Former Colts general manager Bill Polian is widely considered to be the greatest executive in league history. Many (including myself) think he will be a Hall of Famer. But for all of the great things he did in Indianapolis, the one thing that proved to end his tenure in Indianapolis was ignoring to prepare for what seemed like the impossible - life without the legendary Peyton Manning.
But then it happened. Manning missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury and the Colts struggled mightily. Between Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, and Dan Orlovsky, the Colts went 2-14 and finished with the worst record in the NFL. And so owner Jim Irsay decided to part ways with Polian, in part because of the 2-14 season. Ryan Grigson was hired as GM, Chuck Pagano was hired as head coach, and Andrew Luck was drafted as quarterback.
But Polian recently told Bengals head coach that if he'd just made on move differently and prepared for the worst case scenario (life without Manning), he would still be with the Colts. And he's right.
NFL.com's Judy Battista wrote recently a great article about backup quarterbacks, and it included this tidbit about Polian:
"When Peyton Manning was lost for the entire 2011 season with neck issues, the Indianapolis Colts -- who had never needed to pay much attention to (or spend much money on) a backup behind the previously indestructible Manning -- imploded. The collapse cost executives and coaches their jobs and created a cautionary tale for those who work in a league that is ever more reliant on the quarterback -- and ever more at a loss when it comes to managing without one.
"Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said teams think back to that situation all the time. Former Colts president Bill Polian, currently serving as an analyst on ESPN despite being widely regarded as one of the best team-builders in the game, ruefully told Lewis that he wouldn't be working in television now if he had only drafted Andy Dalton in the spring of 2011 to be Manning's backup."
So, to sum up, Bill Polian told Marvin Lewis that if he would have taken Andy Dalton in the 2011 draft, he'd still be the general manager with the Colts. And he's probably right.
Now, understand that the 2-14 season wasn't the sole reason for the Polian firing, but rather it was a time when Jim Irsay decided to move on to a new era of Colts football, and that made perfect sense. But let's say that the Colts had drafted Dalton in 2011 (the Bengals took him in the second round) - as a rookie with the Bengals, he started all 16 games, completing 58.1% of his passes for 3,398 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 13 picks, along with rushing for 152 yards and a score. The Colts probably wouldn't have made the playoffs with Dalton by any means - that wasn't a great team overall. But with guys like Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Jeff Saturday, Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney, Antoine Bethea, and others, Dalton probably could have led the Colts to an average season - far from the worst record in the league and the first overall pick.
Now, remember that the Colts weren't sure what to do with Manning even when they knew they could grab Luck. To keep a long story short, it was shortly after Irsay had already made up his decision to go with Luck that Manning started to rapidly show improvement. Nobody knew how Peyton Manning would come back, but if Dalton had quarterbacked the team in 2011 they wouldn't have been near the number one pick, and therefore they most likely would have kept Peyton Manning. And Bill Polian. And Jim Caldwell. And several of the veteran players they released along with Manning.
Peyton Manning would have gotten the Colts to the playoffs in 2012 and 2013. But without the receiving core of the Broncos and especially without the offensive line with the Broncos, the Colts probably weren't going to win another Super Bowl with Manning. And the St. Louis Rams (probably) would have drafted Andrew Luck and the landscape of the entire NFL would be radically different. And I don't think it would be a "good" kind of different for the Colts, either.
For Polian, it would have been great if he had drafted Dalton, because then he'd still have the job with the Colts. But for the Colts, it's better that they didn't. As painful as it was to part with Peyton Manning, the right decision was made, and that decision was going with Andrew Luck. While Bill Polian certainly wishes he'd have drafted Andy Dalton, Jim Irsay and the Colts should send him a thank you card for not doing so, because Andrew Luck is the real deal and the Colts will be a championship-caliber team for years to come.