For a generation of Indianapolis Colts fans, Bill Polian will always be remembered as the architect of the first golden era of the NFL in our Circle City, and even the debacle of the lost 2011 season probably can’t change that perception. Before he ever came west, though, Polian made his name as the general manager of the Buffalo Bills teams that won three straight AFC championships in the early 1990s. Back then, I often found myself rooting for the Bills in the playoffs, partly because they toiled in the same division as the lowly Colts, but mostly because they maintained a likable underdog persona year after year. I guess that three straight Super Bowl losses can dull the edge of public perception, and those “failures” were also enough to cost Polian his Buffalo gig in February of 1993. Time apparently heals, though, as the Bills announced on May 14 that Polian will as the newest member of the team’s “Wall of Fame.” It may be a bit early yet, but this news made me ponder Polian’s ultimate place in Colts’ history.
If you just consider that Polian was in charge when the Colts drafted Manning in 1998, it’s tempting to elevate the President to “Ring of Honor” status without a second thought. Rumors have always persisted, though, the whispers around town were that Polian and that Irsay pulled rank to get Manning in Blue and White. Who knows? Had Polian been a little more seasoned in his relationship with Irsay at the time, maybe Leaf would have landed in Indy, flamed out and taken the franchise with him. Without Manning, after all, there is a decent chance that the Colts would have at some point in the last 15 years.
As it stands, we have to give Polian at least some of the credit for selecting Manning and keeping him happy for more than a decade. In his early drafting days with the Colts, Polian delivered a nice to complement Manning’s talents. The list of picks before their Super Bowl runs reads like a roll call of Colts stars during the 2000s: Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Dallas Clark, Bob Sanders. In the last several years, the Colts have pretty much whiffed on their first-rounders, which many attribute to the growing responsibilities of Polian’s son, team general manager Chris Polian.
So, there is a mixed bag for Bill Polian in terms of his Indianapolis legacy. Many saw him as something of a tyrant, and many others think that he was largely a puppet for Irsay. My take is that Polian could get pretty defensive at times and was very hard-headed when it came to admitting a mistake, which may be why the Colts were caught flat-footed in terms of quarterback depth when Manning went down last year. Still, Polian was in charge when Indianapolis became a bona fide NFL city, and he managed to keep the wheels on and rolling when a lot of big egos were involved. To me, that should earn him the benefit of the doubt and some mantel space in the Colts’ trophy room.
Adam Hughes was raised, and still lives, in rural Indiana. He has been a Colts fans since the team arrived in Indianapolis on a snowy morning in 1984. The Blue and White eventually replaced the Chicago Bears as his #1 team, and Super Bowl XLI was a dream come true.