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Hall of Fame GM Bill Polian: a Buffalo Bills career retrospective

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The architect of the greatest teams in Buffalo Bills franchise history will take his place alongside many of his former players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame tonight.

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Tonight, legendary NFL executive Bill Polian will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Polian has held many positions with many teams over the years, but he broke into the NFL's consciousness as the Buffalo Bills' general manager.

From 1984 until the end of the 1992 season, Polian had a hand in creating the only team that has ever won four consecutive conference championships. The work he did with the Bills is a very large part of the reason that he's entering the Hall. Here's a look back at some of the most consequential moments during his run in Orchard Park, a few of which are detailed in The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team by Polian and Vic Carucci. It's a great read that has a ton of insight about what it takes to be a decision-maker at the upper levels of an NFL organization.

Hitting the ground running

Polian was hired by the Bills as pro personnel director on August 2, 1984. A 2-14 record that season netted the Bills first overall pick of the 1985 NFL Draft.

When the decision to draft Bruce Smith was settled on, Polian was the point man for contract negotiations as Smith was also being courted by the Baltimore Stars of the USFL. That franchise had the advantage of being close to Smith's hometown of Norfolk, Virginia. Polian played a big part in convincing him to sign with the Bills, who didn't have a great reputation in football circles at the time. That signing, along with the selections of Maryland quarterback Frank Reich and Kutztown State receiver Andre Reed, laid the foundation for the great Bills teams of the Polian era.

Polian was named general manager of the Bills after the 1985 season, when a second year of 2-14 football brought an end to Terry Bledsoe's time with the team. Along with many others in the Bills' front office, he played a leading role in revitalizing the team's image in western New York and the NFL, especially matters relating to fan experience. He was also involved in the partnership with Marine Midland Bank that led to the version of "Shout!" that we've all come to know and love.

Bringing in Kelly and Levy

Polian's crowning achievement with the Bills, and probably as an NFL executive, was signing Jim Kelly after the USFL folded in August of 1986. Kelly famously wanted nothing to do with Buffalo coming out of college, and two years in Houston had done little to change that. Polian was fielding offers for Kelly's rights, but decided to stand pat and try to change Kelly's mind. After several long and, at times, contentious days of negotiating, Kelly signed a then-record contract, paying him $8 million over five years.

In the middle of that 1986 season, then-head coach Hank Bullough was fired after locker room friction highlighted a poor start to the season. Polian made the move to bring in Marv Levy; the two had worked together at several stops over the years. The move was an overwhelming success, as Levy led the team out of the mid-'80s doldrums and back into contention by the end of the decade. Polian's move made Levy one of only two modern-era coaches (along with Sid Gillman) to enter the Hall of Fame after being tabbed as a mid-season hire.

Levy will present Polian for induction into the Hall of Fame tonight.

Trading for Bennett

Polian was always more averse to trades than your average general manager, thanks in part to an odd deal with Cleveland early in his tenure that involved an unwilling-to-report Chip Banks, but he could pull the trigger when he needed to.

In The Game Plan, Polian calls the three-team trade for Cornelius Bennett "..the move that would propel us from pretender to contender." Bennett, the No. 2 overall pick in 1987, hadn't been able to come to terms with the Colts, who were looking to move him rather than meet his demands. Polian gave up a king's ransom - running back Greg Bell, two first-round picks, and an additional second-round pick - but he picked up a linebacker who would make five Pro Bowls and record 52.5 sacks over his nine seasons with the Bills.

Polian and the draft

Polian had a hand in every Bills draft during his time with the team. Although he wasn't the sole decision-maker, and has always been quick to hand credit to scouts and coaches, he had a primary voice in who was being picked during his tenure. A complete list of Bills picks during the Polian era can be found here, but a few of the highlights:

  • Bruce Smith (No. 1 overall, 1985), Andre Reed (No. 86 overall, 1985), and Thurman Thomas (No. 40 overall, 1988) are all Hall of Fame members, now alongside the man who drafted them.
  • 10 of his picks made the Pro Bowl, including two appearances by what he considers to be his biggest steal, tackle Howard Ballard (No. 283 overall, 1987).
  • Only one player Polian picked in the first three rounds never started an NFL game, and all of his first-round picks started at least 27 (and even that player was Ronnie Harmon, who appeared in 181 games over 13 seasons).
  • 13 of Polian's picks started at least 100 NFL games, and 16 more appeared in over 100 games in all.
Working the waiver wire

Free agency was a much different animal when Polian was running the Bills. The system that's around today was implemented in 1993, just after Polian left the Bills organization. Still, there was a system in place during his run, and the team acquired some great players during his tenure.

  • Kent Hull, a player Polian compared to a famous tough-guy actor, was signed after the USFL folded. Hull hadn't been drafted into the NFL and, therefore, no team held his rights.
  • Shortly after hiring Levy, a former special teams coach, Polian signed Steve Tasker off waivers from Houston. Tasker went on to become the greatest special teams player in NFL history.
  • In 1989, Polian acquired a 33-year-old James Lofton off waivers from Oakland. The former Green Bay standout was a bit player during his first season in Buffalo, but was a strong contributor for the remainder of Polian's tenure, even earning a Pro Bowl invite in 1991.
After the Bills

Ralph Wilson informed Polian prior to the 1992 regular season that he would be let go as general manager of the Bills, but he was allowed to play out the season, which ended with the first loss to Dallas in Super Bowl XVII. After leaving Buffalo, Polian was given the reigns of the expansion Carolina Panthers. After beginning play in 1995, the roster he put together made an appearance in the NFC championship game the very next year.

Following the 1997 season, Polian left to take a position as team president of the Indianapolis Colts. He stayed with that franchise until 2013, enjoying a wildly successful tenure that saw him finally win a Super Bowl ring in the 2006 season. Having quarterback Peyton Manning fall into his lap certainly helped, but he made several pickups that helped the team remain successful for a decade and a half.

In the end, Polian is likely the best general manager the Bills' franchise has ever employed. He was the driving force behind putting together the team that went to four consecutive Super Bowls, and he was key in bringing a franchise that had become a true laughingstock back to respectability.