Inside the mind of a Hall of Fame GM: Bill Polian reflects on his NFL career
Six-time NFL Executive of the Year Bill Polian was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the 2015 class, and in honor of that, he's going back to Buffalo, where he got his first opportunity as a general manager in 1984.
As a personnel executive, Polian has a singular and unique history; he's lifted three different teams from different points in their evolution to similar successes. In 1986, Polian was promoted to GM of a Bills team that had just finished 2–14, and he built it into the teams that went to four straight Super Bowls, from 1990 through 1993. Polian was fired after the Bills failed to win any of those Super Bowls, but he landed with the expansion Carolina Panthers—the team he led to the NFC championship game in its second season. Then, he took over the Indianapolis Colts, drafted Peyton Manning, and created one of the new millennium's consistently successful teams (winning Super Bowl XLI at the end of the 2006 season) before things went sour with a 2–14 mark in 2011. That signaled the end of Polian's long NFL career, and led to his current position as an NFL analyst with ESPN.
Polian will receive his Hall of Fame Ring of Excellence, designed by Kay Jewelers, during a ceremony at Ralph Wilson Stadium when the Bills take on the Patriots this Sunday. When I spoke with him this week regarding his time in the NFL, Buffalo was where we began.
Sports Illustrated: You were inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, and you're receiving your Hall of Fame Ring of Excellence in a ceremony at Ralph Wilson Stadium this Sunday—it's certainly a time for reflection on a great career. What are some of the most prominent memories when you think about your time in the NFL?
Bill Polian: Well, there's so many over a long career, it'd probably take me an hour to recount them. But obviously, winning the Super Bowl with Indianapolis, the extended string of excellence we had in Indianapolis—we won the most games in the decade during that period of time. The quick competitiveness in Carolina with a great coach [Dom Capers] and a great team there, getting to the NFC championship game in the second year. And of course, the four straight Super Bowls in Buffalo. But more importantly, just rebuilding a franchise that had fallen on such hard times.
SI: After some time with the Chiefs and in the CFL, you became the Bills' general manager in 1984, turning what was a perpetual doormat into a four-time Super Bowl team. When you took Bruce Smith in the 1985 draft, you went against the idea of scrapping your picks for veterans just to put a band-aid on the team. That was a pretty gutsy philosophy, given where the team was and that you didn't have a lot of experience as a GM. What's been the guiding power behind your ability to stick to your guns, no matter what the pressure may be?
BP: Number one, Marv Levy in my early years in Montreal and later in Kansas City. But most importantly, [head coach] Kay Stephenson in Buffalo. Kay and I were very close—I was the pro personnel guy, and we worked very closely together. In 1984, we went 2–14, and that was the season prior to Bruce Smith being available in the draft. We had the No. 1 pick, and I said to Kay, “We can take all of these picks and trade them for veteran players who will likely help us keep our jobs.” And his response was, "No, we've got a responsibility to the fans and the franchise and to Mr. [Ralph] Wilson to do the right thing. You and I will decide who the best player is, and that's the guy we'll take.”
So, we did that, and did not do well immediately. You can't in that situation. We were very akin to where Jacksonville is right now. We knew it was going to be a long rebuild, and Kay lost his job over it, but I've never forgotten his courage and his dedication to doing the right thing.
SI: Let's say you're an NFL general manager, and you've just hired me to be a part of your pro personnel staff (which I would not recommend under any circumstances). I ask you for your overarching philosophy when it comes to player development. What do you tell me?
BP: Athletes. Smart people. Good people.
SI: That's your triptych of success?
SI: What did being fired in Buffalo after multiple consecutive Super Bowl appearances teach you about the cycle of NFL jobs?
BP: Jim Finks called me the day I was named the general manager in Buffalo—he was a good friend and mentor to me—and his message was short and to the point. He said, “Congratulations. You're now one step closer to being fired.” That says it all.
SI: When you went to Carolina, you were tasked with turning an expansion team into a contender, and you did just that, reaching the NFC championship game in the franchise's second season. What were the specific challenges you had when starting a team from scratch, and in a way, was it easier to start from nothing as you did, as opposed to taking over a team bereft of talent and having various salary cap complications and players you didn't want?
BP: The only thing that's good about it is that you don't have to deal with the salary cap ramifications of a rebuild. Other than that, it's very difficult. You have to establish a culture. In our case in Carolina, we had to be as competitive as we could as quickly as we could, because we had to sell PSLs to get the stadium built. There was a sense that because the folks who had worked so hard to get the franchise had gotten it in competition with a number of other cities, success on the field was assured. That was not the case, obviously, but we had to remind people to a certain degree on a daily basis. And the most important part of it is—and this falls on the coach, and Dom Capers did a phenomenal job—you're bringing in a group of total strangers, and you have 6–8 weeks to meld them into a team. It's really difficult, and Dom and his staff did a phenomenal job.
SI: What made him the right guy for that position?
BP: His approach to the organization and the team, his approach to practice, his approach to systems, his approach to personnel. And most importantly, his sincerity and honesty—he was the epitome of a smart person and a good person. People will follow those kinds of people, and they clearly did in our case.
SI: What were your primary challenges when you became the Colts GM in 1997?
BP: We inherited some really good people on offense. Marvin Harrison, Tarik Glenn, Ken Dilger, Adam Meadows, Marshall Faulk, just to name a few. Two Hall-of-Famers in that group—Marshall's already in, and there's no question in my mind that Marvin should be. We were very fortunate in that regard. If you put a good quarterback in with that group, you knew you were going to be able to score some points. The defensive side of the ball was a much more difficult issue, and it took us a long while to get it straightened out—almost five years to get a defense that was championship caliber. Ultimately we did, and with Tony Dungy as a large part of that at the helm, we went on that tremendously successful long run.
SI: It always amazes me when coaches and GMs aren't on the same page when it comes to attaching scheme to personnel. It sounds so obvious, but it often doesn't happen. How important was it for you and your coaches to work together in that regard?
BP: Yeah, it doesn't always happen. I think you have to have a shared vision. Tony [Dungy] was once asked what our working relationship was like, and I'm paraphrasing here, but he said that when you think the same way about the game, it's relatively easy. And that's true. It was true of Marv Levy in Buffalo—I'm a creature of him, not the other way around. And with Dom in Carolina, it was equally true. If you don't have that symbiotic relationship between the coach and the general manager, I'm not sure you can get it done in the long run.
SI: Let's say in that 1998 draft, you had the third overall pick. Peyton Manning is gone, and Ryan Leaf is gone. You still have to get a young quarterback in pretty short order. Who were some of the draftable quarterbacks in the first decade of the new millennium who you looked at and thought, “Yeah—we could have done some amazing things with this guy.”
BP: Well, Roethlisberger later on [in 2004]—we were really high on him. Aaron Rodgers the year after. That's the only name that comes to mind right away. And I don't think there was a guy in between, but Tom Brady would have been a guy, and we were very high on him. Our guys really loved him, but we weren't in the quarterback market, obviously. Those would be the guys I remember us giving solid, first-round, can-lead-you-to-a-championship grades.
SI: You had a first-round grade on Brady? What did you like so much about him?
BP: Brady was less of a slam-dunk, of course. Less of a known commodity than Peyton was. But he had such a great last half of his last season [at Michigan], and fought Drew Henson for the starter's job, and he really came on. I don't remember where we ultimately put him, but it was certainly a very high grade. We weren't in the quarterback business, and it wasn't going to be an issue for us, but it was a very high grade.
SI: Boy, what an alternate history that would have been. Obviously, your tenure with the Colts didn't end as happily as you would have liked, and now, there are reports of friction between your replacement Ryan Grigson, and head coach Chuck Pagano. Given all your experience, if you could sit them both down in a room and try to mediate (assuming the reports are true), what would you say?
BP: I don't have any idea what the issues are, or if there are issues there. I wouldn't know what to say to them. But you do have to work together, and that's just... you do. It's communication, and it's having systems in place that allow you to communicate on the same page. You need a common language, and a common objective point of view. Its critically important. If you can't do that, you simply can't get it done in the long run. Both communication and the process are critical to it.
SI: I'm sure you still watch Peyton Manning pretty closely, and there are a lot of reports and analysis regarding his physical decline. What are your thoughts regarding how he's playing at this point in his career?
BP: Well, he was playing great until he got the thigh injury last year, and the last three or four games were below his normal standard performance, because he couldn't drive the ball. He uses his lower body, and a lot of torque in his upper body, to throw the ball. That's why he's played as long as he has. He doesn't stress his arm very much as a result. It was less than what you'd expect of him over the last three to four games, but that's due to the injury. I watched the entire game vs. Baltimore on Sunday, and ironically, he overthrew two guys on long balls. So, I don't understand the arm strength issue.
SI: The Seahawks are going through a protracted holdout with Kam Chancellor—it's just one of many that have happened in the NFL that you've observed throughout your career as a GM and analyst. What was your modus operandi when it came to holdouts on your own team?
BP: We did exactly what John Schneider is doing. You can't acquiesce to a holdout, because if you acquiesce to one, you'll have 50. The bottom line is, it has to get done in a way that is satisfactory to the club, and you don't acquiesce to a holdout. No matter who the player may be. Now, sooner or later, these things have a way of getting done, and you've got to keep the lines of communication open. John's doing that, and sooner or later, it'll get settled. But you've got to do it on your terms.
SI: Do you still advise teams at all, or have any interest in a front-office role. Or are you enjoying the ESPN gig, and all that's become?
BP: I enjoy my ESPN gig very much, and I doubt that at this stage of my life I would go back. People call on a fairly regular basis, and I talk football with them, and I enjoy doing that very much. But I get my football fix through ESPN, especially broadcasting the games on radio for ESPN every Sunday. That keeps me in the stadium, and plugged in, and I enjoy that very much.