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03 Jun 2008

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 than 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.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 03 Jun 2008

49 comments, Last at 25 Jun 2008, 5:05pm by Tom D


by Jimmy (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 12:27pm

Kudos for getting this interview. Seriously how often do NFL GMs give this kind of access when not forced to by the league. This site's star seems to keep rising.

by karl, miami (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 12:32pm

many adjectives and superlatives have been used to describe bill polian. verbose is not one of them. holy cow.

by Lance (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 12:45pm

#2, remember that this was an email interview, not a spoken one. My guess is that if this were a half hour sit-down interview, we'd have longer and more elaborate answers.

by harris, miami (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 12:56pm

#3 that he didn't give a 30 minute sit-down makes #2's point.

re: #2 many adjectives and superlatives have been used to describe #2. slender and smooth are not one of them.

by Crushinator (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 1:05pm

Awesome job by FO for landing this interview. I can't imagine that getting candid or informative answers from a GM is an easy task for anyone. It's really just impressive that they managed to get an interview at all.

FOs moving up in the Football World.

by ConciseJoe (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 1:24pm

Polian most concise GM in 2009. Take Colts to Super Bowl. Extra words for crappy GMs like Peterson, Smith; crappy teams won't make playoffs in 2009.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 1:49pm


Polian actually does go on a bit in the "Polian's Corner" interviews for colts.com. Outward impressions aside, his demeanor in those segments is like that of an omniscient, kindly uncle who likes to teach.

by NY expat (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 1:59pm

Kudos to Ned for an excellent set of questions.

by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 2:07pm

Just wanted to add to the chorus of opinion-some interesting answers, and a pleasant surprise to see here.

by James, London (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 2:23pm

Add me to the list of people impressed by FO getting this interview.

On a different note, now we have TWO of them, do we need a "HarrisJoe", or just more jam?

by panthersnbraves (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 2:24pm

I wish he would have stayed in Charlotte...

by lionsbob (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 2:57pm

Awesome interview.

As a Lions fan, please interview Matt Millen.

by Is that your modifier dangling? (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 3:08pm

As a Lions fan, please interview Matt Millen.

If someone from FO is going to interview Matt Millen, I prefer he do so as an objective journalist and not as a Lions fan.

by lionsbob (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 3:11pm

no, it would be better as a Lions fan-the amount of hate and vitriol for him would be too great to pass up.

by starzero (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 3:12pm

i think anti-spam word "doofus" summarizes that prospective matt millen interview nicely. how does anyone explain the job he's done in detroit?

plus, he'd probably end up sending it to everyone in football. does anyone deserve matt millen spam?

by jebmak (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 4:04pm

Look, the real idiot at the head of the Lions is Ford, not Millen. The Lions have been terrible for 40 years, not seven.

by Cabbage (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 4:12pm

The Leaf question was awesome

by the K (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 4:53pm

Wow, an interview with arguably the best GM in the game. FO is really growing up.

I'm not surprised how good the asked questions were, I'm more surprised that he gave very concise answers that seemed genuine. Great read.

Oh, by the way Bill, we were down 32 in that wild card game, not 35. Heh.

by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 5:14pm

Re #16
Yeah. Matt Millen, for one.

The Leaf question is interesting. Query: if Wadsworth goes #2 to SD and Leaf #3 to ARI and they have the exact same NFL careers they had, how much, if at all, do our perceptions of Leaf and Wadsworth change?

by Lou (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 6:54pm

excellent interview. really well thought out questions, and seemingly honest, thoughtful responses (if a bit concise.) What I wouldn't give to see a half hour sitdown interview between you guys and any coach/management person in the league.

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.

hell i'd watch a half hour follow up to that. I bet some of the parameters they use are proprietary though.

by Richie (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 7:43pm

#19, why would our perceptions of them change if they performed the same?

If Leaf screamed at an Arizona reporter the way he screamed at a San Diego reporter, we'd still think he's a dork.

by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 8:28pm

Maybe it wouldn't. I just think some of the Leaf/Peyton contrast comes from them being #1 and #2 at the same position. Having Wadsworth go #2 overall, to a team that didn't already have a franchise QB, would be more suggestive there was a real and important difference between the two QBs. Anyway, just a thought.

by Richie (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 8:32pm

Oh, I see what you mean now.

by Joro (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 8:41pm

Just wanted to thank the outsiders. Very very cool to see such high profile interviews.

by Appaloosa (not verified) :: Tue, 06/03/2008 - 9:25pm

I thought this interview was more informative than most of the ones Polian does for the Colts' website. I called him the Oracle of Delphi after one particularly obscure interview where he answered none of the questions directly. Well done, FO.

I do have to question Polian's honesty a little re the Leaf question. This is a guy who has been saying for years that he had been debating between Peyton and Leaf down to the wire and now he says he might have taken a defensive player if Peyton had not been available. He can't have it both ways.

by DZ (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 8:59am

Did he really say they were debating it down to the wire? I've heard him say many times that it was close, both were good players, but they were always going with Manning. Do you have any source for that? I'm going to try and track one down...

by DZ (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 9:05am


Beathard says Polian told him he didn't know which he would pick, but says he thinks Polian was just being kind to him.

The story was that Leaf skipped the Colts interview while Manning told the Colts that if they didn't draft him, he hoped he stayed in the AFC so he could whip their a$$ every year for the next 15 years. I find it hard to believe that they were seriously considering Leaf.

by DZ (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 9:11am

I would also say that it seems unlikely that Polian would say they were absolutely not going to trade the pick if they were actually unsure who the pick was going to be. If it was really that close in his mind, I'd think he'd entertain offers.

by Rich COnley (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 9:43am

Nice interview guys. Did Polian know who/what you were? IE, is he familiar with the site?

by Stoppable Manning (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 11:18am

The story I heard about the Leaf interview with the Colts was that when posed the question, 'if we draft you 1st overall', Leaf responded, 'oh I'd probably celebrate, go to Vegas.'

When given the same question, Peyton responded, 'get down to the stadium and start training the next day.' Or something to that effect.

by Bill Barnwell :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 11:18am

I should point out that this makes the Colts FO's most interviewed management structure.

by Jimmy (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 11:46am

One of the things that I wonder about Leaf is that apparently he is now a much more mature, decent person than he ever was as a player. He is a golf coach at a college somewhere. I know that thanks to being picked second in the draft he probably doesn't need the money, but wouldn't a more mature Ryan Leaf have a chance at playing well at QB in the NFL?

He got thrown out of league for being unbearable way before he took the kind of beating that would have forced him to retire, and consequently probably still has above average physical skills for an NFL QB. If the guy could now fit into a locker room environment wouldn't he be able to help some teams? I am thinking of two QB bereft teams who play in the NFC North especially.

by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 11:53am


The Bears sign Ryan Leaf??? The comedy value in that is astonishing.

"Orton/Grossman/Chicago QB doesn't cut it here anymore, so we've signed Ryan Leaf"

The resulting explosion in would destroy half the continental USA.

by Jimmy (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 12:28pm


You make a fair point.

But what the hell would Chicago or Minnesota have to lose? If the guy still has the arm, which he may now be able to augment with the maturity to learn the system and respect the game, surely he would have some value as a backup. It isn't as though he would have to beat out Joe Montana to get a roster spot at either franchise.

by Admore (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 12:29pm

Good interview. FO continues to grow in stature in the football world, it seems.

by Richie (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 12:44pm

I'm glad I didn't get drafted 2nd overall when I was 22, and get paid millions of dollars. I probably would have blown all the money and overslept and missed practices. I don't think I would have yelled at reporters, however.

by jebmak (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 12:48pm

Re: #19

Yeah, I should have said that Millen isn't the only idiot at the head of the Lions. I just get tired of hearing how much of an idiot Millen is (I agree), but very rarely hear any of the blame falling on the Fords (they are idiots too, give them their due).

by jebmak (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 12:52pm

Re: #36

I would have handled it exactly the same. The worse you act, the sooner that you get to live life safely without having extremely big and strong men trying to injure you weekly. Plus, do whatever you want for the rest of your life.

Oh, and, I enjoyed the article, nicely done.

by Independent George (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 1:50pm

#36 - on the other hand, I probably wouldn't have disrespected Junior Seau, either.

by Joe T. (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 1:55pm

#32 - I think that part of the reason Leaf was so disastrous a pick was that he was overrated as a first-round pick. If he had the talent but a nasty attitude someone would have employed him and he'd at least still be a back-up somewhere until his attitude straightened out. But I think that he just did not really have the skill set to produce. Scouts declared him the second best QB available with only 24 starts to his credit, while Manning, considered the top QB, had four years worth of starts. He was probably also over-valued due to the confluence of a weak QB class (after Manning & Leaf, the only QBs of note are Brian Griese and Charlie Batch) and the top selecting teams all being in need of a franchise QB.

by jebmak (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 3:42pm

Re: Joe T.

I am overjoyed that now when I see your name I immediately think Joe Thomas instead of Joe Theisman.

by stan (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 4:04pm

I would have loved some follow up on the differences they look for in players. I'm sure it would have been pretty general, but it would have been worth a shot to ask, perhaps even with multiple follow up questions.

by Joe T. (not verified) :: Wed, 06/04/2008 - 4:55pm

#41 - Jebmak - my name really is Joe Thomas. Unfortunately, I do not have 1st Rd, 3rd Overall Pick money.

by NF (not verified) :: Sun, 06/08/2008 - 3:43pm

FO should try to have more interviews with front-office people, because the application of a lot of what FO does is guidance in how to make a better football team.

"It is more important for the players to understand and execute the system than to have familiarity with one another."

This answer relates to what FO found about building a better O-line, that continuity on the line will improve it more often than bringing in new lineman. Polian is saying this is due to knowledge and skill in the offensive blocking system, not from familiarity with how the other linemen play.

The implication of this is that a line can stay good with significant turnover if it has a good O-line coaching staff and players that are trained in the system long enough to match the knowledge of the starters before becoming starters.

by gmc (not verified) :: Tue, 06/17/2008 - 6:18pm

Although there's a story to tell for the O-line continuity stat, I'm still convinced that it's mostly picking up the fact that good offensive lines tend to stay together (because no one gets fired) and bad offensive lines don't (because people get replaced). So continuity tends to mean good players. So I guess I'm saying I agree with Bill.

Bill was always going Manning.

Don't kid yourselves. Ryan Leaf would still be better than anyone on Chicago's roster. Still, I think it's criminal that Daunte Culpepper and Byron Leftwich haven't been contacted by Chicago, Detroit, or Minnesota. Leftwich would be a good fit in Minnesota behind that mammoth O-line, and Culpepper would be well suited throwing to Detroit's talented WR corps behind its tinfoil line.

by This post is fungible (not verified) :: Mon, 06/23/2008 - 8:40am


I'll see your Ryan Leaf and raise you a Jeff George. Somewhere Jason Whitlock is smiling, nodding his head....

by Chris (not verified) :: Mon, 06/23/2008 - 4:42pm

44 excellent follow up and I believe a lot of that goes for an offense in general.

I think you guys did good for what you had. I understand he wouldn't have got too far into strategy, but I liked questions along that line.

I also found it interesting that he said/admitted that James was worn down.

by Chris (not verified) :: Mon, 06/23/2008 - 4:44pm

Another O-Line aspect you guys are forgetting is the quarterback. The Quarterback also has an impact on how his line plays, just as much as vice versa. Manning and Saturday have been running a good line for years.

by Tom D (not verified) :: Wed, 06/25/2008 - 5:05pm

Re 46:

In 2004, sometime after we were on our 4th quarterback for the year, Jeff George was in fact signed.