Believe it or not, this wasn't the obvious pick for the number one spot on this list. If it were ranking the best Indianapolis Colts players of the era, it would be a no-brainer. But Bill Polian's best moves? Could the best move really be his first pick, one that was the first overall choice in the entire draft?
The answer is yes, and the reason is mainly because of how great that player turned out to be. But let's not forget that there was quite a debate at the time as to who the Colts should draft. There was Washington State's Ryan Leaf and Tennessee's Peyton Manning, both quarterbacks and both projected to have successful NFL careers. But which one was the best choice for a franchise desperate not only for a quarterback but for a savior? That was the question that Polian faced immediately upon being hired as general manager of the Colts, and he and his staff set out to try to figure it out. They watched countless hours of film and consulted countless people, and the consensus was rather split. As the process went on and interviews were conducted, it became more and more clear to Polian and his staff that Manning was his guy.
As Polian recored in his book The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team, when Manning was working out for the team shortly before the team, he turned to the general manger and told him, "if you draft me, I promise we will win a championship. And if you don't, I promise I will come back and kick your ass." That helped cement it, and the next day Polian met with head coach Jim Mora: they both agreed on Peyton. Then Polian met with owner Jim Irsay and told him, "It's Peyton." As Polian wrote, "I can't say that I envisioned everything that Peyton Manning would become, but after you have been through this process, which you trust, everything pointed to him. You hoped that he would become half of what he became, but there was no question that he would be a winning quarterback in the National Football League."
He went well beyond just being a winning quarterback in the league but instead became one of it's all-time greats. He didn't just become the Indianapolis Colts' next quarterback, he became their greatest player - ever. In his 14-year career in the NFL, Manning is the league's all-time passing touchdowns leader with 530 and is very close to becoming the all-time passing yard leader as well, as he currently has 69,691. He has won five MVP awards, made 14 Pro Bowls, and made ten All-Pro teams (seven first-teams and three second-teams). He led the league in passing yards three times and in passing touchdowns four times. In 14 seasons with the Colts, Manning played in 208 games and threw for 54,828 yards (which would rank 5th all-time in NFL history) and 399 touchdowns (which would rank 4th all-time in NFL history), completing 64.9% of his passes in the process and notching a 94.9 passer rating. He engineered the winningest single decade for any team ever, and Manning helped lead the Colts to two AFC titles and a Super Bowl championship. He holds nearly every significant franchise passing record, including in attempts (for a career and a single-season), completions (for a career, a single-season, and a single-game), completion percentage (for a career, a single-season, and a single-game), passing yards (for a career and a single-game), 300-yard passing games (for a career), most touchdown passes (for a career, a single-season, and a single-game), and passer rating (for a career, a single-season, and a single-game), among others.
When you think of the Indianapolis Colts of the 2000s, you think of Peyton Manning. When you think about the greatest player in Indianapolis Colts franchise history, you think of Peyton Manning. He's a future first-ballot Hall of Famer who is among the greatest players in league history, and in 1998 Bill Polian had to make a decision on whether to draft Manning or whether to draft Leaf. The general manager absolutely nailed the pick and it set the course not only for the next few years but for the entire franchise as well. Given the magnitude of the pick, the decision that needed to be made at the time, and just how good Peyton Manning turned out to be, Bill Polian's first pick with the Colts ended up being his greatest.