Forbes: Colts’ Polian tops list of NFL’s best GMs
When it comes to keeping an NFL team on top, the basic formula is simple, according to Indianapolis Colts President and General Manager Bill Polian.
“You get people who are smart, tough, with strong work ethics,” he says. “And you want those who feel that football is important to them.” The Colts, Super Bowl champions in 2006-2007, are 39-9 over the past three years despite a payroll that was the fifth-lowest in the NFL over that span. That makes Polian the NFL’s top general manager by a landslide.
While drafting high-quality tough guys is always good, there’s also the matter of navigating the league salary cap, making the loss of key players inevitable. “The system is designed to weaken good teams,” Polian says. To compensate, he sticks to a few simple guidelines: Prioritize at quarterback, corner, offensive tackle and pass rusher, on the grounds that running backs, offensive guards and receivers are more replaceable.
|In Pictures: The NFL’s best general managers|
Example: After eight-time Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison(notes) was not brought back after the 2008 season, Polian and his team replaced him with Pierre Garcon(notes), who they found in the sixth round of the 2008 draft out of Mount Union College in Ohio. Garcon, making less than $500,000, became a favorite target of All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) last season, catching 47 passes for 765 yards to help Indianapolis reach the Super Bowl.
Polian’s history as a top NFL executive goes back a quarter-century. Upon taking over as general manager of a weak Buffalo Bills club in 1985, he used draft picks (Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas) and acquisitions (Jim Kelly, Cornelius Bennett) to turn the team into a powerhouse that played in four Super Bowls by 1993. His next team, the expansion Carolina Panthers of 1995, reached the NFC title game in their second season.
Our methodology for measuring the NFL’s top general managers: won-lost record vs. payroll rank over the past three seasons, with bonus points awarded for playoff appearances, Super Bowl appearances and championships. With NFL payroll disparities somewhat limited by salary cap rules, the formula tends to place more weight on winning than on payroll. So a higher-spending GM who wins tends to get more bang for the buck than one squeezing a .500 record out of a low payroll (the opposite is generally true in Major League Baseball, where payrolls vary much more widely). Hence the inclusion of New Orleans’ Mickey Loomis in ninth place and Pittsburgh’s Kevin Colbert in fourth, both big spenders but also the winners of the last two Super Bowls.
One caveat on eligibility: Because teams often turn over their top football execs pretty frequently, those who upgraded from high-level posts like player personnel director to GM within the past three years were included. For example, the No. 3 GM on our list, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Scott Pioli, was a force behind the New England Patriots’ modern dynasty as a vice president and player personnel director.
Pioli took over in Kansas City last season, where he traded for New England backup quarterback Matt Cassel(notes) to be his starter. The Chiefs improved modestly, to 4-12 from 2-14 in 2008. Time will tell whether Pioli can complete the Chiefs’ rebuilding job. But with his fingerprints all over the New England juggernaut – enough for the Pats to give him a raise and contract extension in 2005 to ward off suitors waving general manager jobs – he shouldn’t be overlooked.
Others who stand out: at No. 2, the New York Giants’ Jerry Reese, who’s churned out two playoff teams – including a Super Bowl champion – with a middle-of-the-pack payroll, and Green Bay’s Ted Thompson at No. 6, 30-18 over the past three years with the NFL’s 10th-lowest payroll.
Colts fans, meanwhile, just hope Polian continues to find hidden gems. In addition to Garcon, last year’s Super Bowl roster included starting safeties Melvin Bullitt(notes), an undrafted free agent in 2007, and Antoine Bethea(notes), a sixth-round pick out of Howard University in 2006. Nothing beats Peyton Manning as franchise quarterback, but surrounding him with talent on a budget is the hard part.
The top five: