In the NFL, the head coach is often the recipient of the most praise when things go well but takes the most heat when things head south. However, there’s one time of the year when the coach takes a back seat to another member of an organization and that’s during the spring when general managers are busy putting together a team they hope turns out to be a champion. There may not have been a more popular general manager than Bill Polian. Today, the football archives looks back at Mr. Polian’s five greatest accomplishment as an NFL executive.
5) Carolina Panthers
Polian didn’t get a ton of superstars to play for the 1995 and 1996 Panthers. Yet, he helped field a team that went 12-4 in their second season as a franchise and stunningly made it all the way to the NFC championship game. The Panthers were a mediocre offensive squad led by their first ever draft pick, Kerry Collins. Polian said he wanted Steve McNair, but after he traded away the top choice to the Cincinnati Bengals because he din’t want Ki-Jana Carter, he figured McNair would be gone. Kerry Collins out of Penn State was the second highest-rated quarterback of the 1995 draft so Polian went with him. Collins had a decent career and played reasonably well for the ’96 Panthers.
The strength of that squad was defense. Sam Mills. Eric Davis and Kevin Greene were free agents Polian wooed to join Carolina and they revived their careers with stellar performances. Polian’s Panthers finally ran out of steam in the NFC championship against Brett Favre and the eventual World Champion Green Bay Packers.
4) Marv Levy
There’s so many things that Polian accomplished for the Buffalo Bills, it’s hard to narrow it down to a few of his greatest accomplishments. However, deciding to hire his dear friend, Marv Levy, to guide the ship was integral in the forward direction of the franchise. Prior to obtaining Levy, the Bills posted a 6-35 record. With Levy, they won 80 of their next 120 ball games. Marv was a master motivator and a magnificent mentor with a masterclass memory. Levy’s great leadership was put to test early in the 1990 season when the Bills seemed to always getting at each other. He held the thing together and they launched an AFC dynasty for the ages.
3) Tony Dungy
Polian picked the right man for the job again for the Indianapolis Colts. Dungy was a defensive mastermind with the talented but raw 1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When they let him go ahead of the ’02 season, Polian jumped all over that opportunity. Dungy forged the Colts into a balanced football team utilizing his wise scheme with great pros like Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders. He also allowed Peyton Manning to be an offensive coordinator on the field understanding his high football IQ.
2) Peyton Manning
Polian’s decision to take Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf has been well-documented. Indeed, last week, we ranked Manning as the greatest first pick overall in NFL history. At the time, though, it was not a slam dunk because Leaf was a monster athlete out of Washington State. Ultimately, Polian listened to his gut and his friend, Peyton’s father, Archie.
1) Jim Kelly
Polian’s greatest move of all-time was convincing Jim Kelly to sign with the Bills. Let’s be real about this: Frank Reich was a nice player, but without Kelly, the Bills weren’t going to four Super Bowls and may not have even made it to one. While Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas were the team’s most skilled ballplayers, Kelly was the heart and soul. Signing Kelly away from the defunct USFL was an arduous process for Polian and his staff. Once Polian assured Kelly that they were building a winner and that he could get him extra money for working behind a young offensive line, Jimbo was reeled in. The Kelly tough era was born thanks to Polian’s dogged nature.
Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills