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FO Interview: Bill Polian

by Aaron Schatz

I recently had a chance to meet Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian at the second annual MIT Sloan Sports Business Conference, and he agreed to do an e-mail interview with Football Outsiders. We wanted to ask him about not just the Colts, but also his earlier experiences, from the Chicago Blitz to the Carolina Panthers. Thanks to Ned Macey for helping come up with the questions. The answers are short, but definitely interesting.

FO: What did you learn from your short stays in the USFL (Chicago) and CFL (Winnipeg) in 1983-84?
Bill Polian: A great deal. I did virtually every job an executive had to do, from stadium ops to team travel to personnel and signing of players. It prepared me more to be a G.M. than any other experience I have had.

FO: Your Buffalo and Indianapolis teams are known primarily as offensive powerhouses, but Carolina was built primarily around defense. Did you focus on defense specifically because being an expansion team required a different strategy, or did it just shake out that way because those were the best players available at the time?
Bill Polian: We felt the fastest way to win was via defense. The running game. A sound kicking game. And the development of a young quarterback.

FO: Why did Carolina choose to build a veteran team that could contend immediately, but only for a short period, rather than building slowly with younger talent like Jacksonville, Houston, and Cleveland?
Bill Polian: We had to sell Personal Seat Licenses in the new Carolina stadium and therefore had to win right away.
FO: By any objective measure, the 2005 and 2007 Colts were better in the regular season than the 2006 Colts. Why do you think the 2006 team was able to win the Super Bowl? Is it just a matter of getting to the postseason every year with a quality team and then playing a good month of football, or is there something special that a team needs for postseason success?

Bill Polian: A good question. I think the health of our defense in 2006 was a major factor as opposed to 2005 and 2007. You have to be as healthy as you can be in the playoffs.
FO: Tony Dungy was hired in 2002 in large part to develop a competent defense to go with a dominant offense. To that point, you had drafted a number of larger defenders not prototypical for the “Tampa-2.” How did you go about changing your evaluation style of draft prospects to fit a different system, or is the difference in the type of player needed overstated?

Bill Polian: The difference in players needed is not overstated. We made the change by changing the parameters of our scouting system. It was not an easy task.
FO: Your defense ranked third in our DVOA metrics this season. More than half of the starters were drafted after the fourth round or not at all. What is the key to getting such productivity out of lesser prospects? What attributes are you most looking for with these late-round and rookie free agent pick-ups? What did you see in Ed Johnson that everyone else missed?

Bill Polian: See the previous answer. We know what criteria are important to succeed in our defense and look for them in every round of the draft. In Ed’s case we saw athletic ability and heard from Coach Paterno that he had “grown up and was ready to become a contributor.”

FO: Since Dungy, a Minnesota grad, was hired, almost half of your Day 1 picks have been on Big Ten players. Is that a coincidence, or do you have a better feel for people who play college football in the Midwest? Along those lines, how are your college scouts assigned, by region, by conference, or something else?
Bill Polian: Our college scouts are assigned by region. I go all over the country as do our other scouting supervisors. I think the rough tough style of play in the Big Ten may produce players more suited to our style. In the end it’s more coincidence that anything else.
FO: Both starting guards are free agents this year. How important is maintaining continuity along the offensive line, and assuming it is important, is it more important that the players are used to playing with each other or that they are used to playing in your system? Who do you expect to take over for Jake Scott now that he signed in Tennessee?

Bill Polian: We think Charlie Johnson can step in for Jake Scott. We of course, kept Ryan Lilja. It is more important for the players to understand and execute the system than to have familiarity with one another. For example, Charlie Johnson as a rookie, played three quarters of the Super Bowl when Ryan Diem was injured. Our backs didn’t even notice that there had been a change.

FO: In many of your playoff losses, including 2007, your team has struggled to run the ball. In 2006, you split carries during the season between Addai and Rhodes and were able to run the ball extremely well in the playoffs. Is this a coincidence, or do you think that first Edgerrin James and now Addai were worn down by the time the playoffs start?
Bill Polian: I definitely think Edgerrin was worn down in 2004 and 2005. No question about it. Since we went to the two back system in 2006 with Dominic Rhodes and 2007 with Kenton Keith I think we have been more effective.

FO: If you had drafted second in 1998, would you have drafted Ryan Leaf?
Bill Polian: Good question. I can’t say for certain. I surely would have looked hard for an impact defensive player as opposed to simply settling for a quarterback other than Peyton.

FO: What player improved the most, on any of your teams, compared to how good he was when you first acquired him?
Bill Polian: On our team here in Indianapolis, I would say cornerback Kelvin Hayden. On our team in Carolina, I would say running back Anthony Johnson and wide receiver Mushin Muhammad. On our team in Buffalo, I would say future Hall of Famer Andre Reed.

FO: If Kerry Collins had been surrounded by Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, and Reggie Wayne, would he have been a perennial Pro Bowler and borderline Hall of Famer?
Bill Polian: I can’t speak to Pro Bowls or Hall of Fame but I have no doubt that with our offensive line and the skill group you mentioned including Dallas Clark at tight end, Kerry Collins would be a big winner. We would be a much different style offense and football team, but we would win.

FO: Other than Super Bowl XLI and the other games during the 2006 playoffs, what is the most satisfying wins any of your teams has had?
Bill Polian: In Carolina it would be our win in San Francisco against the 49ers in December 1996 which clinched a Division Championship for us and vaulted us into contender status in the NFL in our second year of existence.
In Buffalo it would be the “The Greatest Comeback Ever” in January 1993, against the Houston Oilers in the AFC playoffs, when we came from 35 points down in the second half to win in overtime.

We thank Mr. Polian’s assistant Sue Kelly for making this interview possible.