Polian’s draft magic turns Colts into model winner

Colts president Bill Polian is just an old-school scout at

heart.

He willingly attends college games, enjoys interviewing players

and coaches and spends countless hours studying film to evaluate

college prospects. He prefers being involved to delegating, and he

still believes NFL winners are built through the draft.

After decades in pro football, Polian couldn’t imagine doing it

any other way.

“That’s how I’ve always done it and that’s how I’m going to

keep doing it until it doesn’t work,” he said with a chuckle. “We

look for athletic ability, for what we call football temperament

and aggressiveness, a love for the game and durability. We want

players who have the ability to process information.”

He’s good at spotting them. Polian’s acumen for finding and

replenishing talent is virtually unmatched.

In the 1980s, he turned a reeling Buffalo franchise into the

only NFL team to reach four consecutive Super Bowls. In 1995, he

took advantage of the NFL’s generous expansion rules and got

Carolina to the 1996 NFC championship game.

But his masterpiece has come in Indianapolis, where he finally

won a Super Bowl and his team is on the cusp of making more

history. A victory Sunday over Denver would give Indy a league

record 22nd consecutive regular-season wins, a record 114th win in

a decade, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Indy

already has extended its own NFL mark of consecutive 12-win seasons

to seven.

Few thought this was even possible before Polian arrived

following the 1997 season. Polian’s task: Rebuild a once-proud

franchise that had produced only five winning seasons in the

previous 20 years and had a major image problem.

Whether it was the unforgettable midnight move from Baltimore,

Art Schlichter’s gambling problems, John Elway’s forced trade, the

criticism Indy took for spending too much to get home-state native

Jeff George in the 1990 draft or the infamous 1994 draft day

argument between then Colts executive Bill Tobin and ESPN draft

analyst Mel Kiper Jr., the Colts were anything but a model

franchise.

Polian’s changes began with a critical move: Taking Peyton

Manning over Ryan Leaf with the No. 1 pick in the 1998 NFL draft.

To the old scout, there was never a question about who he

wanted.

“Television, especially sports channels, are in the business of

ratings, and many times they’ll construct players out of whole

cloth who really have no reason to be stars,” Polian told his

radio listeners Monday night. “The greatest of all examples is

when Peyton Manning came out. They said he did not win the Heisman

Trophy, and he was considered by the so-called experts to be a

‘product of the system, a guy with a weak arm and a guy who didn’t

have room to grow.’ Ryan Leaf was considered by many to have the

better arm and be a better leader.”

Polian is content letting the historians determine who got it

right.

During the next 11 years, Polian’s draft touch seemed almost

magical.

His first-round picks have included Edgerrin James, the Colts’

career rushing leader; three-time Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne;

Indy career sacks leader Dwight Freeney; Dallas Clark, the Colts’

new career leader in receptions for a tight end and former Pro Bowl

running back Joseph Addai. He traded down to get Bob Sanders, the

2007 NFL defensive player of the year, in the second round and the

Colts won the Super Bowl in large part because 2000 first-round

pick Rob Morris solidified the Colts horrid run defense.

But Polian is even better at finding talent in hidden

places.

Take 2003, when he traded up in the fifth round to get future

Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis from Alabama A&M. Or 2008,

when he landed Division III receiver Pierre Garcon in Round 6. Or

last April, when he took cornerback Jerraud Powers in Round 3 and

receiver Austin Collie in Round 4. All four are starters.

“He has a very unusual talent to see things that fit within our

scheme,” first-year coach Jim Caldwell said of Polian. “But you

have the coaches involved in that aspect as well, giving Bill

feedback on it, and then we determine who best would fit our

needs.”

Polian doesn’t deviate from his philosophy, either.

Of the 53 players on Indy’s active roster, 31 were originally

drafted by Polian. Seventeen of those draft picks were in the

fourth round or later. Only four Colts players, including kickers

Adam Vinatieri and Matt Stover, have played in a game with another

NFL team. And 12 players, including defensive captain Gary

Brackett, safety Melvin Bullitt, cornerback Jacob Lacey, right

guard Kyle DeVan and three-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday,

weren’t drafted at all.

“I’d have taken any job, I was just looking to get a job,”

said Saturday, who came to Indy in 1999 and is now the

second-longest tenured Indy player behind Manning. “Obviously, it

was a fantastic fit, looking back. But they gave me an

opportunity.”

Polian uses stories like Saturday’s to recruit more undrafted

players, explaining to agents that the Colts will give their

clients a better opportunity than most teams.

Not only has it helped Polian keep the stream of talent flowing

into Indy, it also has given him enough depth to overcome

obstacles. The Colts have already lost three defensive starters –

Sanders, cornerback Marlin Jackson and linebacker Tyjuan Hagler –

to season-ending injuries this year. Another starter, cornerback

Kelvin Hayden has played just five of 12 games, and Freeney sat out

two games ago.

Yet the Colts have allowed a the third-fewest points in the

league and still haven’t lost.

Polian believes it’s not a coincidence; it’s a reflection of his

longtime philosophy and the hard work being done by the team’s

scouts, the way he learned this business decades ago.

“It’s like Marv Levy used to say, ‘Just do your homework,”’

Polian said. “One key thing is having continuity in the front

office and with the coaching staffs, that’s a really important

template to build a team. But it’s really a tribute to the scouts

to do it this way.”