With this year’s Hall of Fame candidates announced, there were some expectedly surprising entries. General manager Bill Polian, however, was someone nobody really could see coming. There were lots of complaints as to why some pencil-pushing front office man could get the nod over stars like Kurt Warner or Isaac Bruce, or great coaches like Tony Dungy. But what people tend to forget is what a magnificent job he did in helping to rebuild two perennially losing franchises: the Buffalo Bills and the Indianapolis Colts.
Upon Polian’s arrival, the Buffalo Bills were not a very well-run organization. There were boos. There was resentment from the fans. Crowds of only 23,000 people were showing up to Bills games, forced to sit through terrible weather and even worse football. There were the jokes going around:
“0 and who?”
The 1984 Buffalo Bills, led by an aging, talentless roster, finished 2-14 after a promising 8-8 1983 campaign. Quarterback Joe Ferguson was personally responsible for 25 turnovers, and the team set a franchise record by giving up 454 points (28.4 per game), allowing fewer than 20 only three times all season. The Bills also allowed 60 sacks for a then-record 554 yards, while their 4,341 total yards was second-worst in the league. The ’84 Bills, along with the 4-10 1975 Chicago Bears, are the only other team to be outscored by 25 points six different times during the season.
Naturally, change was in order.
The Bills produced quite the draft in 1985: their first overall choice, Bruce Smith, finished his career as the all-time leading sacker in the NFL. The Bills’ second choice, Derrick Burroughs, was a very solid defensive back for quite some time. The Bills then selected wide receiver Chris Burkett, a solid player, and quarterback Frank Reich. Reich would be instrumental in leading the Bills to success later on, but we’ll get to that in a bit. In Round 4, the Bills selected wide receiver Andre Reed, a monumental steal so late in the draft. Reed was a member of the 2014 Hall of Fame class, along with Ray Guy and others.
Despite the great draft class, the 1985 Bills broke down in the driveway and finished 2-14 for a second consecutive year. This time around, the offense was more to blame for the Bills’ struggles, scoring only 200 points all season, the lowest total for the entire decade of the 1980’s. The Bills’ turnover differential was -17, quarterbacks Vince Ferragamo and Bruce Mathison combined for 9 touchdown passes and 31 interceptions, and the team passed the 20 point mark only four times. The defense was also very unspectacular, finishing 20th/28th in points allowed and was third-worst in the league against the run.
Polian was instrumental in signing the crucial players selected in the 1985 draft.
In 1986, the Bills took another step forward by acquiring quarterback Jim Kelly. Kelly, coming out of the University of Miami in 1983, refused to sign with the Bills after stating he wouldn’t play for them if they drafted him, which they did. After a short stint with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL, a spring football league that dissolved quickly, Kelly signed with the Bills after negotiations with Polian. The ’86 draft saw the Bills take players such as Ronnie Harmon, a good back who was even better at pass catching, and Mark Pike, who was an extremely good special teams player, finishing his career with the most tackles on special teams ever. Buffalo also took tight end Butch Rolle, who at one point had a streak of 10 consecutive catches for touchdowns.
Even though Jim Kelly is a Hall of Famer, he did little to improve the Bills’ record in 1986, as the team finished 4-12, ranking last in the league at defending the pass and forcing the fewest turnovers in the NFL. After a 2-7 start, incompetent head coach Hank Bullough was fired, and was replaced with Marv Levy. At the time, this was a controversial decision, as Levy had never been a part of the Bills’ organization and had been out of the NFL since 1983 after an uninspiring campaign with the Chiefs. Levy closed out the season with a 2-5 record.
In 1987, the Bills took a big step forward with the signing of Cornelius Bennett, a linebacker who had spent time with the Colts but was involved in a three way trade between the Bills, Colts and Rams that included Los Angeles’ Eric Dickerson and Buffalo’s star running back, Greg Bell. Bennett was instrumental in the Bills’ early 90’s success, finishing his career with 27 fumble recoveries, the third-most in NFL history. Bennett was continually ranked as one of the top linebackers in the league, usually sitting behind Lawrence Taylor and Andre Tippett. Bennett, along with 1987 first-round draft choice Shane Conlan and long-time Bill Darryl Talley formed one of the league’s fiercest linebacking corps. The Bills also selected Nate Odomes in the second round of the ’87 draft, who would become a Pro Bowl defensive back with Buffalo. Other players selected in this draft include Jamie Mueller and Leon Seals, two players who were not starters but were incredibly good special teams players and backups.
In 1987, the Bills began 7-6 but barely missed the playoffs, finishing 7-8.
In 1988, the Bills drafted Oklahoma State running back Thurman Thomas as their top pick, despite it being a second-round choice. Thomas, an incredible steal in the second round, went on to lead the league in yards from scrimmage for four consecutive seasons from 1989-1992. Thomas made the Pro Bowl five times during his career, was the 1992 offensive player of the year and eclipsed O.J. Simpson’s team rushing yardage record of 12,074 over his career.
In 1988, the Bills surprised everyone by beginning the season 11-1 behind a defensive unit nicknamed the “Blizzard”; they surrendered the fewest points in the league (237) and the fewest total yards (4,578) in the league. The Bills finished 12-4, however, as numerous late-season losses including a 10-5 upset loss to the hideous Buccaneers cost them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
After a 9-7 season in 1989, the Bills kicked it into high gear and dominated the first half of the 1990’s like Forrest Gump at the box office. Jim Kelly, in a no-huddle offense with Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed along with long-time Packer James Lofton and 1989 draft choice Don Beebe, the Bills led the league in scoring in 1990 and were 6th best in points allowed. Bruce Smith led the league in 1990 with 19.0, and the Bills reached the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history after dominating 44-34 and 51-3 playoff wins over the Dolphins and Raiders. While in the Super Bowl, the Bills fell 20-19 as kicker Scott Norwood missed a field goal with eight seconds to play.
In 1991, the Bills had a historic offense, scoring more touchdowns than any other team while owning the league’s lowest time of possession. The Bills also got an offensive play off every 23.1 seconds, still the fastest mark in NFL history that not even the Chip Kelly-led Eagles could top. The Bills scored 458 points in 1991 and advanced to the Super Bowl yet again, falling to the horrifyingly balanced 1991 Redskins 37-24.
In 1992 and 1993, the Bills still dominated the league, finishing 11-5 and 12-4 but played above their records. In the 1992 Wild Card game, 1985 draft selection Frank Reich engineered the largest comeback win in NFL history in place of an injured Jim Kelly. Down 35-3 early in the 3rd quarter, Reich threw 4 touchdowns as the Bills won 41-38 in overtime.
In both 1992 and 1993, the Bills made the Super Bowl but were blasted 52-17 by the Cowboys in ’92 and 30-13 by the same team in ’93. Later in the decade, Buffalo made the playoffs in 1995, 1996, 1998 and 1999, all in Wild Card roles. They won only in 1995, setting a playoff rushing record over the Dolphins. To date, it’s the last playoff game the Bills won.
In the meantime, Bill Polian set off for the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995. His job was to create the quickest Super Bowl team in history, a tough task after witnessing putrid expansion teams like the early Falcons and the awful 26 game losing steak of the expansion Buccaneers. Polian nearly accomplished this, however, as Carolina finished 7-9 in their first season and then leaped to a 12-4 season in 1996 behind the league’s oldest defense (who logged the most sacks in the NFL that year) but were up-ended by the historic 1996 Packers in the playoffs at frigid Lambeau Field. Polian departed from Carolina after 1997.
Bill Polian became the Indianapolis Colts’ general manager after a 3-13 season in 1997. The Colts had not won 10 games since coming to Indianapolis, finishing with a winning record only five times since 1984 and were 2-3 in playoff games. A rudderless ship, the Colts were much like the Bills, a poorly run organization in need of some sort of star. They were in such deep decline that you were hard-pressed to find something likable about them, and in the 1998 draft, Bill Polian had a chance to give Colts fans something to cheer for: a franchise quarterback.
The 1998 NFL Draft was headlined by two “franchise quarterbacks”: Tennessee’s Peyton Manning and Washington State’s Ryan Leaf. Although Peyton Manning was more NFL-ready, Leaf was considered to have upside and was looked at as the guy who might climb higher. The Colts, armed with the No.1 overall pick, had their pick between the two. The Chargers, 4-12 in 1997, desperately tried to trade choices with the Colts, but Indy refused. Both teams coveted the same player: Manning.
With the first pick, Polian the Colts wisely took Peyton Manning, while the Chargers eagerly took Leaf, realizing that either way, they were getting a star.
Much like Kelly’s arrival to the Bills, Manning’s arrival to the Colts did not pay instant dividends. Although his first start wasn’t as abominable as Johnny Manziel’s, Manning went 21 of 37 for 302 yards and three interceptions. He threw a touchdown pass to Marvin Harrison with four seconds left in the game and the game out of sight.
Meanwhile, Ryan Leaf’s rookie season did not go well, either. Although he won his first two starts, his play was poor, and in a Week 3 game against Kansas City in mud and slog, Leaf went 1 of 15 for 4 yards, was responsible for 5 turnovers and was sacked twice. Later, Leaf exploded at a reporter trying to ask questions. In his rookie year, Leaf threw two touchdown passes to 15 (!) interceptions. He went 1-6 as a starter after Week 2 and took 22 sacks. The 1998 Chargers finished 5-11.
The Colts, meanwhile, clearly had something special in Manning. Although he was behind a terrible offensive line and without much talent around him, Manning set rookie records with 26 touchdown passes and 3,739 yards. He started every game for the team. The downside was that Manning threw 28 interceptions, constantly having to run for his life and throwing pop flies that were easily picked off.
After 1998, the Colts jettisoned their Pro Bowl running back Marshall Faulk (the team’s top draft choice in 1994) to St. Louis, where Faulk would set a yards-from-scrimmage record playing behind the infamous “Greatest Show on Turf” offense that the Rams of 1999-2001 implemented. With this, everyone assumed the Colts would take running back prospect Ricky Williams, a guy billed as ‘the next Earl Campbell’.
Instead, the Colts chose Edgerrin James, a little-known back that turned out to be a great fit for the offense. He had good hands to catch passes, good size to run it frequently, and good blocking ability.
Faced with a 2-2 start to 1999, the Colts won a close 16-13 game over the Jets to begin an 11-game winning streak to finish 13-3 and win their first division title since 1987. In Week 3 of the 1999 season, Manning and the Colts defeated the San Diego Chargers 27-19 in a game that Ryan Leaf didn’t even start due to a season-ending injury in pre-season. The Chargers finished 8-8 before enduring a nauseating 1-15 season in 2000. After 2000, Leaf was released. He spent time with the Cowboys and Buccaneers before ending his career after 2002, establishing his legacy as the biggest draft bust in NFL history.
The Colts after a 10-6 season in 2000 and a disappointing 6-10 season in 2001, the Colts won 10 games or more every season until 2011. There, the Colts finished 2-14 and Polian was fired, the draft right before Indy selected Andrew Luck. So, in a way, he helped the Colts out one more time by stinking up the joint for a single season.
In all, Polian rebuilt two laughingstock franchises into instant contenders, taking his teams as general managers to 6 Super Bowls and instantly help them win, even the Panthers. For this, Polian definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame, even above some supremely talented players.
Speaking of which, for those of you whining about how the Greatest Show on Turf stars were spurned for Polian, his decision to trade Marshall Faulk to the Rams after 1998 was the entire reason that offense was successful. Without Faulk, there is no Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Orlando Pace winning a Super Bowl in 1999 or making the big game in 2001. These guys wouldn’t even be considered for the Hall of Fame without Polian, as ironic as that seems.