Bill Polian was treated unfairly in Indianapolis. Yes I said it and the mere fact this can be read as something radical epitomizes this point.
The injustice did not come from the act of his firing, but rather from the response to this act from the fans and media in Indianapolis. Yes, Polian was frosty (to put it lightly) with the press, and had a number of failures in the latter half of his tenure with the Colts. Still, upon his firing, the general attitude essentially said “good ridance” to the man who helped build one of the league’s best franchises of the past decade. It was a parting more fitting for Matt Millen than a future Hall of Famer.
However, as I said, the firing in itself was not unfair. In the second half of his Colts career, Polian consistently missed at the top of the draft. This was in stark contrast to his early years with the Colts, where virtually every top pick was a key contributor.
Polian was adept throughout his career at finding gems late in the draft and in rookie free agency (Jeff Saturday, Robert Mathis, Gary Brackett to name a small few), but this post will focus on the vitally important early picks. “Hitting” on these early picks helped make Polian’s teams perennial contenders, but misses on the latter portion of them cost him his job.
Early picks command the most money of the rookies, making it important to get the most out of your investment.
New GM Ryan Grigson will need to do this, and will start with soon-to-be top pick Andrew Luck.
Let’s take a look at the top picks of the Polian-era.
- 1998-Peyton Manning-QB
- 1999-Edgerrin James-RB
- 2000-Rob Morris-LB
- 2001-Reggie Wayne-WR
- 2002-Dwight Freeney-DE
- 2003-Dallas Clark-TE
- 2004-Bob Sanders-S*
- 2005-Marlin Jackson-CB
- 2006-Joseph Addai-RB
- 2007-Anthony Gonzalez-WR
- 2008-Mike Pollak-OG*
- 2009-Donald Brown-RB
- 2010-Jerry Hughes-DE
- 2011-Anthony Costanzo-OT
(* denotes 2nd round picks that were the first Colts taken in that year’s draft)
Take a cursory glance at this list and one thing is obvious: Polian and the Colts did great at the top of the draft early in his career with the team and poorly in the second half.
Look at the first half of this list (’98 to ’04). We have:
-1 sure-fire Hall of Famer (Manning)
-3 borderline Hall of Famers (James, Wayne, Freeney)
-2 All-Pros (Clark, Sanders-with the requisite caveat “when healthy”).
-1 Rob Morris-By no means a star and a relative disappointment given where he was taken. That said, he was also not bad enough to be considered a bust.
All told, these players produced 25 Pro Bowl appearances combined (and perhaps this would be more if Clark did not have to share the AFC tight end spot light with Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates).
Now let’s take a look at 2005-2010 (it’s too early to judge Costanzo based on only one season). Among this group, there has been a grand total of one Pro Bowl appearance (Addai, 2007). Addai highlights this list, having been a solid, if not spectacular contributor from 2006-2011. Still, after a strong start to his career, he has been disappointing and has struggled with injuries.
When judging the first group, the question was “do they warrant a place in the Hall of Fame.” For phase 2, the question is how much of a bust were they. Hughes is the epitome of the word, having barely even played and has been considered not to be ready for the NFL. Pollak has been a failure as well.
The rest (Jackson, Gonzo, Brown) can be classified similarly as such: decent contributors but not nearly as productive as you’d want a first round pick to be. Gonzalez was decimated by injuries and Brown has been a model of inconsistency. Jackson at least provided the franchise with one of its greatest moments (aside from that, his Colts career was unspectaculor).
Let’s now look at Round 2, where we can see a very similar dichotomy as that of Polian’s first round picks.
- 1998-Jerome Pathon-WR
- 1999-Mike Peterson-LB
- 2000-Marcus Washington-LB
- 2001-Idrees Bashir-S
- 2002-Larry Tripplett-DT
- 2003-Mike Doss-SS
- 2004-Sanders (see above)
- 2005-Kelvin Hayden-CB
- 2006-Tim Jennings-CB
- 2007-Tony Ugoh-OT
- 2008-Pollak (see above)
- 2009-Fili Moala-DT
- 2010-Pat Angerer-LB
- 2011-Ben Ijalana-OL
Once again, the players from 1998-2004 were considerably more productive than those since then. All the picks in the first group were consistent starters, even if they were not household names.
The same cannot be said for the latter group. Ugoh failed miserably in his efforts to fill the big shoes of outgoing left tackle Tarik Glenn. Similarly, Pollak was unable to replace departing interior linemen such as Jake Scott and Ryan Lilja (the latter being cut prior to the 2010 season due to the expectation that Pollak would start-one of Polian’s worst moves in Indianapolis). These failures were severe set backs to the Colts offensive line, as evidenced by the team’s recent inability to run the ball, with only the elite release and pocket presence of Peyton Manning masking how bad the unit had become.
Moala has been a bust in every sense of the word, taking up more space on the bench than the interior of the defensive line. To be frank, his uselessness is only exceeded by that of Jerry Hughes (who has given new meaning to the word).
Jennings was a poor corner and while Hayden never reached the lows of the other players in this period, he was nothing great either.
Angerer, who has been a solid player in his short career, may be the exception here (we will obviously reserve judgement of Ijalana, seeing as he missed nearly all of 2011 with an injury).
As Polian was able to show throughout his time with the Colts, there is more to the draft than rounds one and two (even in the “dreaded” 2005-10 period; see Antoine Bethea, Austin Collie, Clint Session, and Piere Garcon).
Still, it is critical to hit on your early draft picks. I see it as no coincidence that the “phase 1 picks” (’98-’04) preceded a 13-0 start in 2005 (also arguably the best regular season team of the Manning era) and a Super Bowl title in 2006. By contrast, not to overgeneralize, but “phase 2” helped lead to last year’s 2-14 disaster (without Manning, the deterioration of the roster was exposed).
This brings us to today. Hopefully the Grigson era gets off to the same start as the Polian era. We know (and have known) Luck will be the first pick, which brings us to round 2, where the Colts pick at #34 (since the Colts and Rams both finished at 2-14, they will alternate who picks first in each round–Colts top pick in Round 1, Rams top pick in Round 2, Colts top pick in Round 3, etc).
Possibilities here for the Colts include South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffrey, TE Colby Fleener, and CB Janoris Jenkins. More on this in the next few days.