Though his last few drafts with the Indianapolis Colts were iffy at best, there's no questioning the overall record of Bill Polian as an NFL executive. He bought winning teams to Buffalo, Carolina, and Indianapolis -- all either expansion or moribund franchises when he started turning them around. However, there are times when every general manager must be protected from himself, and that very clearly happened to Polian in at one point in his Colts tenure. According to an interview with Colts owner Jim Irsay conducted this week by Bob Kravitz of Indystar.com, Polian was so frustrated by contract negotiations with Peyton Manning in 2004, he went to Irsay and said that it was time to let Manning go.
According to Irsay, in 2004, a frustrated Polian was at wit’s end as he attempted to secure Manning’s new $98 million contract and, in a fit of pique, told Irsay, “We need to trade Peyton; we can get a bunch of defensive players and become like Tampa Bay or Baltimore.” Irsay said no. “Understand something, Bill, we are not trading Peyton Manning, period,’’ Irsay recalled telling the former team president.
That clearly didn't happen, and that's a good thing for the Colts -- and for Polian. Not only did Manning lead the Indy franchise to its only Super Bowl championship at the end of the 2006 season, he did so despite being saddled with the worst run defense of the modern era -- a unit that gave up an amazing 179 yards per game, and 5.3 yards per attempt, on the ground in the regular season. That's with the defense that Polian put together, just two seasons after he alleged that he could assemble a defense to rival that of the 2000 Ravens and 2002 Bucs -- two of the best defenses in NFL history. That's a lot easier said than done, especially when you don't have a franchise quarterback.
Irsay took a few more veiled shots at Polian's later attempts at team-building, a process that stopped when Polian was fired in January of 2012. Irsay of course discussed the controversial decision to release Manning before the 2012 season, a call that did not go over well with the locals despite Manning's uncertain medical status after multiple neck surgeries.
"He understood we had to draft [Andrew] Luck; we weren’t going to trade him for picks," Irsay said of the balance between Manning and the team's first-overall pick in 2012. "And he understood the cap room situation where, if he’d stayed, there would have been no Reggie Wayne, no Winston Justice, no Samson Satele, I’m not sure about Robert Mathis. We couldn’t have kept anybody. I mean, our offensive line would have been even worse than it was.
"The worst thing you can imagine would have been to see (Manning) struggling with a team completely deprived of talent, being 1-6 or something like that and then calls for Andrew to come in and play over Peyton. I could see it happening. The cap situation was that dire.”
A bad cap situation for a 2-14 in 2011 that looked completely lost without Manning? Yes, indeed -- that was Polian's work, as well.
In the end, of course, Irsay made a couple of very good moves that led to many others -- he hired general manager Ryan Grigson to replace Polian, and head coach Chuck Pagano to replace Jim Caldwell. It could be argued that Grigson drafted more possible long-term starters in his first year than Polian did in his last five, Luck looks every bit the young franchise quarterback that Manning once was, and Pagano's decision to hire Bruce Arians to run his offense had far-reaching and totally amazing ramifications when Arians had to take the team over following Pagano's leukemia diagnosis.3
Letting Manning go in 2012 made sense, because the team needed a re-do, and Luck was there. Trading Manning for a bunch of defensive players in 2004? Well, you're talking about a lot of altered history there, and it's hard to imagine that working out well for Irsay, Polian, the Colts, or the city of Indianapolis.
Just think, Colts fans -- you have one more reason to thank Jim Irsay than you thought.