System, Player, or Coach? Defensive Backs

Defensive back is not a glory position in Tony Dungy's version of the Cover 2 defense, yet safety Bob Sanders is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Are the members of the Colts secondary phenomenal players in an average system, or is it the other way around? Brad Keller takes a deeper look here.

The Colts offense has been consistently potent throughout Tony Dungy's tenure as coach, but his defense has been up-and-down and certainly has not been blessed with the talented players, stars, and high draft choices that the offense has been given since he took the job in 2002.  Since it's safe to say that offensive stars such as Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, and Marvin Harrison would succeed no matter who drafted them — and Edgerrin James has had some success in Arizona — defense will be the focus of this series, concluding with the secondary.

One of the biggest issues facing the secondary throughout the Dungy era has been stability and consistency.

Whereas only eight different men held down regular starting jobs at the linebacker position and nine players lined up along the defensive line since 2002, there have been 11 different players listed as full time starters for any appreciable period of time in the secondary.


Kelvin Hayden battles Andre Davis
Bob Levey/Getty Images

This includes two separate seasons where both starting cornerbacks were new to their jobs when the season started — most recently with Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson taking over for Jason David and Nick Harper last season, as well as David and Harper taking the reins for David Macklin and Walt Harris prior to the 2004 season.

The secondary has seen its fair share of first day draft selections, starting with Macklin (Round 3, 2000), Idrees Bashir (Round 2, 2001), then Harris (Round 1, 1996 by the Bears, but signed in 2002), Mike Doss (Round 2, 2003), Bob Sanders (Round 2, 2004), Jackson (Round 1, 2005), and finishing with Hayden (Round 2, 2005).

That shows that the Colts have made the secondary a priority in the draft, with four players that were drafted in the second day, one player that was taken in the first round by another team, and six players that were drafted in the first three rounds by the Colts.

Out of all the men that were not first-day selections, only Nick Harper was signed as an undrafted free agent.

From a talent standpoint, Indianapolis has always made it a priority to restock the cabinets, though stability has certainly been an issue.

One of the hallmarks of Dungy's time with the team has been that he has always been able to press rookie players into service on the back four and be able to conceal their weaknesses and accentuate their strengths.

Part of the reason for that is that Bill Polian does an exceptional job of identifying the proper personnel for Dungy, finding his kind of guy from a height, weight, and mentality standpoint.

The interesting thing about the history of the secondary and the turnover associated with it since Dungy's arrival is that it gives us a wide array of departed players to choose from.  An analysis of those players will probably shed some light on subject.

Of all the players to leave the Colts via free agency, the two biggest success stories have been Walt Harris — who is still in the league with the 49ers, and is heading into his 13th NFL season — and David Macklin, a longtime member of the Arizona Cardinals and currently with the St. Louis Rams.


Jason David struggled after leaving Indianapolis
AP Photo

Harris and Macklin certainly had more success in their careers outside Indianapolis than have David and Harper.  Harper had almost identical production in Tennessee as he did with the Colts, but, as a free agent acquisition, the coaching staff for the Titans were probably expecting a little more from him.

David, on the other hand, opened the season by getting torched by his former team, played in only 13 games, and ended up having a down season in terms of production.

Former safeties Bashir and Doss never quite caught on with their new teams. Bashir has appeared in only 11 games since he left Indianapolis following the 2004 season and Doss accumulating only six tackles last season for the Vikings.

The coaching staff has shown a willingness to play young players, particularly at safety, where Bethea and Doss started their rookie seasons, and Bashir and Sanders were fixtures by their second seasons.

Hayden and Jackson were given a good deal of time before they were thrust into the starting spotlight, as was Harper, but David was thrown into the mix in his rookie season.

Though every position at the NFL level requires tremendous athletic ability, it seems as though Sanders is the exception, rather than the rule.

The Colts realized that they had a special player in Sanders that they could use in a number of different ways and took advantage of that versatility.  With the other positions on the field, they have been able to plug and chug for the most part, as evidenced by their ability to replace both starting cornerbacks in one offseason and not see a dropoff in effectiveness — Indianapolis finished first in scoring defense, second in pass defense, and, as Ed Thompson points out, gave up the fewest pass plays of 20 yards or more.

That ability to lose players at key positions and not only not miss a beat, but instead, improve significantly, speaks to talent and coaching.

Historically, the draft picks are certainly there and Dungy's acumen for pass defense is well documented.  However, to have so many players step in at such low levels of experience and perform well, then see a decline in performance after they leave — remember, Macklin and Harris, the two biggest success stories of players that left the Colts, were either not drafted by the team or not drafted by Dungy — speaks to a system where the parts are interchangeable and the defense as a whole is more important than the individual player.

Verdict: System.


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