The Polian Factor

Bill Polian often took an unpopular road over the past few years to assemble the Colts current stable of talent. Todd Taylor takes a look at the choices he's made, and how they've panned out.

In a sport driven by athletic marvels and legendary coaches, NFL general managers get little attention.  Unless, of course, they are doing a poor job such as Matt Millen in Detroit.

Bill Polian is no exception. Over his tenure as the Indianapolis Colts' general manager, you rarely hear his name mentioned by fans or critics unless he passes up a big name free agent or makes a controversial draft pick.

As the Colts' defense has become one of the league's elite, credit is finally going where it is due -- to a five-time NFL executive of the year, Bill Polian.

Polian came to the Colts at the conclusion of the 1997 season with an impressive track record.  In his first stint as an NFL GM he brought a 2-14 Buffalo Bills team to three straight Super Bowl appearances within 8 seasons.  He went on to serve as GM for the expansion Carolina Panthers, leading them to a 7-9 record (an NFL record for an expansion team) in their first season and to the NFC Championship game in their second.

Following their horrific 1997 campaign, the Indianapolis Colts cleaned house.  Bill Polian inherited a team with a horrible draft history, marred by career-ending injuries of high draft picks such as Quentin Coryatt, Steve Emtman and Trev Alberts. Polian had a major re-building project ahead of him.

And rebuild he did.

From day one, Polian was faced with an incredibly difficult decision.  Critics were split on whether the Colts should draft Washington State QB Ryan Leaf or Tennessee QB Peyton Manning.  Sports Illustrated's Peter King put together an article dissecting each facet of the two quarterbacks game.  Polian decided on Manning, and the rest is history.

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With the trade of RB Marshall Faulk shortly before the 1999 draft, Polian drew great criticism as the Colts got only two late round draft picks for him.

Polian made matters worst by surprising most draft experts with the Colts' selection of Miami RB Edgerrin James over Texas RB Ricky Williams.  It even surprised James.

"I am somewhat surprised," James told in a post-draft interview, "because everything you read says that everybody wanted Ricky Williams."

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Polian and the Colts also took LB Mike Peterson and P Hunter Smith in the 1999 draft.

In 2001, Polian again displayed his draft mastery with the selection of WR Reggie Wayne in the first round and OT Ryan Diem in the 4th .  However, many Colts faithful and critics blasted Polian for failing to draft a defensive player in the first round.

As the 30th pick in the NFL draft, Wayne is at the head of the 2001 first-round draft pick receiver class consisting of the following picks before him:

#8:  David Terrell

#9:  Koren Robinson

#15:  Rod Gardner

#16:  Santana Moss

#25:  Freddie Mitchell

After building one of the best offenses in the NFL, Polian -- with the help of head coach Tony Dungy -- decided to take a defensive approach in the 2002 draft.  Again, controversy swirled around the Colts' first-round draft pick, Syracuse DE Dwight Freeney.

Richard Cirminello, in a article, commented on the Colts selection with the 11th pick:  "I cant help but think that Freeney will be one of those great college players that just can't transfer his production to the next level.  He's smallish for a lineman and falls back on his speed too often."

Aside from Freeney, the Colts also snagged DT Larry Tripplett and LB David Thornton in the 2002 draft.

Controversy continued to follow Bill Polian's draft tactics in the 2003 draft as he surprised everyone by selecting Iowa TE Dallas Clark.  The Colts, still struggling defensively, already carried TE Marcus Pollard on their roster.  However, with Marcus Pollard's departure following the 2004 season due to salary cap issues, Clark was already seasoned to take his place and did so very effectively.

In addition to Clark's pleasing production, Polian and the Colts satisfied fans by grabbing safety Mike Doss in the second round and finding hidden gems in DE Robert Mathis and LB Cato June later in the draft.

Once again in 2004, Polian's draft day decisions were unpopular.  With the 29th pick, the Colts traded down into the second round to select Iowa Safety Bob Sanders at pick number 44. senior editor Paul Baitinger ranked the Colts dead last at 32nd in his draft day rankings. "
The Colts surely need help on defense and were willing partners to trade down with anybody and everybody," Baitinger stated on the website.

Sanders has become the physical enforcer that the Colts secondary has needed for years.  Additionally, the Colts picked up CB Jason David and OG Jake Scott late in the 2004 draft, both now starters for the team.

Until the signing of DT Corey Simon this off-season, Polian had a reputation for lack of activity in the free agent market.  This became frustrating for Colts fans who believed their team was a few pieces shy of a Super Bowl run.  What these fans have failed to realize is the incredible job Polian has done building this team not only through the draft -- but also silently through free agency.

Among Polian's best free agent/waiver signings during his tenure as Colts GM are:  Mike Vanderjagt, Jeff Saturday, Nick Harper, Dominic Rhodes, Raheem Brock, Gary Brackett, Montae Reagor, Brandon Stokely, Ryan Lilja and Bryan Fletcher.

In his third stop as an NFL GM in Indianapolis, Bill Polian has assembled a group with a chance to be the first undefeated NFL team in a 16-game regular season.  His patience in free agency and willingness to go against the grain in the draft has proven successful. 

Maybe, just maybe, in the 8th year of the Polian plan, he has created perfection.

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