Irsay sees Polian son as heir apparent; other teams come calling

April 28, 2008

Beyond his last name, little is known here about Indianapolis Colts Vice President of Football Operations Chris Polian--even though it's likely he represents the future of the franchise.

In National Football League circles, Polian's stock has skyrocketed as league owners have realized there's more to the 36-year-old than his famous last name.

Three team owners since 2005 have sought to interview Polian, second of four children of Colts President Bill Polian, about a general manager position. The San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins were the first to make a play for the young Polian. In January, the Atlanta Falcons came calling.

Each time, Colts owner Jim Irsay swatted those attempts away, making it clear Chris Polian is the heir apparent to his dad as Colts president.

"Having guys like Chris grow within the organization is what we're looking for," Irsay said.

While Irsay just signed the elder Polian, 65, to a contract extension through 2011, it is clear the architect of the Colts' 2006 Super Bowl Championship team is nearer the end of his career than the beginning.

For the younger Polian's part, he appears to be in no hurry to leave the Colts' stable, intent perhaps on continuing the winning legacy his father forged in Indianapolis.

"There isn't a better owner to work for than Jim Irsay," Polian said.

This spring--as he has been doing since taking his current position in 2005--Polian led the scouting and strategizing efforts that culminate with the NFL draft, held this year April 26 and 27.

Good, bad in Buffalo

It's little surprise that Polian has landed where he has. As a teen-ager, he was at his father's side as he built the Buffalo Bills teams that won four AFC Championships during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"He grew up in the locker room and in the front office," said Marv Levy, who was the Bills coach when Bill Polian was president. "I was always very impressed by his focus, enthusiasm and sense of direction even at a very young age. Now, there's no question to almost everyone around the league, he's on his way."

Some of Polian's earliest NFL experiences came running errands and carrying the headset cord on the sidelines for Levy, who retired in December as Bills general manager.

"Nothing was below Chris, and he has no sense of entitlement," Levy said. "And he was intent on soaking up all the information he could along the way."

Polian also saw the cruel side of the sport. On Feb. 4, 1993, after Buffalo had appeared in its third straight Super Bowl, Bill Polian was fired as general manager because he didn't get along with the Bills' treasurer, Jeff Littmann.

Chris Polian views the event philosophically.

"I saw the good and the bad in Buffalo," he said.

At St. Francis High School in Buffalo, Polian was a solid baseball player and quarterback, wide receiver and safety on the football team. He played mostly second-string wide receiver at John Carroll University, near Cleveland.

But Polian had a keen eye for the game and the talent it took to play at the highest level. He wasted little time moving up through the professional ranks, breaking into the NFL in 1994 as a scout under his dad with the Carolina Panthers.

He followed his dad to Indianapolis, and became the director of pro scouting for the Colts in 1998. In 2001, he became the Colts' assistant director of football operations, before being elevated to the vice president's job in 2005.

On draft day, there are four people whose input is heard on selections: Irsay, Coach Tony Dungy, and Bill and Chris Polian.

"His most important attribute is his intuitive ability to know football players," Irsay said.

Levy thinks Polian's strong suits are his abilities to work with others and to focus on the task at hand. He said while Polian has ideas of his own, he is always accepting of others' views.

Behind the scenes

As well-known as he is becoming among NFL insiders, Polian is rarely seen at social functions around town--including Colts corporate events.

"He's one of those guys who goes out of his way to be low-profile," said Bob Birge, a Colts season-ticket holder and president of locally based Law Firm Marketing Network, which does work with the NFL Players Association. "I've never seen him at a season-ticket holders or other Colts corporate functions."

Polian is as busy as he is private. Though the younger Polian said he never keeps track of his work hours, Bill Polian said Chris works at least 70 hours a week--much more in preparation for the April draft.

"It's not all Sunday at 1 o'clock," Chris Polian said. "It's a lot of ugly, hard work getting to that point."

Polian's large office reflects his workman-like attitude. There are few decorations, except for a model of Wrigley Field on one end and two bleacher seats from the famed Chicago Cubs home on the other. Polian explained that he lived in Chicago in 1984 when the Cubs, featuring Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe, won the National League East pennant.

On one side of his office, there's a plain-looking conference-room table and chairs used for strategy sessions with Colts scouts. On the other end, there's a 36-inch, wide-screen monitor perched on his desk for watching hours of game film. Along the north wall is a 15-foot-long dry erase board with the entire roster of every NFL team written on it, charting each player and his position.

The board is updated with every trade, retirement, free agency and injury. Polian tracks players the way a Wall Street analyst tracks stocks.

"We have to know every player's value--our own and others--at every moment," he said.

There are also files of every draft dating back for decades that Polian studies to learn everything he can about what works and what fails in this ultra-competitive league. Draft histories also help Colts officials understand team draft tendencies that are predictors of which players are likely to be available when it's the Colts' turn to pick.

When he's not in his office, Polian is on the road scouting. Throughout the season, he keeps an eye on other teams and college prospects.

When the season ends, Polian is consumed with college campus visits, which stretch through April; the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis each February; small-group and individual workouts organized by agents; and crunching data from his and other Colts scouts' analysis. When draft day comes, Polian said, most of the heavy lifting is done.

"We don't make a lot of changes to our strategy on draft day," he said.

Though the draft is held in New York, Polian will be in the "draft day war room" at the 56th Street Colts complex. Though local and even some national sports media will descend on Indianapolis for draft day, it's just another work day for Polian.

"For me, it's not a marketing event," he said.

Like father like son?

While his intensity comes straight from his father, Chris is very different in some ways. "Chris is more mild-mannered and doesn't tend to wear his intensity on his sleeve like his dad," Levy said.

Bill Polian said while he's old school, Chris has modernized the way player data is gathered and analyzed.

"He takes the tenets we work with and applies them to the new-age, high-tech world we live in," he said.

Indeed, Chris Polian is not afraid to try new strategies to build a Super Bowl contender. He recently began working with front-office personnel for Major League Baseball's California Angels and Chicago Cubs, and the Anaheim Ducks of the National Hockey League on tactics ranging from scouting and drafting to management.

But while Bill Polian said there's lots he and other longtime football operators could learn from his son, Chris Polian remains more intent on being the student than the master.

"One of the most difficult things to learn about this job is how to balance your professional and family life," said Polian, who, with wife Debbie, has three children ranging in age from 5 years to 8 months. "That's where I look to my dad.

"More than I hope I can be as good as he is in football, I hope I can be as good as he is as a father. Because as good as he is in this industry, he's an even better family man. I couldn't ask for a better role model."

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