MIAMI – Jimmy Irsay and Bill Polian are like oil and water. The Colts owner likes to play his guitar and often talks about his good friend, musician Stephen Stills. Irsay quotes Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye while Polian's heroes are Paul Brown and Red Auerbach. I think everyone in the NFL could picture Polian lighting up a winning cigar like Red used to do, that in-your-face gesture, except that smoking is banned in stadiums these days.
Irsay is soft spoken while Polian is loud. He can be very loud when he's trying to get his point across. Maybe you've seen him slam his fist on a press-box table when a call goes against his Colts.
These men are emotional opposites. And that's why their relationship works so well and why the Colts are in Florida for another Super Bowl. Irsay knows what he doesn't know about personnel, allowing Polian to do as he pleases. Polian's career hasn't always worked this well with an owner. Yes, he always found the players and made mostly all the right moves on draft day, but he didn't always get along, mesh with everybody in an organization.
Through the years, I have seen the best and worst of Bill Polian. I was with him in the bowels of the Rose Bowl after the Dallas Cowboys had steamrolled his Buffalo Bills and he denied several times that he was a goner, soon to be fired by owner Ralph Wilson. Standing nearby was his loyal friend, the late John Butler, who everybody knew was going to replace him with the Bills. In those days, Polian simply didn't get along with Bills treasurer Jeff Littmann, the guy who controlled Wilson's checkbook.
But he can also be a loyal friend. You can ask ESPN's Chris Berman. Polian usually calls him right before his team's first-round pick to give him the name, so Berman can have an inside national scoop. When Polian was technically out of the game, working in the league office, we spoke all the time. He wanted to know where I thought the personnel openings were going to be. Polian has always wanted to be ahead of the curve, ready to pounce.
Carolina owner Jerry Richardson made the right call, hiring him as his organization's first general manager. Polian was executive of the year twice with the Panthers, the franchise actually reaching the NFC title game in its second season of existence. He was right about quarterback Kerry Collins on the field, but was wrong about the demons that chased Collins out of Carolina. Tim Biakabatuka looked like a solid running back pick, but fame and an injury slowed his career. Within a year or two of success, Polian's personality in Carolina boiled over and he was a goner once again.
But with Irsay he found a young owner he could teach and also grow a franchise with while converting a basketball-crazy state into football followers. Polian is 67 and Irsay is only 50; the kid was only 25 when his late father, Bob, moved the team out of Baltimore in the middle of the night on those Mayflower moving vans. Believe it or not, this is the 25th anniversary of the Colts' move to Indianapolis and you can bet Polian, who has promoted his son, Chris, into his old general manager role, would love to win again on such an anniversary year.
His key selection, though, was that of quarterback Peyton Manning, who obviously was more grounded than Collins. Remember, it was Polian who finally got Jim Kelly to play in Buffalo after his USFL fling.
But when the Manning choice was made a lot of NFL people thought Ryan Leaf had a better arm than Peyton, whose footwork in the pocket still needed a lot of work, too. But Polian went with his instincts on Manning, knowing the kid's background and how solid his personality was. I remember the two young men when they were brought to Indianapolis for the NFC Combine. Manning wore a sports coat and every response was "yes, sir" and "no, sir." Leaf arrived unshaven, wearing a big shirt hiding the extra 15 pounds he put on during his tour of the All-American banquet circuit. He was flippant and cocky with his remarks.
Just think of some of Polian's first-round picks, like Reggie Wayne, because he knew his young quarterback needed a receiver. And how about acquiring linebacker Cornelius Bennett in the wild three-way trade that sent Eric Dickerson to Indianapolis when Polian was still in Buffalo? The big story this week is Colts pass rusher Dwight Freeney, but when Polian selected him many believed this All-Pro was too little to be a great defensive end.
Many blame Polian's influence on rookie head coach Jim Caldwell's decision to rest Manning and other starters when the Colts still had a legitimate shot at perfection, but we all remember how that worked out for the Patriots in Arizona a couple of Super Bowls ago. They finished with the worst 18-1 record in NFL history. But on the flip side, it was Polian who recognized how good a coach and leader Caldwell could be; that he was more than simply a Tony Dungy clone. There is no question that the coaching continuity has been perfect for the Colts.
To me, the great thing about Polian is that this old dog was capable of learning new tricks after he hired Dungy to replace Jim Mora. Dungy told me how Polian and he talked for weeks about Dungy's preference for quicker, leaner defensive players and how Polian altered some of his scouting habits in order to find the type of players that Dungy preferred on defense. There are many who believed one of Dungy's greatest assets was his eye for defensive talent, and those insights have helped Polian pick rookie cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey this past season. Yes, Bob Sanders remains missing, but the secondary still is full of talented and quick speed demons.
At the moment, there are no general managers, the very best judges of player personnel, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Many selectors believe that Polian will be the first one to have his ticket punched for Canton.
Like a lot of subjects, Polian doesn't feel that's the right call. When the idea was broached, he said that old friends like the late George Young of the New York Giants and Bobby Beathard, who built the great Washington teams under Joe Gibbs and later got the Chargers to a Super Bowl, are more deserving of being in the Hall.
Beathard's star is damaged by the selection of Leaf, one of the biggest first-round busts in NFL history. "But I had the luxury of picking first that year," Polian said of his choice of Manning. "Bobby should be judged on his entire body of work. Both he and George did a lot for our game and that should count for something."