Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian begins his 22nd year as a team executive. A five-time NFL executive of the Year, Polian has helped construct two of the more successful teams in NFL history: the Buffalo team that appeared in four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s, and the Colts, who have gone 105-55 during his 10 years with the team.
Polian, who is a member of the NFL's Competition Committee, discussed some of the issues that may come up this year with the rule change regarding sideline force-outs on wide receivers and how the college game is impacting the NFL.
Cole: You're 65 now and just signed a contract extension through the 2011 season. How much longer do you expect to do this?
Polian with Colts owner Jim Irsay after Super Bowl XLI in Miami last year.
Polian: I don't know. I'm at the point where as long as I feel good and there are no family issues – which occur at this time of your life – you know health and other concerns, I don't see it ending anytime soon.
Cole: So you don't have a master plan that you're going to fulfill this contract, then go off like Chuck Noll and become a wine connoisseur?
Polian: No, no … no.
Cole: When you look at the trends about how people play – you saw how the Patriots played last season with so much three- and four receiver sets – then you saw how the Giants won the Super Bowl with a superior pass rush, where is the game going?
Polian: I think that, to use a Paul Brown term, the internal varies are still the same. You still must run the ball. You still must win the turnover battle. You still must play sound defense, meaning you don't give up big plays. You make the other team earn what they get. You must pass the ball effectively, not spectacularly, but effectively. I don't think any of that has changed over time. I think what's changed is how you go about doing that. Whether it's (the 1972 Dolphins with Larry) Csonka and (Jim) Kiick running with (Bob) Griese throwing possession passes or Tom Brady and Peyton Manning with three or four wide receivers. The way to win games hasn't changed one iota in 30 years, in my opinion. How people do it evolves continually, which is what keeps it exciting and interesting.
Cole: So as you watch it evolve, is there anything you see with the rule changes that makes you say, "This could be interesting?"
Polian: I don't think the force-out rule is going to have an effect on the way the game is played in a macro sense. I worry about what kind of effect it's going to have on injuries to receivers.
Cole: They're going to get hit really hard?
Polian: Yeah and I believe Bill Belichick was quoted as saying it a couple of days ago, as saying you're going to change the way you defense the pass on the sideline and I think he's 100 percent right. … That's what certain members of the competition committee, myself included, were worried about with that rule. That's the downside of that rule. The upside of the rule is that the referees don't have to make a judgment call. I voted for the change, but we're going to re-examine it. I think you have to be careful if you get wide receivers hurt. It has nothing to do with personalities of the players. But it has to do with Bill, who I respect as a great defensive strategist, saying that there's no question you're going to play the sideline pass differently from a technique standpoint. So what does that mean?
Cole: Perhaps four or five receivers could get really hurt.
This controversial "force-out" helped keep Cleveland out of the playoffs last season.
(AP Photo/Paul Connors)
Polian: Hopefully not. But it has to be watched carefully from a rules standpoint. I'm not one who believes you're cutting down the field necessarily. I could be wrong, but I don't think it's going to happen. That's the one that we're really focused on. I think we have the horse-collar (tackle) pretty well figured out. I hope that the colleges follow suit in terms of enforcing it vigorously because that's a dangerous play. It doesn't belong in the game, not at any level, and it was spreading dramatically at the college level.
Cole: It appears that teams such as Jacksonville and San Diego are just getting faster and faster in the secondary because of the three- and four-receiver formations. Do you expect a return by offenses to heavier packages to combat that, particularly if offenses wait until the last second to declare formations in response to the defensive radio system?
Polian: There are 10 different theories on that. Let's see (what happens). My guess is that the offensive people wait till 15 seconds (is remaining on the play clock). That's my guess. Then they'll declare. But we'll see. There are a lot smarter people than me coaching in this league, so we'll see how they handle it.
Cole: If offenses wait more, is that going to lead to a decrease in the number of plays in a game, which then leads to a decrease in scoring?
Polian: That's possible, we'll find out. At some point, the lines cross and the reduction in plays affects scoring. But I think it's fair to say that there are a great many unknowns with the coach-to-defense (radio). The first unknown is, how effective is the speaker going to be in the helmet of a guy who has pretty big collisions on virtually every play? That's the first issue. No one knows the answer to that, so this is uncharted waters both from an efficacy standpoint and from a point of strategy. It will evolve.…
Something that has occurred to me … things have gotten to the point nowadays that when we discuss rules, we now begin to discuss unintended consequences. To me, that's a new trend on the committee. Now, maybe it was that Paul Brown and Don Shula and Bill Walsh were just that much smarter than we were and those discussions took place. But it seems like every time we discuss a rule, there's an unintended consequence where we say, "What are we doing here? What's going to happen? What three things are going to happen that we don't anticipate when we address this issue? There might be some fallout over here that we're not real crazy about." Technology is the prime example of that. There's a theory that the more technologically advanced you get, the more issues you cause to the game.
Cole: For example, the defensive radio could slow the game down so much that fans get bored?
Polian: On the other hand, you may find offenses that say, "We're going, we're going full bore because we can talk to the guy up to 15 seconds, we're going to go race horse. We'll try to make the defense make calls on the fly." There are really good strategic thinkers who will do that kind of stuff and I'm sure they're working on it. It would be interesting to hear Brian Billick's take on it. He is a really good strategic thinker.
Cole: Speaking of the strategic side of the game, it seems that the game has become extraordinarily more sophisticated in that regard compared to 20 or 30 years ago?
Polian: Strategy and tactics have evolved to the point that it's become completely a matchup game, both from a physical man-to-man matchup game to a strategic matchup. That's what it's all about. But Shula would argue that that's what it's always been about and that's what differentiates us from the college game.
Cole: When did the game begin to be so matchup oriented?
Polian: Boy, is that a good question. I became aware of it when I was doing advance scouting back in the late '70s. You began to see nickel packages. You began to see multiple wideout formations. The Steelers were usually always the standard two-back set. But there were people who began to get away from that and you began to see that as the extra wide receiver replaced the fullback or the tight end, you began to see people naturally match up with nickel backs. I remember Cleveland when Sam Rutigliano was coaching did some of that with Brian Sipe.
Cole: Does that have anything to do with the expansion of rosters from 40 in the '70s to the 53-man game-day roster today?
COLTS UNDER POLIAN
Year | Record | Postseason
1998 | 3-13 | Missed playoffs
1999 | 13-3 | Lost in div. rd
2000 | 10-6 | Lost in wild-card rd
2001 | 6-10 | Missed playoffs
2002 | 10-6 | Lost in wild-card rd
2003 | 12-4 | Lost in AFC title gm
2004 | 12-4 | Lost in div. rd
2005 | 14-2 | Lost in div. rd
2006 | 12-4 | Won Super Bowl
2007 | 13-3 | Lost in div. rd
Polian: That's an interesting question. I would have to match it up but it would be an interesting exercise to do. There has always been a feeling on the competition committee that that has been the case. There has always been talk that if you expand the roster you'll always get better special teams players, but nobody believes that. What you get are extra specialists. You get the guy who only kicks off, the guy who all he can do is kick the ball out of the stadium and that's all he does. We did that (with Danny Kight). What you'll get is tactical maneuvers that affect the game. You won't get the round pegs in round holes. You just get more holes.
Cole: Shula was a big believer in the idea that roster expansion led to more specialization.
Polian: Now (the Dolphins under Shula), there's an example of a team that went to multiple offensive looks. Shula had the blueprint locked in the drawer. Shula was the prime example of "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." He was two jumps ahead of everybody in terms of understanding that if you made this move, two or three other things would happen. Chuck Noll was that way too.
Cole: OK, let's take an example. New England is lining up with former safety Tank Williams at linebacker this year in training camp. That appears to be a reaction to so many teams, such as the Colts, using more and more three- and four-receiver formations as their base formation. Is that what you're seeing?
Polian: You see it more at the college level with the 4-2-5, the fifth defensive back effectively being Tank Williams. I would say it's not common, but it's used a good bit at the college level. New England is nothing if not terribly innovative so there's no reason to believe that they wouldn't be on the cutting edge there. It's a matchup issue which is what it's all about, so it's perfectly understandable.
Cole: That seems to be because so many college teams, such as Florida and West Virginia, have gone to the spread formation offense. Is this how defenses are reacting at that level?
Polian: They put the hyper defensive back-linebacker out there because they have to account for the quarterback out there. The quarterback is a mismatch for the linebacker in a 4-3 and he's probably a size mismatch against … a 5-foot-10, 5-9 guy at (defensive back). So they use a hybrid guy like a Tank Williams and use him at DB. Now they're better able to play the option … which we don't see much more.
Cole: Do you think you're going to ever see much of the option at your level with so many quarterbacks coming from that system? Historically, the option hasn't been very effective in the NFL.
Polian: If we get a spate of college spread-option type quarterbacks, that's one way to deal with it. But I don't see that happening.
Cole: There are some scouts and coaches in the NFL who worry that with so much spread formation offense at the college level, the classic 3-4 linebacker is also going to disappear. What do you expect to see?
Polian: First of all, Bill Parcells would be far better served to answer that than I because he's the absolute best at constructing and developing the 3-4. You look at what he has done in Miami, he has the blueprint locked in the drawer and it would be very interesting to hear him speak on this subject. But you just have to project from a scouting standpoint. You say, "OK, is Tedy Bruschi – even though he plays rush end at the University of Arizona – capable of playing linebacker in the NFL? When we scouted him (when I was) at Carolina, that was the issue.
Cole: Well before this season, you were a vocal critic of the rookie salary structures and how, in your opinion, so many young players were getting overpaid. Many executives are now suggesting that the league simply go with three-year contracts for all draft picks and rookie players. What's your opinion?
Polian: There are lots of ways to solve it and some of (the solutions) may not even be on the table at this time. But I do think there is a consensus among GMs and even a fairly large group of veteran players that it has to be solved … That's why the owners, in their infinite wisdom, made the decision they did regarding the (collective bargaining agreement). The question is, what do you do to it? &helliip; It's a subject of negotiation and it's not my job so I'm not going to get into that. But there's a general consensus it's not good for the game.
Cole: If you were told you had three years to judge a player, would that be enough?
Polian: No, it's not. For one thing, you have players who don't get enough playing time for the first couple of years, for many reasons, to be able to make a judgment. They get hurt, they play for established teams. They're human beings. Let me go back to frame it best. We are not, even the best of us, barely above .500 in terms of finding people and we're no different than human resources people at Fortune 500 companies.
Judging human beings is far from an exact science. Even if you do as good a job as you can, there are always extraneous issues that affect someone's performance. Be it injury, family concerns, illness, things you never anticipate. So it's not an exact science. Having said that, you have to factor that in when you make your evaluation about whether you're making the best use of your resources within the context of the fact that you're not going to be right … if you're right 55 percent of the time, you're in the playoffs every year. That has to be a bedrock of the system. In my opinion, the old philosophy adopted by the union has been, "You make a mistake, that's your problem. Yeah, the money is wasted, so what?" I'm not sure I agree with that. I'm not sure that's good for the industry.