RUSTHOVEN: Admiring gratitude for the Polian era

January 7, 2012

RusthovenEnough about pol-itics. Time for an important topic: Jim Irsay’s firing of Indianapolis Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian and his son Chris, the general manager.

About Chris Polian, I know next to nothing. It’s rumored he wasn’t Star columnist Bob Kravitz’s favorite, but let’s not spread gossip. On Bill Polian, however, I think there are some things we should never forget.

His first big decision was drafting Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf in 1998. Manning is the face of the franchise and among the greatest quarterbacks ever. Leaf, preferred by many experts, became the gold standard of first-round draft busts.

A year later, some criticized Polian for selecting Edgerrin James over Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams. James became Rookie of the Year and had five strong Colts seasons, despite an ACL tear that ruined 2001 and hurt 2002. Williams has had (speaking charitably) an “uneven” career, with periodic on-field success and frequent off-field distractions, including drug abuse.

In 2002, Polian picked Dwight Freeney over highly touted Albert Haynesworth. Freeney keeps going strong. Haynesworth, who earned the sobriquet “Head Stomper,” became a mega-million-dollar disaster. Polian is also why Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai and Antoine Bethea—Pro Bowlers all—wear Colts uniforms.

Such decisions are among the keys to extraordinary success. In the 12 seasons sandwiched by Manning’s rookie year and 2011’s Manning-less debacle, the Colts were 138-54, a .719 winning percentage. This is better than the hated New England Patriots (134-58, mostly under Tom Brady), and much better than the Brett Favre-Aaron Rogers Green Bay Packers (113-79).

Over that stretch, the Colts won 10 or more games and were in the playoffs 11 times, including nine years in a row from 2002 through 2010. They twice made the Super Bowl, winning in 2007. (They would have won in 2010 had Hank Baskett handled an on-side kick, but let’s not get started … )

By any measure, Bill Polian deserves a huge chunk of the credit for the Colts’ becoming a premier NFL franchise, and a tremendous source of pride and pleasure to our town.

He wasn’t perfect. One suspects he could be a difficult boss, a general more in the George Patton than the Omar Bradley mold. One senses he had trouble even taking “yes” for an answer. At times, he certainly seemed thin-skinned.

As a fan, I was frustrated (a mild word) by his not going for the undefeated season in 2009, and dumbfounded (another understatement) by his apparent disdain for a fan base that disagreed. These feelings recently returned, when Polian again defended passing up a “meaningless record” in 2009, but said the Colts should fight to beat Jacksonville in this year’s final game, though this would cost the first pick in the 2012 draft.

Much as Charles de Gaulle thought the French unworthy of his leadership, Polian seemed impatient with fans insufficiently sophisticated to perceive that a place in NFL history with a perfect season was a “meaningless record,” while achieving a meaningless record of 3-13 (rather than 2-14) was worth sacrificing a number one draft pick. Go figure.

But none of these trees should obscure the forest. The balance sheet on the Bill Polian era here is overwhelmingly positive.

Professional sports can be cruel, a field where, “What have you done for me lately?” counts far more than, “What have you done overall?” I don’t pretend to know whether Jim Irsay made the right call this week. But I know enough to say “thank you” to Bill Polian for all he did for our Colts and our community. Let’s hope lots of others say the same.•


Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was associate counsel to President Reagan.


Recent Articles by Peter J. Rusthoven / Special to IBJ

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