MIAMI -- Quick question: Which would you rather have, Bill Polian running your franchise or Chuck Wiley playing for it? OK, so the question is stupid. But this one is not: Who in the world is Chuck Wiley? Ah, now we're getting somewhere.
He's the defensive end the Carolina Panthers chose with the first pick in the third round of the 1998 draft, and I know what you're thinking. Big deal, right? Well, yeah, because the Panthers gained that pick from Indianapolis as compensation for letting the Colts add Polian, who was still under contract to Carolina.
So the Panthers got Wiley, the Colts got Polian and, suddenly, Harry Frazee doesn't look so stupid.
|Polian (left) and Irsay shared a Super Bowl championship on Feb. 5, 2007. (US Presswire)|
In 1997, he did. His father died that summer, and the younger Irsay, then 38, assumed control of a club that would sink to 3-13 that season. Determined to make changes, Irsay started at the top, firing then-GM Bill Tobin and replacing him with Polian in a move that not only changed the future of the franchise but changed the shape of the league.
OK, so the Colts didn't correct themselves overnight. They went 3-13 in 1998, too. But look what has happened since: They've won seven division titles, have been to the playoffs 10 of the past 11 seasons, run off a league-record 23 straight regular-season victories and just made their second Super Bowl in four seasons.
People tell me none of that happens without Peyton Manning, and they're probably right. But Peyton Manning doesn't happen without Bill Polian drafting him, which means nothing happens without Irsay hiring Polian. So hiring Polian was not just a good move; it was a stroke of genius, and let Irsay explain how it happened.
"It was really my chance to begin the journey to put my stamp on the team," said Irsay, "and I felt having the friendship with Bill that went back to the early 1980s when he and George Young and Steve Gutman and I spent endless hours together on the working group that [was pivotal in developing] the cap system. Because I knew him so well there never was a question in terms of interviewing and all those sorts of things.
"Plus, I just felt that this gave us the best chance to win. I was in Minnesota after we lost our last game, on the phone with [Carolina owner] Jerry Richardson negotiating a third-round pick as compensation because I believed that was a critical point for the franchise.
"Why did I do it? I'm a traditionalist. I believe as an owner the general manager is the first pillar that you want to put into place, and I'm not a big believer in a head coach who gets hired and has dual responsibilities. So, basically, it was something where I wanted to get him as general manager/president, and I was really aggressive."
Polian's track record sells itself. He assembled a Buffalo Bills team that went to four straight Super Bowls, then left for Carolina where he put an expansion club in the conference championship game in its second season. Now he has made the Indianapolis Colts into a super power, and let's be honest, people: They're not here without Irsay making -- as he said -- an "aggressive" move to hire Polian.
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"He's extremely organized and bright," said Irsay. "He has a very high level of intelligence and is an intense individual who is a proven winner. There's no question that when you have a chance to hire someone who is a proven franchise builder ... who has been to Super Bowls ... who has worked on league committees ... who has vast experience ... and who really, quite frankly, is among a handful of people I would consider giving the president's title, you do it.
"Bill Polian was a proven franchise builder in two different places, and that takes the question marks out of it. He has all the things I was looking for, so there's no question that the pedigree -- and a proven pedigree at that -- was a tremendous plus and took some of the guesswork out."
Hiring Polian was easy for Irsay; firing Tobin was not. In fact, Irsay admitted that had Polian not been available he might have stayed with Tobin and not made a move on a new GM. But Irsay did his homework and knew he could get Polian for the right price, and the right price, as it turns out, was Chuck Wiley.
"I didn't consider anyone other than Bill," said Irsay. "It was something where I was centered on him. Sometimes with the hirings of head coaches or general managers you stay put if you do not have a better selection; sometimes you stay put and don't make a change because there isn't anyone else available you feel will do a better job.
"Then there are other times when you say, 'Hey, we have someone here who might be able to do a job and could be OK going forward, but there's an opportunity to go get someone who's even better for the franchise.' And I think that was the case here.
"I knew that Bill Tobin was an excellent football man. But I really felt it was best for the franchise to make this move, and it was critically important to do it quickly. The season had ended. I was 38 years old. And this town didn't really know me. So it was critical to act in a very swift way to chart the direction for the franchise.
"Would I have made the change if it wasn't Bill [Polian]? I think ultimately that I may have stood pat. Bill Tobin is a very talented guy, a very solid guy, but we had fallen in a difficult way to 3-13. Still, he was a very strong football man. So it's hard to say for sure, but I think after several long conversations with Bill Tobin I may have stood pat in hindsight."
No disrespect to Tobin, but good thing he didn't. It was Polian who began his first draft with the Colts by choosing Peyton Manning, and that worked out OK. And it was Polian who made Edgerrin James his first pick of the 1999 draft. He found Reggie Wayne. He found Dallas Clark. He found Dwight Freeney. He found Bob Sanders in the second round. He found Ryan Diem in the fourth, Robert Mathis in the fifth.
In short, he made the Colts what they are today, and what they are is the best team in the NFL. OK, so they could lose Sunday. All I know is the only games Indianapolis dropped this season were the ones they didn't try to win, and that's a testament to the players and the coaching staff on this year's club. More than that, it's a tribute to the men who put them together, and Polian and Irsay can take curtain calls together.
Polian found the players, but Irsay found Polian.
"So where do you think you'd be without him?" I asked Irsay.
"That's a difficult question," he said. "I'm a humble person in the sense that I feel that you do need breaks, good fortune and have the football bounce the right way for you. My belief was and always is that there's going to be a path for greatness, and there's going to be a path to win and win big.
"There is no question that you have your plan B and plan C and all those sorts of things, but I just felt that we were going to get there. I always had the confidence that I'm going to find a way to get it done and get it right."
But he didn't just get this one right. He aced the exam.