ended up signing a one-year deal with the Saints for $750,000. At the end of that year he signed with Seattle. Two years later he was in Jacksonville, and a year after that he ended his career a relative unknown with the Vikings, catching just 20 passes -- and not a single touchdown.

But this October, Sean Dawkins will return to the place where he built the happiest memories of his football career. The crowd will cheer remembering a wide receiver who scored touchdowns like no other receiver who stepped on that campus' football field. Hopefully he can enjoy the moment. Because it may also stir more thoughts inside his head about why he never reached the same pinnacle in the NFL after showing such great promise.

Maybe if Morton and Scott hadn't just gotten $3 million dollar deals, or maybe if Bill Polian had arrived in Indianapolis a year later, or maybe if the Colts hadn't signed Marvin Harrison, maybe Sean Dawkins would have signed that $10 million contract. And then he could have spent the next four seasons catching passes from Peyton Manning. You have to believe that would have turned out better for Sean Dawkins.

Sometimes, it really is all about timing.

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