I had the great privilege, and good fortune, in 2002 to become the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and work with Bill Polian. By that time, it was quite obvious that Bill knew how to construct winning football teams. He was the primary architect of a Buffalo Bills team that had gone to four consecutive Super Bowls and a Carolina Panthers team that went to the NFC Championship Game in only its second year of existence. So I knew Bill was good at what he did, but I didn’t know just how good until I got to work with him. And in the seven years I spent with him, I got to see firsthand what made him not just a good general manager, but a Hall of Famer.
When I arrived in Indianapolis, a lot of the pieces that would eventually form our Super Bowl team were already in place. Working with Bill on a daily basis, I was able to gain some insight into just how he put a team together. First, he had a plan on how to put his team together. That plan may not have suited other teams, but he knew what would work for us. Bill is a man of strong convictions. He never wavered from his belief in the plan. Second, he was a great listener. The first day I got to Indianapolis he asked me what qualities I was looking for in players, especially on defense. That conversation lasted almost two full days, but by the end of it, he had a good idea of the type of player who would flourish under our coaching staff. With that in mind, he was able to search for players who fit his plan and our style of play.
It also didn’t take me long to see that Bill was a great evaluator of talent. He had the ability to look at college players and project what they could accomplish at the next level. That ability, along with his strong convictions, led to the coming together of a great Colts team. Before I arrived, he had to make decisions on Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf and Ricky Williams vs. Edgerrin James. Taking Manning over Leaf and James over Williams looks easy in hindsight, but those were not slam-dunk picks at the time. In our first draft together we were selecting No. 11 and looking at Dwight Freeney and Albert Haynesworth. Most “experts” thought Dwight was too small to be picked that high, but we knew he was perfect for our system. Bill never worried about what outsiders thought of his decisions, and that was one of his greatest strengths. Our selection of Dwight was received with criticism, as was our first-round selection of Dallas Clark the following year when most people felt we needed defensive help. Dwight and Dallas went on to become important building blocks on our Super Bowl team.
But it takes more than hitting on your high picks to build a championship team. Bill was exceptional at finding gems in the later rounds. I remember him telling me about Cato June, a strong safety from the University of Michigan. He didn’t think Cato could play safety for us, but we could convert him to a weak side linebacker. Again, Cato would be too small to play linebacker for most teams, but for us, he was perfect. We drafted him in the sixth round, and he went on to become a Pro Bowl performer for us. Antoine Bethea and Robert Mathis were similar stories. In fact, with Robert, Bill had to convince me to trade a future draft choice to Cleveland for their fifth-round choice in the 2003 draft. I hated to give up future choices, but Bill said, “Just look at Robert as next year’s fourth-round pick. We’ll just get him a year early.” Mathis was probably the most productive fifth-round pick I’ve ever coached.
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Bill was also great at finding undrafted players after the draft. Center Jeff Saturday and linebacker Gary Brackett were not drafted coming out of college and went on to become captains for the Colts. They were both undersized for their positions but had the quickness, intelligence and mental toughness that Bill believed would make up for their lack of size. The same was true with Dominic Rhodes, another player who was overlooked in the draft but was highly productive for us. They were evidence of another of Bill’s great qualities — being thorough and leaving no stone unturned when it came to finding outstanding players.
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Talent alone, however, doesn’t win championships. You have to create an atmosphere where you get the most out of that talent, and Bill was able to do that. Our players knew that he would do anything for them to help them play their best, and that was important. Whether it was facilities, staff, travel, or working arrangements, if there was anything we could do to help the players do their jobs better, it was done. The players knew that he was always in their corner, even in times when they might not be happy with their contract negotiations.
We played a preseason game at CenturyLink Field just after the Seahawks installed their new Field Turf. It was the first time most of our guys had played on it. They all raved on the flight back to Indianapolis about how good they felt after the game compared to what we played on at the RCA Dome. Bill took their comments to Jim Irsay, and the next year we had Field Turf at our practice facility and at the Dome. It was quite an expense but for Bill, it would help us physically and mentally and that’s what was important.
As a GM, Bill had to make tough decisions, especially relating to the salary cap. And some of those decisions were hard on him personally. But he always kept in mind the overall success of the team. After the 2005 season Edgerrin James and David Thornton became free agents and we had to make decisions on offering them new contracts. Edgerrin had been such a key part of our team and had worked extremely hard in overcoming a serious knee injury. David was our defensive captain and one of our most popular players in the locker room. Even though it was hard for all of us, including Owner Jim Irsay, Bill made the correct call to let Edgerrin and David go to free agency. We were able to draft Joseph Addai, elevate Cato June into a starting role, and utilize the money savings to re-sign some of our other key veterans.
Being a coach, my immediate reaction was that we needed to keep our best players and those who were central to the fiber of the locker room. But when I talked it over with Bill and he explained the long-range impact, it made sense. In Edgerrin’s case, he showed me the early draft board and how the 2006 draft was loaded with backs. If we kept Edgerrin, we would likely lose Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Dwight Freeney when their contracts were up. If we let Edgerrin go, we could re-sign those three and would probably end up with Joseph Addai or Maurice Jones-Drew.
With David, it was the same thing. We had gotten him into the lineup by letting Mike Peterson go to Jacksonville. David stepped up and played great. Bill felt Cato June would do the same and it would allow us to keep more of our core defenders.
As a coach, it’s not easy but because we could have discussions like that, we usually made good decisions. Communication was key. Players want to keep their teammates with them. It’s hard to see great players and great guys go, but they understood that every decision was based on what was best for the team.
Those are hard decisions and doing the best thing is not always popular with players or fans (or even the head coach at times). But, in my opinion, that’s what makes a Hall of Fame General Manager–the ability to take in information, to evaluate situations, and to make the right decision for the team in the long run. And over his career, Bill made the right decisions often enough to get his team’s to six Super Bowls. That is a tremendous accomplishment and one that certainly puts him up with the very best team-builders the NFL has ever seen. I felt very blessed to have had the opportunity to work with him.