Bill Polian’s history as a personnel maestro is impeccable. He has crafted one of this decade’s most consistently successful teams, while smoothly watching older players such as Marvin Harrison transition into young standouts like Austin Collie.
But when it comes to public announcements, Polian’s reputation has been taking a few hits as of late.
Despite presenting to the fanbase that rookie head coach Jim Caldwell had the ultimate say in whether to rest starters or play out the regular season in an attempt for an undefeated season, many felt the choice was made behind the scenes by Polian.
After the team’s first loss of the year, fans flocked to Polian’s radio show to express their dislike of the Colts decision. Polian defended the decision steadfastly, which was to be expected.
What drew criticism was the way he defended the team’s choice. Polian began by stating that the team lost because it played poorly throughout the game, and that it had nothing to do with benching starters. He did not describe how that related to the team holding a lead before the starter-backup transition.
After that, he followed by stating that going unbeaten was never the intent of the team in 2009.
“Apparently . . . our point of view on the subject hasn't come across,” Polian said on his weekly radio show in Indianapolis. “Sixteen wins in a season was not our issue. It was someone else's. Right around Thanksgiving time other people began to raise the issue of, 'Would we go for 16 straight if that were doable?'
“At that point in time, we said loudly and clearly–myself, (Colts head) coach (Jim) Caldwell, even the players–that that was not our goal.”
Fans comprising the team’s revenue base voiced the idea that the paying customer might have been entitled to a say in that, however Polian not only refused to apologize but neglected to even acknowledge the quest for 16-0 as holding any legitimacy, calling it “inconsequential” and “not something we felt was important.”
Players said all the right things in public, but the faces on camera spoke of a frustration they were not at liberty to describe.
Solid wins against Baltimore and the New York Jets had fans feeling good and nearly forgetting the sting of that week 16 loss. The team appeared to benefit from its controversial choice, a controversy easily qualmed by a Super Bowl berth.
Those good feelings were quashed when the New Orleans Saints played the role not only of media darling and underdog, but ultimately that of victor.
The media expects answers all around. Every member of the Saints organization was put before a microphone to explain why they had won. The same went for Indianapolis players and staff, who were asked why the team failed to succeed.
Bill Polian came to the microphone replete with his trademark strong opinions: "Our offensive line, by our standards, did not have a good game," Polian stated.
"They were outplayed by the Saints' defensive line. Our special teams, in terms of handing the ball—both in the return game and on the onside kick—were outplayed by the Saints. Therein lies the result. It had nothing to do with strategy or preparedness or toughness or effort."
For a team that relies on that offensive line to protect its most valuable commodity, such an overt decrying could backfire for a team with a historically tight locker room.
The longtime leader of that offensive line, Jeff Saturday, spoke out recently about Polian’s statements.
“Hopefully he’ll go back and watch the film and tell us what he wants us to do better or that will come through [Jim] Caldwell,” Saturday said. He continued to describe how he was taken aback by Polian’s candor.
Generally speaking, the harshest of criticisms about a team’s performance are reserved for discussion in-house. When those criticisms could be deemed debateable, it goes doubly so.
After the consistent success conducting business in his own fashion, Polian is unlikely to change his manner.
It makes sense not to call out his team’s primary breadwinner in Peyton Manning, but only one Super Bowl victory after a decade of being constantly among the short list of favorites might give the mercurial mastermind pause.
One poor statement cannot sink such a well-oiled machine, but it can cast the first seeds of doubt in a fickle league where dynasties are a fading trend. Something Polian should take to heart the next time he feels compelled to criticize.