Man Behind The Manning … Saturday Cup O’Chiefs

Some 30 years ago, he was a red-haired guy who would show up at Chiefs training camp at William Jewell College in Liberty every summer for a couple of weeks.

He would haunt the media room and public relations office looking for the newest team media guides that had come in from around the league. Two, sometimes three times a day, he would stop in, ask the secretaries about new guides and it always seemed that he went away ticked off when nothing new had come in the mail.

At the time, he was known simply as that Polian guy that worked with Marv. At the time, Marv Levy was the head coach of the Chiefs, and Bill Polian was a “pro scout” for the team. His name can’t be found in any of the team’s media guides or NFL directories for the 1978 through 1982 seasons. But I can tell you, Polian was there and he was around.

Who knew that the media guide-seeking red-head would go on to become one of the greatest front office executives in the history of the NFL. Polian is President of the Indianapolis Colts and when we look at that franchise and what it has accomplished over the last dozen years, the focus falls squarely on Polian.  

Yes, Peyton Manning maybe the greatest quarterback in NFL history. But it was Polian who selected Manning with the first choice of the 1998 NFL Draft. At the time, Bobby Beathard was an NFL legend when it came to personnel matters. He was running the Chargers at the time and with the second pick that year he drafted QB Ryan Leaf.

(That’s Polian with Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay to the left.)

The rest is history – and a very enjoyable history for the Colts and Polian. In a league where the only constant is change, it is the stability of what Polian has brought to Indianapolis that has made the team one of the most successful franchises in league history.

Consider the numbers:

  • Since he was named in December ’97 to run the Colts, the team has posted a 142-72 record (.664 winning percentage.)
  • That breaks down to 131-63 in the regular season (.686 winning percentage.)
  • In the playoffs, the Colts are 9-9.
  • Take out the 3-13 record in the ’98 season, his first year on the job, they are 137-59 (.699 winning percentage.)
  • They have appeared in two of the last four Super Bowls, with one victory and losing last year to New Orleans.
  • The Colts eight straight appearances in the playoffs is the longest current streak in the league, and it’s 10 of the last 11 years.
  • In the 2000s, the Colts won 115 regular season games, the most by any team in any decade in NFL history.
  • In the last seven seasons, they have won 12 or more games.

That’s the recent history of what the Chiefs face on Sunday when they walk into Lucas Oil Stadium to play the 2-2 Colts.

Polian is the architect of that success. Starting with the huge foundation block of Manning, the Colts have been built over the years largely through the draft. When they beat Chicago to win the Super Bowl after the 2006 season, 17 of the 22 starters were Polian draft choices. When they played the Saints back in February, 15 of the 22 starters were from the draft and taken by Polian.

The team the Chiefs will face on Sunday is again, largely one built through the draft or developmental process. Last Sunday against Jacksonville, they had 17 draft choices in the lineup and two college free agents. That’s 19 of 22 starters developed in-house, or 86.4 percent.

Even today, when Pioli has risen to the title of president of the Colts, he remains the prime driver of the personnel process.

“That’s how I’ve always done it, and that’s how I’m going to keep doing it until it doesn’t work,” Polian said last year. “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.”

Much like Duke does in college basketball, where the Blue Devils have built a championship team without any hint of NCAA violations or players who are not also college students, the Colts have shown that it’s possible to build a successful franchise without relying on free agency. Right now, there’s only one player on the 53-man roster who came to the team as an unrestricted free agent – K Adam Vinatieri. In the last seven years, they’ve signed only five UFAs and only one was a high-dollar contract – Vinatieri.

To do it that way, a team can’t miss in the early part of the draft and in the first round, Polian rarely misses. After Manning here are his first-round picks: 2009, RB Donald Brown (27); 2008, traded; 2007, WR Anthony Gonzalez (32); 2006, RB Joseph Addai (30); 2005, DB Marlin Jackson (29); 2004, traded; 2003, TE Dallas Clark (24); 2002, DE Dwight Freeney (11); 2001, WR Reggie Wayne (30); 2000, LB Rob Morris (28); 1999, RB Edgerrin James (4).

That’s 10 first-round choices and six ended up in the Pro Bowl. Even now, only Jackson and Morris are gone. The most important pick of course was Manning. Everything has revolved around No. 18 since he walked into the building. He’s started his first game as a rookie and has not been out of the starting lineup since.

Polian gets the credit for making the decision between Manning and Leaf. Without a doubt, he made the right choice.

“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 said several years ago. “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.’

That was in 1998. More recently, four starters came out of the 2008 Draft and another three came from the 2009 Draft.

“We emphasize to players when they come in here that their rookie year is not a redshirt year,” Polian said. “You’re going to have to contribute and you’re going to be expected to contribute.”

Everybody in the NFL understands what a remarkable job that Polian has done in Indianapolis. It’s tough to reach the top. It’s much tougher to stay there, especially to stay there for as long as the Colts have been on top of the AFC.

“They are a well-coached team; an extremely fast team on defense that gets to the ball; that rushes the passer as good as anybody in the league,” said Chiefs head coach Todd Haley. “They play sideline-to-sideline as fast as anybody we’ll see this year. Offensively, obviously a very talented team that can move the football up and down the football field, they score a lot of points year-in and year-out – you know you have to score points to be anywhere close to them. They have good special teams now with some returners now that can hurt you. They’re well coached and playing at their place is always a big-time task. For our team here in Kansas City, this is clearly a big, big challenge for us

Because of that success and Polian’s sometimes prickly demeanor, he’s not the most liked man in the league. He’s not afraid to chew out anyone, from officials, to employees, to the media.

And like any sports executive who has been in the same spot for more than five years or so, there are even Colts fans who want to see Polian doing something else. They take the club’s 2-2 start and say it’s a harbinger of the franchise headed for a tumble. Of course, that opinion is built on the Colts losing last week because of a last play 59-yard field goal. If that kick misses, they are 3-1 and some fans have to find something else to complain about.

This may not be another 12 victories or more season for the Colts. Sooner or later, there will come a time when they come back to the pack. More than likely its later.

“You have to anticipate what problems you’re going to face in training camp and you begin to structure the roster,” Polian said earlier this year. “I was taught a long time ago if you don’t have (depth) going into camp, there’s every likelihood you won’t have it coming out. Every player you bring to camp has to have a chance to make the team.”

2 Responses to “Man Behind The Manning … Saturday Cup O’Chiefs”

  • October 9, 2010  - Doug says:

    Great piece. The kind of information you can only get from Bob.

  • October 9, 2010  - Niblick says:

    The one pick he made that stands out as a Chiefs fan is Dwight Freeney. We took Ryan Sims at six.
    He was a total bust and Freeney is an all pro. You never know how Freeney would have done here, but I’m sure it was more than Sims.

    I look for the Chiefs to be competive on Sunday. I’m not predicting a win but I think they will be in the game to the end.

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