December 22, 1997. It was on that date that the course of the Indianapolis Colts franchise changed, that a new era of Colts football started, and that the revival of one of the league's worst teams began. It was on this day, just one day after finishing the 1997 season with a league-worst 3-13 record, that the Colts and owner Jim Irsay sent a third round pick in the 1998 Draft in order to be able to hire Bill Polian from the Carolina Panthers as their president and general manager.
The franchise had been in Indianapolis for 14 seasons but had enjoyed minimal success. They had five winning seasons, three playoff appearances, one division title, and two playoff victories in 14 seasons. Six times they finished with five or fewer wins in a season. The team was consistently one of the worst in the NFL, and aside from a few surprisingly good years (such as 1987 or 1995), the team didn't make much noise on the NFL landscape.
Jim Irsay, who had taken over the title of owner and CEO of the franchise from his father in 1997, was determined to change that. So he went after one of the league's best executives in Bill Polian, who at the time was the general manager of the Carolina Panthers. Irsay called Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and the two sides agreed on the price: in exchange for letting the Colts hire Polian, Indy would send the Panthers a third round draft pick. And so, on December 22, 1997, Irsay hired Polian as his new president and general manager.
Polian wasn't just any other executive, however. He had led the Buffalo Bills to five playoff appearances and three AFC championships (they would win a fourth the year after he left), and then a few years later he took over the expansion franchise Carolina Panthers and got them to the doorstep of the Super Bowl in just their second season of existence. He was no stranger to building a winning football team, and that's precisely the reason he was hired in Indianapolis.
Right away, Polian began laying the groundwork. With his first pick, he selected quarterback Peyton Manning in the 1998 NFL Draft. Then in 1999, he drafted running back Edgerrin James and signed center Jeff Saturday as a free agent. In 2001, he drafted wide receiver Reggie Wayne, while in 2002 he drafted pass rusher Dwight Freeney. In 2003, Polian added pass rusher Robert Mathis, while in 2004 he drafted tight end Dallas Clark. So many others ended up playing a crucial role as well, such as Ryan Diem, Gary Brackett, Cato June, David Thornton, Antoine Bethea, Bob Sanders, Brandon Stokley, Ryan Lilja, Marlin Jackson, Kelvin Hayden, Jake Scott, Jason David, Mike Vanderjagt, Adam Vinatieri, Hunter Smith, Justin Snow, and others.
During Polian's 14 seasons in Indianapolis, the Colts compiled a 143-81 record (.638), and if you take away the first and last seasons, the team went 138-54 (.719). They notched eleven double-digit win seasons, eleven playoff appearances, eight division titles, two AFC championships, and won Super Bowl XLI. They won more games in a single decade than any other franchise in league history. A franchise that had made the playoffs just three times in 14 seasons prior to Polian arriving in Indianapolis missed the playoffs just three times during his 14-year tenure. And under his watch, Indianapolis became a football town. Whereas before it had been all about basketball and the Indianapolis 500, Indiana and its capitol city of Indianapolis became football fanatics, rallying behind their Colts. The man driving the charge of the revival of professional football in the city and the state was Bill Polian, who today goes into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his accomplishments.
In 24 seasons as a general manager of the Bills, Panthers, and Colts, Polian's teams went 238-145 (.621), made 17 playoff appearances, won 13 division titles, won five AFC championships, and one Super Bowl. His teams have produced five Hall of Famers, with many more likely still coming in the next few years. Under his watch, he saw five NFL MVP seasons, two Offensive Player of the Year and two Defensive Player of the Year seasons, 115 Pro Bowl berths, and 33 first-team All-Pro recognitions. Polian is a six-time winner of the NFL Executive of the Year Award, by far the most of all-time.
As Bill Polian goes into the Hall of Fame, it may be easy to focus on a few of his later misses, such as the drafting of Tony Ugoh or of Jerrry Hughes, or the fact that he didn't have a backup plan in place for 2011. But that would be missing the legacy of one of the greatest executives in the history of football, and it would be missing everything he accomplished in Indianapolis. With Polian running the show, the Colts transformed from one of the league's basement-dwellers to one of the league's best, and Indianapolis transformed into a football town. Polian was a big part of that, working behind the scenes and putting together a contender. The fact that he did that for three different franchises cements his legacy as one of the best of all-time, and that will be commemorated tonight in Canton, Ohio, as Bill Polian enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame.