The Polian Connection

After a decade of success relying on Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, and for awhile Tony Dungy, the Indianapolis Colts are sitting undefeated through 14 games.  Manning is still there, but Dungy and Harrison are not.  With Manning still having several good years left in him, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark in the prime of their careers, and high quality young players like Pierre Garcon and Anthony Gonzalez, they look set for years to come as a continuing powerhouse of the AFC. 

Their President of course is Bill Polian, who has held that position since 1998 and as far as I know remains the primary decisionmaker when it comes to the team’s personnel.  Prior to Polian joining the team, the Colts were basically awful.  Since he joined the team, they have made the playoffs every year except for his first.  Yes, obviously Peyton Manning has had quite a bit to do with that, but football is too much of a team sport for one player to be enough to get you to the playoffs year in and year out.  And, of course, Polian drafted Manning when he could have just as easily drafted Ryan Leaf, probably the biggest bust in NFL history. 

This says nothing about Polian’s track record prior to joining the Colts, when he was the General Manager for the then-expansion Carolina Panthers, and made the personnel decisions that allowed them to become the fastest-ever team to reach a Conference championship game.   He left the Panthers after just two seasons when the Colts made him an offer he could not refuse. 

Of course, before Polian was with the Panthers, he was the architect of my Buffalo Bills’ four consecutive conference championships (sadly, the Super Bowl was not held between 1991 and 1994, so no greater success was available to the team than a conference championship).  Polian had taken the helm of the Bills as general manager after the 1985 season, when the Bills had developed a reputation as a truly abysmal franchise.  Which is pretty much what they are now, come to think of it.   By 1988, he was the NFL’s Executive of the Year, an award he would again win four times in the ensuing 10 years. 

At the end of the 1992 season, with the Bills 3/4 of the way through their run of conference championships (thanks to St. Frank Reich’s performance in the Greatest Comeback of All Time), Polian was mysteriously and bizarrely fired by owner Ralph Wilson.  Why?  Because he didn’t get along with the team’s Treasurer.  Yes, the bleeping Treasurer.  Not Marv Levy.  Not His Holiness Jim Kelly or Bruce the Magnificent.  Not even Ralph Wilson himself.  No, the Treasurer.  While I understand that ultimately, pro sports are a for-profit enterprise, the ability of a franchise to turn a profit would seem to hinge far more on its ability to consistently win games by attracting quality personnel at a reasonable price than on anything over which a team’s Treasurer may have control.  I am also quite certain that one can find many adequately competent Treasurers; one cannot, however, find many adequately competent evaluators of talent. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but since 1988, Bill Polian has been the GM or President of a playoff team in all but five seasons, two of which he was not overseeing a team in the league, and two of which were his first seasons overseeing his respective team’s football operations.   In the overwhelming majority of those seasons, his team also won its division.  Only once since 1988 has a Bill Polian administered team failed to make the playoffs after his first year (2001, when the Colts went 6-10). 

Even more remarkably, he has done this while at the helm of small market franchises.  Despite their small market, the Colts are now in the top half of NFL teams in terms of their value according to Forbes.

Ralph Wilson (for whom I have actually quite a bit of respect) has spent the last several years complaining about how it is impossible to be competitive and to run a profitable franchise in a small market like Buffalo.  Unfortunately, it seems that the single biggest reason the Bills have been uncompetitive and only marginally profitable in the last decade plus has been Wilson’s decision to fire the single greatest personnel man in NFL history over what was apparently little more than a personality conflict with a non-football employee. 

One can only speculate as to what the NFL landscape would look like in 2009 had Wilson not made such a mystifying decision in 1993.  Perhaps Polian would have left for the Panthers in any event, lured by the promise of greater pay and greater control.  Or perhaps he would have remained in Buffalo.   One thing is for certain, though – the Bills’ unbelievably persistent futility over the last decade would not have been nearly as terrible had they had the type of consistent quality in personnel decisionmaking that Polian offered.  What is also certain is that the Colts’ unbelievably persistent success over the last decade would not have been nearly as remarkable had they not had the type of consistent quality in personnel decisionmaking that Polian offers.

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7 thoughts on “The Polian Connection

  1. (sadly, the Super Bowl was not held between 1991 and 1994, so no greater success was available to the team than a conference championship)

    I’ve never really understood American Football all that well, but do you mean it’s like the Rugby World Cup and they only have it every four years.? Must have sucked to have your team’s best years be in that middle bit and never get to see them in the big game.

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  2. Mark, thanks for this. Personnel guys tend to get ignored in favor of the coaches, but they’re just as important, and usually to blame for long stretches of futility. In football, the teams that succeed over long periods of time usually do so because they consistently bring in the best talent at a reasonable price, not because of a brilliant tactical mind at head coach or coordinator.

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    • Carlos – no problem. To be sure, to have consistent success, you need a quality coach and/or quarterback, but if you don’t have the right personnel around them, you’re never going to have any real success, period.

      The weird thing about the Bills in recent years is that they’ve actually done a pretty good job of finding quality players late in drafts or as rookie free agents – Jason Peters was an RFA, as was Terrance McGee; Jim Leonhard was also a great find, but he never saw any action when he was with the Bills. But they’ve been terrible in the ordinary free agent market, and only slightly better in the early rounds of the draft, including some huge busts like Erik Flowers, Mike Williams, John McCargo, and JP Loss-man. Actually, that’s five of their last 10 first-round picks; the others have had varying levels of success, with Nate Clements being terrific until he cashed in on free agency, Lee Evans being great but lacking a qb who can reach him, McGahee being vastly overrated, Whitner serviceable at best, Lynch good but not great, and McKelvin injury-prone. Their second-round picks haven’t fared much better.

      With all the bluster they made over interviewing Shanahan, I can’t believe they didn’t even make a pass at Holmgren. It’s a sad day when you realize that the Cleveland Browns are likely to be less dysfunctional in the long-run than the Buffalo Bills.

      I’m not sure whether Perry Fewell is the answer at head coach, although at least he’s got an energy that has been lacking from the franchise since I can remember. But no one will be the answer at head coach until and unless they get their front office straightened out.

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  3. I’m a Picksburg Stiller fan. I cheered on the Stillers when Big Daddy Libscomb was on the D-line and John Henry Johnson ran off tackle, when Bobby Layne pitched the ball to Buddy Dial while wallowing in booze…what a man!
    Me and the wife went to the first Picksburg Super Bowl…I sat in her Dad house when Franco caught the Immaculate Reception…we cheered them on for the next six Super Bowls…we outta being going this year too but the gods of feetball have betrayed us!

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