Benner/Sports and Colts and Sports Business

BENNER: No tears shed for Polian the elder's Colts exit

January 7, 2012

Upon learning of the dismissal of Bill Polian and son Chris as vice chairman and general manager, respectively, of the Indianapolis Colts, quarterback Peyton Manning said he was shocked and sad.

Hey, I’m shocked that Peyton was shocked.

And sad … not at all.

For starters, Bill Polian—whom we all should respect as a brilliant football mind and the architect of unmatched success at Buffalo, Carolina and here—had a tremendous run in Indy. Fourteen seasons. Eleven playoff berths. Two Super Bowl appearances. And the one NFL championship that had eluded him at Buffalo.

Nothing sad about that.

He also made a ton of money and helped make his son a ton of money by bringing him into the organization and eventually elevating him to general manager in an evolving plan of succession.

Nothing sad about that, either.

And shocked? Let’s just say I’m skeptical that Colts owner Jim Irsay would have pulled the trigger on that double-barreled shotgun without at least giving a heads-up to—or receiving a consenting nod from—No. 18.

But Manning insisted otherwise. Guess I should take his word for it.

Understand, I’m not here to dance on Bill Polian’s grave. I actually got along with him, probably because I did not have to deal with him often. In some settings, mostly group ones, he could be charming, charismatic and profound. But his disdain and condescension toward anyone who he believed was not at his level of football knowledge—and that would be nearly everyone—wore increasingly thin.

There also was an atmosphere of fear and loathing on West 56th Street that was tolerated because the victories were piling up. Reminds me of Bloomington back in the day.

But Polian was/is brilliant in many ways, starting here with Manning over Ryan Leaf and continuing with talent finds deep in the draft and free agency. Yes, the Colts had whiffs over the last few years, but Polian had far more hits than misses. Nine straight playoff appearances. Executive of the year six times. Certain Hall of Famer. The man isn’t chopped liver.

Son Chris we know far less about and the hunch is that, with Polian the Elder moving toward retirement, Irsay had far less confidence in Chris’ ability to lead the franchise through the momentous decisions that have to be made in the coming months.

Ultimately, how it all came down—and perhaps it was nothing more than Irsay following his gut—doesn’t matter, although he certainly couldn‘t ignore the rising chorus of dissatisfaction from fans and ticket-holders. Irsay even tweeted before the dismissals that their sentiments had been heard and noted.

Imagine, a retailer listening to his customers and reacting accordingly. What a notion.

Anyway, in sports, we immediately turn our attention to what happens next, beginning with the hiring of a successor and, most likely, the hiring of a coach to replace Jim Caldwell.

Yes, Irsay lauded Caldwell at length. But he also said, in so many words, he’d snap up a preferred coach if one came along.

“I and others in the organization will keep our eyes open to seize any change in environment or people that become available that we might not be thinking about right now,” Irsay said.

Ouch. Not exactly a declaration of, “My Man Jim!”

Again, we all agree that Caldwell is a first-class person. But trust in him has eroded, if not evaporated.

According to Irsay’s time line, the hiring of the general manager will precede the coaching decision. Perhaps he’s looking for a combination that would consolidate the positions.

If it is just a general manager, the names being circulated include one right here in our midst: Jeff Foster, who runs the NFL Scouting Combine out of offices in Pan Am Plaza. Jeff is not yet 40 and is incredibly bright. He’s a former college player (safety at Arizona State) who ran the East-West All-Star game before working as a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs. Foster has directed the Combine since 2005 and is said to be a shrewd talent evaluator.

In any case, hovering above it all is the $28 million question that must be answered on March 8 regarding the future of Manning, whose health will drive all other decisions to be made by Irsay and the new regime.

If Manning can play, I’d be shocked if Irsay didn’t keep him in a Colts uniform. Andrew Luck’s turn will come soon enough.

Fascinating times, these.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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