Had Bill Polian ended his NFL career following his stint in Buffalo, he would have been considered a great front office man. Polian flipped the Bills from being an also-ran into an NFL power in the 1990s. Even though they lost every time, Buffalo remains the only franchise to go to four straight Super Bowls. That alone could have made him a Hall of Fame candidate.
His work afterwards cemented his place. Through a brief stop in Charlotte and an incredible run in Indianapolis, Polian built a resume that rivals the work of any front office member to ever work in football.
The Manning/Leaf decision
The Colts hired Polian as general manager following a dismal 3-13 season and had to give up a third-round pick to get him. Polian had been working as the GM of the Carolina Panthers. In Charlotte he made it his goal to to build the fastest Super Bowl winner ever. He got close after packing his roster with veteran free agents. Still in their infancy, the Panthers went to the NFC conference championship game in their second year with Polian acting as GM.
Upon getting to Indianapolis, Polian was handed the No. 1 pick in the draft and forced to make the biggest decision of his career: choosing between Tennessee's Peyton Manning and Washington State's Ryan Leaf. At the time there was a real debate between the two quarterbacks.
Coming out of Tennessee, Manning was a polished All-American and Heisman Trophy runner-up. He was the safe choice. Leaf was dynamic at Washington State. He was more mobile than Manning and had a stronger arm. Leaf represented upside, and was the choice of many of Polian’s scouts. But as the 1998 draft approached, Polian found more and more reasons to take Manning and not Leaf.
Polian made the right choice by selecting Manning with the first pick. Then in the years that followed, Polian made the shrewd moves that led to Indianapolis' greatest success.
Against the flow
In 1999 the Colts had the No. 4 overall pick. Polian had just traded Marshall Faulk for two draft picks and needed a running back. That year, sensational Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams was in the draft and many wanted him, but Polian passed to take Miami running back Edgerrin James. The move was a stunner, but with his picks the Colts went from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 in 1999 -- the biggest turnaround in NFL history.
That wasn't the first time Polian scared Colts fans by taking a Miami player in the draft. In 2001, with the 30th overall pick, Polian selected Hurricanes wide receiver Reggie Wayne. At the time, Polian got some grief because Indianapolis already had star receiver Marvin Harrison and Wayne wasn't even perceived to be the best receiver on Miami. That was Santana Moss.
In his book, The Game Plan, Polian relayed a message he gave his scouts: "Don’t go with the flow. Let’s mine our own data, let's be our own people. We’re not afraid to make a controversial choice. I don’t care what anybody else thinks about it."
In Indianapolis, Polian's big draft hits are well known. There was Manning, James, Wayne, defensive end Dwight Freeney and tight end Dallas Clark.
But deeper in the draft, Polian was finding players like safety Antoine Bethea, a sixth-round pick out of Howard. In 2003, he took pass rusher Robert Mathis out of Alabama A&M in the fifth round and converted linebacker Cato June from Michigan in the sixth. In 1999 he signed an electrical supply seller named Jeff Saturday to the Colts. Saturday played 11 years in Indianapolis and made six Pro Bowls. It was those under-the-radar selections that helped the Colts win Super Bowl XLI and get there again four seasons later.
"Nobody ever won a trophy for winning the draft," Polian told Sports Illustrated immediately after the 1995 draft with Carolina. If they had, Polian would have a wall covered with awards.
The big break
None of what happened in Indianapolis or Carolina could have happened had he not brilliantly built those Bills teams earlier in his career.
Before Polian became Buffalo's general manager in 1986, he was instrumental in the team drafting defensive end Bruce Smith with the first pick in the 1985 draft. In '86 he convinced Jim Kelly to come to Buffalo after he turned the team down for the USFL after the 1983 draft. During negotiations with Kelly, Polian famously got down in a three-point stance and challenged Kelly's agent. Metaphorically, Polian won and Kelly signed. Then the Bills won on the field.
The next year, Polian pulled off a daring trade to acquire second overall pick Cornelius Bennett. The combination of Smith and Bennett would become one of the best pass rushing duos in league history. The Bennett trade left Buffalo without a first-round pick in 1988, but Polian made due. He took running back Thurman Thomas in the second round.
From there, the Bills become a powerhouse. Buffalo had the league's most potent offense and imposing pieces on defense. The nucleus Polian formed pushed Buffalo to the Super Bowl every year from 1991 to 1994.
Need Polian’s accomplishments quantified further? Consider that the teams he fronted went to the playoffs 17 times, including trips to eight conference title games and five Super Bowls. His teams won 11 games or more 13 times. The NFL Executive of the Year Award, voted on by front office members, has been given to Polian six times, the most ever.
The Bills teams Polian built sent five players to the Hall of Fame, including Kelly, Thomas, Smith and wide receivers James Lofton and Andre Reed. Even owner Ralph Wilson got inducted in 2009. Players like Bennett and offensive lineman Kent Hull, whom Polian also got from the USFL, are fringe Hall of Famers. Meanwhile, Manning will assuredly get into the Hall of Fame someday. Wayne, Mathis and Freeney may too.
Not all legacies are simply built on influence. They are first built on accomplishment, of which Polian has many. Polian's legacy may not resonate as deeply throughout the NFL as Hall-of-Fame classmate Ron Wolf, but it doesn't need to. What he did in Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis is a master work of player evaluation, talent acquisition and results. For that, his induction is well-deserved.