Book Review: Polian Shares Championship Secrets
NFL Conference Championship - Structured as an oral history, Bill Polian and Vic Carucci's Super Bowl Blueprints (available on Amazon) tells the stories of some of the most influential figures in NFL annals and their journeys to the Super Bowl. The book features interviews with representatives of some of the most successful franchises the NFL has seen and dives deep into the philosophic approaches utilized to lead those teams. While it was not possible for the authors to include every long-term Super Bowl contender as part of this project, the book still does an excellent job of uncovering the core beliefs and guiding principles these franchises used in their pursuit of football's ultimate prize.
While each chapter in the book takes you through the genesis and maturation of a different franchise or coaching tree, there are some consistent themes involved that may not be explicitly laid out in the same way as a given coach or executive's philosophy. For every team covered in the book, there was a run of smart player acquisitions and successful development that often corresponded with some type of edge.
A common pearl of wisdom in the modern NFL is that everything comes down to the quarterback, and we see that pretty clearly in this oral history. Running through the list of quarterbacks mentioned in the book, we see Daryle Lamonica, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Doug Williams, Phil Simms, Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly, and Peyton Manning. Seems like a pretty good bunch. For each of these signal-callers, there was normally a strong collection of talent around them as well, even if the supporting cast went overlooked in some cases. Regardless of whether a team's famous strength was on offense or defense, these were normally very well-rounded groups without major weaknesses on the personnel side.
In addition to these impressively constructed rosters, there was normally some sort of novel approach or edge that the coaches/executives running the teams employed to sustain their success. The edge was often schematic, like that of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense or the Bills' no-huddle approach from the early 1990s, but there were also instances where some strategic team-building approach or underappreciated source of talent may be in play. For example, the Al Davis Raiders always emphasized team speed, deep passing, and physicality at defensive back, and the Steelers of the late 1960s and early 1970s put additional focus on players from HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), which to that point had been overlooked by some talent evaluators within the league.
Regardless of where that advantage existed, it often dissipated over time as disciples of the coaches and executives spread around the league to run other teams. At that point, what had formerly been an advantage simply became part of accepted conventional wisdom. We still see some of that influence in the league today. The mantra of "we're going to do what we do" dates back to Chuck Noll with the Steelers, was carried on to the Colts via Tony Dungy, and still exists in the league now. In recent years, part of what made the Seahawks' Legion of Boom defense so impressive was its simplicity; that sounds a lot like the idea of "doing the ordinary in an extraordinary way," which Polian attributes to Noll in the book.
Super Bowl Blueprints is valuable for the way it paints the picture of how certain storied franchises in the NFL have experienced their success, but it also includes anecdotes throughout the book that provide insight into the personalities and quirks of the individuals involved. We learn about the time when Doug Williams underwent a root canal the day before the Super Bowl and still performed his pregame ritual of eating a bag of Hershey's Kisses. We hear the story of how Jimmy Johnson mandated that his Cowboys players would not be served food on the team flight after a lackadaisical loss to Washington after Dallas had already clinched a playoff spot. And the Mara family had enough internal conflict in the late 1970s that John and his father Wellington Mara had to get commissioner Pete Rozelle to suggest hiring George Young as general manager so that their cousin Tim would not reject Young out of hand. Why would he have rejected Young? Well, because that would have been his father's idea.
In all likelihood, avid fans of the sport may not discover anything in here related to winning on the field that is particularly surprising or novel, but this is primarily because we see these same ideas and approaches put into practice all across the league today. The accounts of players' life experiences that go beyond football help enrich the narratives surrounding each team, resulting in more than just a manual of how to lead an organization. All told, the variety of stories involved combined with the insights into the team-building processes and gameday philosophies of some of the NFL's most successful franchises makes this book worth the read.
80 comments, Last at 27 Jan 2022, 1:12pm
#47 by ebmccalla // Jan 26, 2022 - 7:24am
This is a common way people on comment boards often slander Jim Irsay. I wonder before they post these comments, do they assume none of the readers of these sites also struggle with addiction issues? Do they intend to shame them too? No one is helped by talking about it this way.
Yes, Jim Irsay has struggled with substance abuse. Other true things about him: he's a good guy, an active philanthropist, a hands off owner who doesn't knee jerk fire his coaches and GMs like many of his peers. And he has overcome massive family trauma to become that. So maybe we should stop snickering and implying he's weak and irredeemable because he has at times had unhealthy patterns he couldn't control. That the rest of us might not have our worst moments broadcast to the world.
#52 by ebmccalla // Jan 26, 2022 - 9:31am
Smearing him and others who struggle with addiction for their substance abuse issues says more about those posting these types of comments than Irsay.
Meanwhile, apparently he is evil for having been born to a father who owned an NFL team. These sorts of blanket, unexplained statements are meaningless and accomplish nothing. But, the internet, so awfulness.
#54 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 26, 2022 - 10:06am
Being an addict does not exonerate him from the sins he committed, both sober and intoxicated. It's not a get out of jail free card.
Henry Ruggs and Brit Reid probably aren't terrible people, either. That's cold comfort for their victims.
#56 by mehllageman56 // Jan 26, 2022 - 2:11pm
Agree with this statement, but Irsay isn't the terrible owner some think he is. His father was, but the Colts improved once Jr. started having a hand in things.
It's totally possible to be a great NFL owner and a horrible human being as well.
#58 by ebmccalla // Jan 26, 2022 - 3:17pm
"Does not exonerate him from the sins he committed."
"Cold comfort" for his "victims."
"Horrible human being."
Excuse me, but what the hell are people talking about? What exactly did Jim Irsay do that merits any of this hysteria? I can tell you he consistently goes out of his way to commit acts of kindness around the state of Indiana, to give his money away to charities, to be a vocal poster child for issues like mental health awareness and addiction.
We never fully know public figures or anyone for that matter. But there's actual tangible evidence he's in many ways a good guy. Would the people attacking his as awful like to support their statements with anything beyond smearing him for having addiction issues? And what does that say about, say, other FO readers who share those struggles?
#62 by ebmccalla // Jan 26, 2022 - 3:52pm
Lots of people are hurt by DUIs. They are unnecessary. It is both an addiction and asshole issue, though it's unrealistic to suggest that "good" addicts are in control of their actions and "bad" addicts are not.
I guess the question is, how deeply and permanently Jim and other first time offenders need to be publicly shamed for their DUIs or other shortcomings. If grace or redemption are possible. If denying those things to people who have made a mistake, even a dangerous one, matches the complexities, traumas, and frailties of people and life. If it is productive or destructive.
As for Bob Irsay's actions, how exactly do they make Jim a bad person? (And to be clear, I can't speak as to whether his father stole money or not) This is again a form of shaming people whose parents were bad people. Those people are often victims and deserve, at a minimum, to be judged free of their parents' transgressions.
#67 by Will Allen // Jan 26, 2022 - 5:17pm
If you don't grasp why it is disreputable to obtain huge benefit via your father stealing millions of dollars from your fellow citizens, I don't know what to tell you. Are there many people who have enough integrity to turn down that benefit, or to acknowledge the truth of it? No, but that doesn't change reality. Jim Irsay is where he is because his father stole a fortune from the taxpayers of Illinois, and bought a football team. That stolen fortune is what allowed Jim Irsay to be an asshole, drive around intoxicated with fraudulent prescriptions, get caught, and escape the consequences that many less privileged people pay.
Redemption is great. It's a helluva lot easier to get there when the reasons why redemption is needed is fully acknowledged, 100 %. It's not about good or bad addicts. It's about what the addict's, or anyone's, actions are, and whether there has been a full accounting of them.
#53 by Will Allen // Jan 26, 2022 - 9:41am
First, nobody is iredeemable, and it is, ironically, evil to suggest otherwise. I really have contempt for our political leaders' habit of implying that some people are iredeemable, when they aren't saying so explicitly.
Having said that, and while acknowledging that addiction is a terrible situation for anyone to be subject to, what matters most is how the addict harms innocent parties, by their wrongful behavior, and what they do to repair that harm. Irsay drove around intoxicated with illegally obtained prescriptions, and then suffered practically zero consequences for this behavior, compared to other people, due to his extreme wealth. He arrived at that position of extreme wealth because his father stole millions of dollars from taxpayers, and bought an NFL team. Jim Irsay's wealth, the source of his ability to evade the full consequences of his behavior, is literally the byproduct of outright theft from his fellow citizens.
Is Irsay iredeemable? Of course not. Is he one one history's greatest monsters? No, that's ridiculous. He is, however, a disreputable individual, who is far less worthy of the respect than we should accord others by default.
#61 by ebmccalla // Jan 26, 2022 - 3:43pm
I appreciate the moderation, but:
1) I don't see how Jim is responsible for things his father did when he was a child. I don't know the history of his father's business dealings, but Jim Irsay did not commit "outright theft" against anyone. It is well documented, however, that Bob Irsay was a massive source of trauma warping Jim's life. He has been vocal for years about working to behave differently than his dad. That is hard to do. Let's not signal to victims of parental trauma that they carry the stigma of their parents' misdeeds.
2) He was addicted to prescription pain killers, got a DUI, and was sentenced to six months of probation. A lighter than average sentence? Probably, I honestly don't know. Is this a charge where they throw the book at first time offenders? No, it is not. And since then he's done things to raise awareness for others with addiction issues. So I don't see it.
To me, none of that makes him or others with addiction problems who have had a DUI at some point "disreputable" or not "worthy" of respect. If you don't struggle with these issues, people you know, respect, and care about definitely do. That kind of shaming or scarlet lettering of them hurts those people. Please don't.
#28 by mehllageman56 // Jan 25, 2022 - 4:38pm
The Bengals have been cheap under Mike Brown, but they have not been stupid. They don't do bad free agent signings, and have generally drafted well over the last ten to fifteen years. Some of that track record should go to Marvin Lewis.
#29 by mehllageman56 // Jan 25, 2022 - 4:40pm
The Jets have been to 4 AFC championship games since 1982, and have 3 more playoff wins than the Dallas Cowboys since 2000. They have shown the road to mediocrity until the last 5-8 years.
Jags have been atrocious, but the Texans have not been automatically terrible until the last two years. The Cardinals are in a weird spot, but they still seem to have turned it around.
#45 by Romodini // Jan 26, 2022 - 2:05am
The Bengals just now got their first two playoff wins in over 30 years, which would be one less than the Cowboys have in 26 years. But now they're also going to appear in a conference championship game, which is something the Cowboys haven't done in 26 years. The Cowboys keep miserable company with the Lions, WFT, Texans, Browns, and Dolphins as the only teams that haven't made a conference championship game in the last 26 years.
If it seems weird that the Cowboys keep company with those perennial garbage teams, it's because those teams don't have a Jerry Jones media hype machine to spin their fanbase's misery into hope.
#23 by Joey-Harringto… // Jan 25, 2022 - 3:23pm
That course starts and ends with "If someone is demonstrably bad at their job, fire them instead of hoping they get better......and don't keep replacing them with in-house hires from your unsuccessful organization"
#41 by bravehoptoad // Jan 25, 2022 - 9:57pm
You don't believe you can find temporary edges? Like, at different times there have been very few 3-4 teams in the league, which gives you a big advantage on personnel. Then in the article they mention temporary schematic edges, or finding an under-scouted source of talent, etc. etc.
#66 by theslothook // Jan 26, 2022 - 5:04pm
"You don't believe you can find temporary edges?"
You can yes. But its temporary and how much of an edge it gives you is a bit of a debate. Take the most famous example with Bill Walsh's 49ers. Like others, I initially believed in the legend that much of the success of the 49ers was about Montana's clutch married to Walsh's brilliant scheming. In reality, the team had hall of famers everywhere including possibly the very best QB and receiver. How much, therefore, is that scheme versus supernova talent at work? And while true, perhaps another team would have bungled Montana and Rice, that's still very much an unknown.
To me, the 49ers of the 80s are different animal than someone like NE or Baltimore, who churn their rosters much of the time and maintain themselves even when stars leave.
#11 by pm // Jan 25, 2022 - 2:24pm
Why did Bill Polian get fired? Because his team didn't have a backup QB the year Manning was injured. Tom Moore eloquently states why the Colts never invested in a backup nor did they ever give practice reps to the backup:
Moore: "Fellas, if '18' goes down, we're fucked. And we don't practice fucked."
#13 by theslothook // Jan 25, 2022 - 2:27pm
Because once Manning got injured the team went 2 and 14 and it exposed how fragile the roster building had been to that point.
Having a backup QB in there does not imply your team should implode the way they did.
The Saints this year are a good example.
#24 by Joey-Harringto… // Jan 25, 2022 - 3:27pm
Manning dragging that injury-riddled expansion-level roster to 10 wins and a playoff appearance the year before is one of his most underappreciated feats. Luck also deserves praise for doing the same for 3 years after that before injuries started catching up to him.
#27 by Will Allen // Jan 25, 2022 - 4:36pm
Again, don't tell me what a guy did when the protection was good, the receivers were getting open, you could run the ball, and the defense held the other team to 21 points. I can get a lot of guys to deal with that. Tell me what a guy does when he has little time to identify the least obviously covered, but still needs to be thrown open, receiver, while still taking a hit, with little running game, and the opponent is putting up 30.
#39 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jan 25, 2022 - 9:30pm
I would generally agree with this but after investing a 7th on him in 05 the Pats were able to keep him around long enough to produce a contract worth of a comp pick (can't confirm that the Pats got one though) after just letting him go. Which would have been fine! Not that they expected a 7th rounder to do that much so they might've just stumbled into a bottom tier starter, which is rare!
But as you point out and as hindsight shows...not a starter that you can win it all with. And I generally agree with Tom Moores point. And we're gonna sit here and act like he was wrong? Lol, yes they should've done more in other areas but they got Luck! They knew it wasn't likely they had a bottom tier starter ala Cassel. NE probably didn't either and "lucked" into 11-5 which...*shrugs* happens. Rarely but it *should've* parlayed into a comp pick which is something.
The SMART thing was not overvaluing Cassel and moving on from Brady and, know that I look it up, traded him (and Vrabel) for a the 34th overall pick, a premium one in my eyes. Which they used on Patrick Chung. That's good process AND results.
#14 by theslothook // Jan 25, 2022 - 2:30pm
Instead of silly books like this talking about why a team won a championship, I wish a book could be written about teams that managed to succeed in spite of quarterback play.
A book on the Ravens during the Newsome era is long overdue. In fact Ozzie has a true claim to the greatest general manager of all time title. He didn't just coast on a crew of Hall of famers accrued all at once or some Goat leve QB.
#18 by Will Allen // Jan 25, 2022 - 2:52pm
To be fair, that was before the effect of a salary cap&free agency fully took affect, so an owner who was willing to sign checks, as Jack Kent Cooke was, could stockpile talent in away that will never be done again.
#70 by KaosTheory // Jan 26, 2022 - 7:00pm
I second this. Granted, I’m biased as a Ravens fan, but I would love to read about how the organization has maintained success — of which Ozzie has been a very large factor. Honestly, he’s potentially the most important Raven ever.
#19 by Legion // Jan 25, 2022 - 2:59pm
Step 1: Be GM of the team with the #1 pick when a generational QB prospect enters the league
Step 2: Get on the competition committee
Step 3: Change the rules of the game when those mean Patriots keep pushing around your wide receivers
#20 by theslothook // Jan 25, 2022 - 3:08pm
A fair and even handed assessment of Polian should acknowledge he has one of the most sterling draft records out there. On the other hand, watching the colts sink like a stone towards the end is a sobering result.
How to square both results into one consistent world view? Sometimes active investors get lucky fo a long period of time.
#25 by theslothook // Jan 25, 2022 - 3:57pm
To be clear, I think there is skill. But, there are two to three issues I have.
1) it's not clear to me that we are very close to measuring how good players are, especially ones who predominantly don't touch the ball. So much so, that we likely end up rewarding players on good teams or in favorable situations which makes who your QB is even more important/ misleading.
2) so much of success boils down to a small subset of players who are stupendously amazing. Basically we count all of the home runs and virtually ignore all of the thousands of missed at bats.
In that regard, I think the skill of drafting is finding all those mid-level players who are not noteworthy to the general public but play small but important roles. But that's not how we determine successful. To that end I think Polian's Hall of fame player identification skills are to me mostly luck.
#32 by theslothook // Jan 25, 2022 - 5:38pm
There has to be a coherent reason why its not luck however and a reason that squares with observed reality. Polian isn't alone in this regard. Lots of GMs have had successful runs over some periods and terrible runs over the next period. There's a ton of survivorship bias baked in. Perhaps Ryan Pace is a terrific gm but hit a bad luck streak in the very begining and never got a chance to turn it around.
That's where lots and lots of financial studies have looked at successful active investors.
#30 by mehllageman56 // Jan 25, 2022 - 4:45pm
Polian can be really foolish (Lamar Jackson, anyone?), but he does have a track record of being a good GM at 3 different teams, and also being hard to deal with. I'd have to read it to know if it's a good book, and I'm stuck in the middle of the Quentin Compson section of The Sound and The Fury, so it'll be a couple of years before I get to it.
#35 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jan 25, 2022 - 7:11pm
I was just think, the other day, about the process behind a team trading a (mid!) 1st for a guy that was picked in the 2nd a year prior, played only 2 games and went 0/4 with 2 picks (one for 6!) and a(n 11 yard!) sack in them AND found out to have the same degenerative condition as Bo Jackson, is anything but insanity.
#46 by ebmccalla // Jan 26, 2022 - 7:10am
Some of these critiques of Bill Polian's record appear to be from people only casually familiar with his record.
His success isn't based solely on elite quarterbacks and he had a stellar record with later draft picks.
He constructed a Buffalo team that went to four Super Bowls with good but not great QB play. In Carolina, he built the best performing expansion team in NFL history and then went to an NFC title game in year 2 with Kerry Collins.
In Indy, he consistently brought in productive players as late round picks and undrafted free agents. Robert Mathis, Jeff Saturday, Antoine Bethea, Gary Brackett, Cato June, David Thornton, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Dominic Rhodes, Jacob Tamme, Clint Session, Charlie Johnson, Pat McAfee, Jake Scott, Ryan Lilja, Ryan Diem....
Much of Indy's roster decay came from a massive string of injuries year in and year out. That history has been well documented by FO and was largely not due to drafting players with injury histories. Therefore, Polian can hardly be blamed.
His peers knew -- Polian won NFL Executive of the Year six times, most in history. He was a great general manager. Period, full stop.
#55 by theslothook // Jan 26, 2022 - 11:07am
Your list of players he drafted in Indy as late round picks is exactly what I am referring to above.
Put aside Mathis and Saturday for a moment. I will grant you Bethea and McAfee. But the rest feel entirely like functions of Peyton Manning and the Colts style of team. If they succeeded at all they could only succeed on a team that put them in optimal situations. Put most of these players on the Browns or the jaguars and they're probably gone from the league in a few years if they make the team at all. I mean you're really listing Charlie Johnson here???
The same concept applies to Saturday and Mathis as well. Terrific players but a bit dependent on where they go. Both players being dramatically undersized for their position only works when your team is passing a lot and your defense is facing lots of pass attempts. That doesn't make them replaceable by any means like the some of the names you've listed above, but it does put their value in a very tight box.
This all highlights my overall point. Hit on the qb and by proxy a lot of your other roster moves are going to look a lot better than they would if you had missed on the qb.
#63 by ebmccalla // Jan 26, 2022 - 3:58pm
Yes, he was. Guys who get picked in the late 6th round of the NFL draft and end up starting 115 games over a decade in the league are good picks.
Was he a great offensive lineman? No. Did he provide more value to his teams than 90+% of guys drafted 199th overall? He did. A sixth round pick does not have to got to Canton to be a shrewd selection.
#76 by theslothook // Jan 26, 2022 - 11:43pm
Ill be blunt about it if you won't. The guy was terrible. I don't hate the guy or wish him ill will, but he was just not good. I am sorry to say that. Sure hes a 6th rounder who hung around for a while. Good for him and I hope he made good money and all of that. He is absolutely among the top 1 percent of left tackles in the universe. That still didn't change the fact that the dude was a liability every week, making him a bad player.
#64 by ebmccalla // Jan 26, 2022 - 4:14pm
1) I disagree that most of those players could not have succeeded outside of the Colts. Several of them were given large contracts from other teams and did. I can list players, but feels like a waste of time. Others never left the Colts and were excellent players. Not much evidence they couldn't have succeeded elsewhere. And Peyton Manning is irrelevant to the defensive guys.
2) But I don't fully disagree - the Colts did draft guys who fit their team and no one else's. Shouldn't that be a credit to the general manager for thinking outside the box and matching the talent to the team? I'm confused how that's a discredit to Polian.
3) Part of your point is saying something like "sure Mathis and Saturday were successful, but the Colts were built to pass and stop the pass and the credit for that goes to Manning over Polian." Manning definitely helped. But Football Outsiders readers should be aware that the advanced stats were screaming for years that NFL teams should focus more on the pass and less on the run, by and large. So if you're saying Polian constructed a roster that better matched the realities of how to actually win, doesn't that show foresight, flexibility, and strategic strength?
4) Calling Charlie Johnson a good pick is easy to mock. Doesn't make it not true. A late 6th rounder who is even a subpar starter for 115 NFL games with two franchises over a decade is a hit. In terms of value provided to his teams, he outperformed 90+% of guys taken in the range of the 199th pick
5) "I mean you're listing" the Browns and the Jaguars "here???" You're right probably a lot of talent on the Colts might have rotted on the vine on the most dysfunctional organizations in the league. Those are places where talent of all kinds has often gone to die. What's your point?
#65 by theslothook // Jan 26, 2022 - 4:56pm
1) Your list is a weird of mix of players. Guys who got big contracts with other teams. Guys who played their entire career with the Colts. And then guys were mostly backups and role players. Out of the list of names you provided, only Garcon and Thornton were players other teams signed that weren't considered buyers remorse. Certainly Cato June and Clint Sessions were as most of those other dudes lasted one - two seasons before moving on. Is that list of picks impressive or par for the course by a typical franchise? You'd have to do a rigorous comparison across gms to figure out but I'd say its hardly that impressive.
"And Peyton Manning is irrelevant to the defensive guys." No he isn't. The entire defense was built with their offense in mind. You go undersized and play a cover 2 heavy scheme prescisely because the offense is expected to score a lot of points so you don't worry about stopping the other team's run game and devote yourself to limiting big plays.
2-3) This is related to the Peyton Manning affect. Was it a wise strategy? I am still on the fence. Polian preferred to spend at the skill positions and at pass rusher while cutting everything else to the bone. However, this strategy also leaves you vulnerable and inflexible. You basically need your offense to not screw up. In that way, the Colts were starkly different from their main rival who prioritized depth, flexibility, and versatility. In the end, I don't fault Polian for this, but it does beg the question. Perhaps the Colts would have been better off trying to build a team of depth and not being so small on the defensive and offensive end. And for sure don't draft running backs in the first round!
4) If you trust pff, Charlie Johnson was a bad player. Ok, maybe 6th rounders are expected to be bad but a more sober reading would say its usually a bad sign if you are relying on 6th rounder to play left tackle for you, which became true because Polian badly whiffed on Tony Ugoh. Oh and the Vikings were already a steaming pile of garbage at the offensive line position that its more of an indictment on them that Charlie Johnson was someohw, unthinkably, an upgrade for them
5) My point is along these lines. Once your QB is Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or one of those guys, building a team becomes much easier. You are affored a huge amount of latitude and your picks suddenly look a lot better. That's why the Manning leaving the Colts proved such an interesting experiment. As soon as he left, the team completely collapsed and finished with the worst record in football. I wonder if you really think such a result speaks well for the team's roster construction. Similarly, take any of the names above and plop them on the Bears, Panthers, or Titans, much less the Jags and Browns, and what are they exactly? To me, they become more anonymous names you only read about during obscure pfr queries.
My basic bottom line. Polian has an impressive record as a GM. He deserves to be a hall of famer. But much like successful financial wizards, there's a bit of rigor required to assess whether its truly good skill or that they happened to be very lucky. By that I mean, in a large sample of drafters or money managers, there are going to be people who achieve extreme results just by chance. Consider 1000 trials of coin tosses. In that 1000, most will line up somewhere around 50-50, but you will see some trials with extreme results in both directions. If we were blind to the probabilities, we migh conclude that the extreme results were proof of skill(or poor skill); but in fact, we would be misled. That's kind of what I am getting at. Perhaps Polian is truly skillful. Or perhaps he is one of those coin toss trials that happened to play out in one extreme.
#71 by ebmccalla // Jan 26, 2022 - 8:03pm
1) How is it a weird mix of players? It is what I said it was, a list of late round draft picks and undrafted free agents who were hits by Polian.
The list was in response to comments about Polian only hitting on a few big names. And it is incomplete. For instance, I could have included Steve McKinney, Hunter Smith, Jason David, Keyunta Dawson, Matt Giordano, Melvin Bullitt....
Meanwhile, it is not largely a list of starters and backups. 14 of the 16 guys I mentioned spent their careers primarily as starters. Rhodes and Tamme both started more than two full seasons and were significant role players.
Most of these guys played their whole careers with the Colts. Garcon and Thornton are joined by Scott and Bethea as having long, successful careers elsewhere. Meanwhile, free agency is a fool's errand for most NFL teams. It's not an indictment of Polian if some Colts busted on different organizations.
2) It seems like you're saying two things about the Colts defense: both that Manning's high powered offense made the Colts the ideal ecosystem for a defense oriented around stopping the pass while also saying this defensive strategy may or may not have been unwise. Let's examine:
a) It's true that Manning helped the defense, but let's not get ridiculous. His impact when he wasn't on the field was marginal, he didn't make the defense get stops any more than Brady wills his D to wins. If you want to say Manning gave them a 1% boost, fine. But let's not act like he was playing free safety out there.
b) If the Colts' offense getting leads was so essential to that style of defense, why did it work for the Trent Dilfer Buccaneers? Or numerous other lower scoring teams that ran the Tampa-2 over the years? It can't be true that lots of other teams rationally deployed the Tampa-2 defense successfully AND the Colts offense made them the ideal team to run it AND it was a bad idea for Indy.
3) About the narrative that Polian preferred undersized defensive guys, it's both partly true and vastly exaggerated in popular opinion.
Tony Dungy's defense was the Tampa-2. It required speedy guys or it would fail. Often those guys weigh a bit less. Maybe Dungy was a bad coach to hire. I doubt that, but if he's your guy, you'd be a terrible GM not to draft for his system.
But, just like Manning helping the defense doesn't mean the Tampa-2 could only work if he scored 30, those facts aren't the whole story. The Colts' biggest size issues came at defensive tackle. It has often been said that Polian didn't prioritize the position or 300 pounders there. But it's not true.
Montae Reagor's Indy career ended in a midseason car accident. Corey Simon was a stud when Polian signed him to a big deal and reports are he immediately stopped working out, basically quit on the team, and lasted 13 games. Polian traded a second round pick for Booger McFarland and he lasted 11 games before suffering a career ending injury. Quinn Pitcock was a third rounder who showed promise his rookie year and then surprise retired due to mental health struggles. Ed Johnson was a talented guy whose career was derailed for legal/personal conduct struggles. Fili Moala and Sweetpea Burns were early draft picks who didn't work out.
There's a lot of detail and nuance in there that you would only know if you spent a lot of time following the Colts over the years. Because most people haven't, they just look at Keyunta Dawson and Eric Foster at DT and the narrative becomes that's what Polian wanted and he didn't value stopping the run with big bodies or investing resources in the position. His reasoning, it is assumed, is that this was his plan because it was a Tampa-2 and the Colts planned on playing defense with a lead. But those are post hoc rationalizations of a misperception of Polian's actions. The narratives don't match the facts. Your coin flipping analogy applies nicely here -- randomness frustrated a lot of active steps Polian took to address this problem. Such is life.
4) Similarly, I think it's an overrated narrative that Polian's plan was a top heavy, low depth team or to prioritize only pass rushers and skill guys. The Colts invested significant resources into other positions. Many of those guys who did not have long injury histories when they acquired them ended up having their careers derailed by injuries, or at least missed seasons.
Besides the defensive tackles I mentioned above, guys on this list include Marlin Mack, Ryan Lilja, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez. Freeney and Mathis had season ending injuries. Bob Sanders was a guy with injury issues in college who couldn't stay healthy. Tarik Glenn was a stud left tackle who surprise retired at age 30. And others.
It is well documented that the Colts had among the highest injury rates in the league year in and year out. Maybe that was the training staff or the turf. Maybe it was being undersized, though other Tampa-2 defenses didn't suffer as much. Maybe it was random luck. But the team wasn't predominantly drafting injury red flag guys.
Unpredictably high high injury rates and fluke retirements of key players made it hard to maintain depth. There's more noise than signal here.
5) Who are you arguing with about whether or not Charlie Johnson was a stud? He wasn't. I've already said he wasn't. He probably should have peaked as a backup swing tackle. But when you're drafting in the late 6th round, you are lucky to find a guy who provides as much value to your team as Charlie Johnson did. You simply cannot last a decade in the NFL and start 115 games and be a bad pick at 199th in the draft. If you're comparing him to Trent Williams, you're missing the point. Understanding that is key to having a coherent discussion of draft success.
6) I agree that Peyton Manning made everything better. Way better. I don't think it's fair to say a roster is poorly constructed if it can't handle losing one of the best quarterbacks of all time. I agree that outcome is not a gold star for Polian. But I don't think it's a major black mark.
I agree that many players who were successful on the Colts wouldn't have succeeded on other teams. Some because Manning uniquely elevated them. Some because of scheme fits or level of organizational dysfunction. I think that's true for the players on many teams -- free agency hit rates are low. And I probably think there are more players from those Colts teams who would have succeeded elsewhere than you do. But it's unknowable.
7) And finally, part of the strength of Polian's record is that it doesn't all rest on Manning's brilliance. He had success with three different teams. He led two teams to six Super Bowl appearances. He took over as GM of a Bills team coming off back to back 2-14 seasons and turned them into a powerhouse. He took over a new Carolina team, led them to the most successful expansion season in NFL history, and then led them to the most successful expansion-plus-one season in NFL history. He took a Colts team that was bereft of talent and, along with Peyton Manning, made it hugely successful.
There are definitely people who get by on random chance, on coin flips. Bill Polian's record is very little what we would expect that to look like. Draw your own conclusions.
#72 by theslothook // Jan 26, 2022 - 8:37pm
To be clear, I am a huge Colts fan who has followed the team since 2000s and very closely I might add. They are responsible for moments of football ecstasy and absolute heart break.
Let me pause to say the following. No Qb wills his defense to make tackles, sacks, or whatever. That much is true. However, one thing doing the pressure rate articles has made me realize - the biggest factor on whether a defense will force pressure is all about circumstances beyond the talent. Namely, if you are a team that is behind and in unfavorable down and distance, you will become prone to pressure no matter which front four is rusing you. That doesn't imply talent is needed, but it does suggest that context plays a huge role even here.
This suggests that Manning and other qbs of his level impact the defense more than people realize. By the virtue of going up early, you are effectively hamstringing a team.
I don't want to turn this thread into a long detailed discussion of the Colts. That I could do for hours. I will say, in my opinion, most of the guys you are mentioning are to me, just guys who you are afforded the ability to mention because this team won so much. That's how the 09 team could get away with corners named Jacob Lasey and Jarraud Powers(two rookies at cb) and go nearly undefeated. Is it impressive that Polian unearthed these cogs? Maybe? I don't honestly believe it is because so much of there contributions are remembered because the team is so great. When the Vikings used Christian Ponder, no one cares about the herculian efforts by the rest of their team because it honestly didn't matter. We remember the victors and assume the rest of the losers were all just horrible team. But in reality, most of the horrible teams have horrible QB play and that makes everyone on the roster look bad. This is why I think there is a measurement problem. The fact that Manning and other qbs of his level keep making the playoffs does not therefore imply that their rosters are worthy of recognition. Sometimes it really is as simple as you have a Goat level QB who can make something out of nothing.
As for the 2-14 season. Look, I have seen other teams lose an amazing QB before. The Chiefs won a playoff game anyways. The Patriots went 11-5. The Packers won with Matt Flynn at one point. Drew Brees was injured and the Saints made it work with Taysome freaking Hill. The fact that the Colts imploded implies one of two things; either the team around Manning was terrible or the coaching staff and GM intentionally tanked what was otherwise a competent roster. I think you know where I stand on this.
I have made my point on Polian. Hes a great GM. But I still think, at least when it comes to the Colts, as will said above...he got very lucky Manning was the QB and not Tim Couch or we might be remembering him in the same light as Vinny Cerato or Carmen Policy.
#57 by mehllageman56 // Jan 26, 2022 - 2:19pm
Jim Kelly was better than good, he's in the Hall of Fame for a reason. Polian didn't draft Kelly, but you are correct in that he built the rest of the team that went to 4 straight Super Bowls. I agree he was a great GM, and I wish the Jets had had someone as good as him within the last 40-50 years.
#78 by pm // Jan 27, 2022 - 11:19am
Polian was undone because he had a lot of bad draft classes towards the end of his run which culminated in the disastrous 2-14 2011 season where the Colts lack of depth was exposed. Look at the draft record year by year and notice how the bottom fell off towards the end
Year, 1st round pick, AV for the draft class
1998-Peyton Manning HOF-265
1999-Edgerrin James HOF-222
From 98-03, he had 150+ AV in every draft except one. He hit home runs on 5 out of 6 1st rounds. Those players were the core of the 2006 Superbowl team.
In the next 8 draft classes, he only hit 4 Pro Bowl players total (Sanders, Addai, Tim Jennings, and Antoine Bethea) total. Those 8 draft classes produced just 1 draft class (2006) that had over 150+ AV and mind you a lot of that value came on teams other than the Colts (Jennings, Bethea, and Johnson). You could tell while the 2009 superbowl team had a better record than the 2006 team, the roster was significantly better in 2006. The 2009 team had a paper thin roster held up by Peyton Manning's brilliance. No run game, crappy O-Line, an average defense. In 2010, the lack of good young players was being exposed. Sadly, that team might have been been worse than the 2011 2-14 team. The only difference is 2010 had Manning. The 2010 team had a lot of skill player injuries (Clark, Collie, Addai) and zero run game. 2011 had a healthy set of skill position players and a much better run game.
#79 by theslothook // Jan 27, 2022 - 12:19pm
Amidst the euphoria of a potential undefeated season, you could feel a creaky foundation. I think most Colts fans by that point had grown paranoid about upset losses and 09 felt like just the team to deliver one. It would make the pain doubly hard if they went undefeated and faceplanted in the divisional round. However, they got lucky that they faced two rather inept pass offenses in Baltimore and the Jets en route to the SB.
The 2010 season laid bare what many of us had feared. The team was old and parts of the roster had fallen into severe disrepair. I will agree, the 2011 team was the 2010 team but healthier. Chase Stuart predicted well in advance that a disaster was coming well before anyone in the media realized it. While it became chic to say Suck for Luck was the driving force, those who had followed this team realized what was coming.
Polian for all of that deserves major plaudits nonetheless. Perhaps if NE wasn't the dominant force, we might be remembering Indy as the dynasty of the 2000s.