After eight productive years for the Arizona Cardinals, Sanders was allowed to escape the Valley of the Sun last winter without much substantive negotiating with a front office that has earned a reputation for flintiness under owner Bill Bidwill. Sanders signed a four-year pact with Baltimore reportedly worth $8.8 million, including a $1.7 million signing bonus. When he signed with the Ravens, Sanders paraphrased the advice of former teammate Aeneas Williams.
Williams told him to choose an organization that celebrated him as a player, instead of merely tolerating his presence. Now, Sanders, 30, will face off with his former employer Sunday afternoon. He apparently won't be carrying the excess baggage of bitterness, though. "It's going to be strange to come out of the other end of the end zone," Sanders said. "It's not bittersweet. It's sweet in the sense that I've moved on and I'm in a place where I'm very happy and comfortable. "It's going to be strange because I will be looking at the Cardinals from an opponent standpoint instead of being a teammate. I'll be realizing this is what teams feel like when they came to play us."
This isn't your typical scenario where a player leaves a team and is furious about his exit and determined to prove his former employers were wrong about him. That's not Sanders' style, which isn't to say the devout Christian won't be properly motivated. He emphasized that his primary goal remains the same: to win the football game regardless of his personal circumstance, or statistics. "It doesn't fit his personality," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Any time that you go home, it's important to you. You don't need to be a vitriolic or a negative person to still have that extra pop in you."
Allowing Sanders to leave as an unrestricted free agent was part of a major housecleaning overseen by vice president of football operations Rod Graves. Despite the most salary-cap flexibility in the league, Graves opted to not re-sign quarterback Jake Plummer along with the entire starting receiving corps of Sanders, former All-Pro David Boston and MarTay Jenkins. Sanders left Arizona with 493 career receptions, 6,579 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Cardinals basically viewed him as an aging player with injury issues and treated him that way during negotiations. "I don't think it was a serious offer compared to what was possible," Sanders said. "Considering that David was gone and MarTay Jenkins had already left, I'm not sure the offer was very serious. "That's part of the business. I thought it was one of those backward decisions. Why would you go that route when you just brought Jeff Blake in and let Jake go then you get rid of all three receivers?"
So far in Baltimore, Sanders has three receptions for 45 yards and no touchdowns following a preseason interrupted by two dislocated toes. He missed the season-opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sanders was a Pro Bowl alternate selection in 1998 when he caught 89 passes for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns. His production has declined in each subsequent season.
Meanwhile, Sanders still maintains a residence in the Phoenix area and quipped that he plans to return there shortly after the Super Bowl because he figures it will be below freezing in Maryland in February. "I'm not bitter at all," Sanders said. "I'm actually looking forward to going back."
Precious little has changed in the desert other than the names on the jerseys. The Cardinals (1-4) are still losing and were hit this week with the blow of losing NFL all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith indefinitely to a fractured scapula. Former Baltimore starting quarterback Jeff Blake is under center, and his offensive line failed him badly in Sunday's loss to the Dallas Cowboys. His best downfield target is rookie standout Anquan Boldin.
During Sanders' stint with the Cardinals, which began in 1995 when he was drafted in the second round out of Auburn, he played for three different head coaches. Under Buddy Ryan, Vince Tobin and Dave McGinnis, the Cardinals compiled a record of 45-83 over Sanders' eight seasons. "I'm not sure why the Cardinals keep losing," Sanders said. "Lots of smart people have been trying to figure that one out. I know it's not from a lack of effort. "I have friends out there that break their tails every week. Dave McGinnis is an excellent coach, so I'm not sure what it is. You're probably asking the wrong guy."
Aaron Wilson writes for The Carroll County Times