Polian’s draft magic turns Colts into model winner
Colts president Bill Polian is just an old-school scout at
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
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
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
“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
During the next 11 years, Polian’s draft touch seemed almost
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
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
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
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.”