Bill Polian, in his 12th season as Colts president, has a resume unique in the NFL. One of two men to win NFL Executive of the Year five times, Polian in the 1980s built the Buffalo Bills into a four-time Super Bowl participant. In the mid-1990s, he built the expansion Carolina Panthers into a team that made the NFC Championship Game in its second season, 1996. Since joining Indianapolis in 1998, he built the Colts from a 3-13 team in 1997 and 1998 into one that has made the playoffs 10 of the last 11 seasons, including AFC Championship Game appearances after the 2003 and 2006 seasons, AFC South titles in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009 and a Super Bowl championship following the 2006 season. Each week during the season, in The Polian Corner, Polian and Colts.com will discuss issues pertinent to the Colts and the rest of the NFL.
Q: A 30-7 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday ended the Colts' regular season at 14-2. A successful regular season that ended with the Colts having home-field advantage throughout the playoffs . . .
A: Fourteen and two – a terrific year. The past, however, is prologue. What happens now is that everybody's 0-0. Six teams make it into the AFC playoffs. Everyone is 0-0. Every team is good. Every team has flaws. We were, because of the 14-2 record, able to do a marvelous and rarely-done thing, which is to ensure ourselves of home-field advantage for as long as we last in the playoffs. That's important for the following reason: everything that is written or spoken about these upcoming playoffs will have zero effect on how the game is played and what the outcome of the game will be. The only people who can affect the game will be the people in this building – the players, the coaches, the administrators . . . and our fans. One of the major reasons we're 14-2 is because we have the greatest fans in the league, and because this is the toughest place to play in the league. The fans are part of that 14-2. They're part of this marvelous decade, a huge part of this marvelous decade we just witnessed. We need them to be part of this journey upon which we're about to embark. Without them, we lose a valuable member of our team. They are the 12th Man. Rest those voices. Use the bye week to rest up. Get those voices in shape. Get the jerseys cleaned up. Use the bye week to rest and relax and let's come out on Saturday night the 16th of January at 8:15 and be the team – and by that I mean players, coaches, organization and fans – that we have been for the last 10 years that allowed us to be one of the premier teams in the league.
Q: Colts fans have been strikingly loyal and important in recent years, haven't they?
A: You talk to players around the league. Look at any survey that's taken among players. They'll tell you that Indianapolis is, if not the toughest place to play in the league, one of the two or three toughest. When you get into a playoff situation where emotion carries so much and where every little mistake is magnified because of what's at stake, that advantage is gigantic. Just stop and think about this for a moment. Is New England quite as uncomfortable executing that audible (in a November Colts victory)? Are they more crisp at home than they would have been on the road? Is it difficult to communicate? They would be much better off at home. We're at a huge advantage at our place if our fans continue to be into it as they have. We need them to be. That's the message that I think everybody in this organization wants to convey to the fans: 'Not only are you in large measure responsible for the 14-2 and for getting us here, and for getting us home-field, but we need you now more than ever.' That's what the home-field is all about.
Q: Is this team, once healthy, where you want it to be going into the playoffs?
A: I think so. (Former Los Angeles Dodgers Manager) Tommy Lasorda once said, 'Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher,' and I tend to agree with him. It's who you have out there that is really important. I thought Sunday when the fellows that were healthy were in the game – which you want them to be – you want them to be in the game. We don't rest people. You may take them out to avoid the exposure to injury, but when they're in there, they're expected to play and play well. We did do that offensively. Now, defensively we were sort of Raggedy Andy, but when you stop and think about it, here are the guys who were out injured Sunday – injured, not resting. Injured. Clint Session. Ryan Diem. Jerraud Powers. Chad Simpson. Pierre Garcon. Charlie Johnson. (Antonio) "Mookie" Johnson. Melvin Bullitt. Gijon Robinson. Keyunta Dawson. Robert Mathis. Joseph Addai and Dwight Freeney would have played had it been a playoff game, but in any other regular-season situation – record or not, they would have been held out as they were Sunday. The bottom line is that's 14 players you're missing who are front-liners. It's pretty hard to play with any kind of continuity when that takes place. But back healthy, with two weeks to practice, with all cylinders clicking as we have been in the past – and with the fans behind us as they have been in the past – I think we'll be a darned formidable team.
Q: The Colts will practice three days this week. Head Coach Jim Caldwell said Monday this is a very fundamental-oriented week.
A: Jim is in many ways influenced by (Penn State Head Coach) Joe Paterno. One of the reasons Joe Paterno has won a record 23 bowl games is that when they approach a bowl game once the regular season ends they go back and have spring practice. We can't do that, obviously. They have 105 guys. We have 53. But they go back and concentrate on fundamentals: 'Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.' We will go back this week to a very fundamental week: work on blocking and tackling. We'll have some contact. We'll work on the basic fundamentals of our offense and our defense. That will get us in position where we can retrace the steps we took in training camp and in OTAs, then get ready to go back into a preparation mode on Tuesday when we find out ultimately who our opponent will be.
Q: Do you like the Saturday night date?
A: The bottom line is you play when they tell you to play where they tell you to play. The fact is, and I can't overemphasize this, that the home-field advantage is critical. It's critical not because you don't have to travel. I think we're the best road team in the league over the last five years. That's not the issue. The issue is that you have the home fans behind you. You have the 12th Man on your side. That's really what we need to have.
Q: You've played two of the potential opponents – the Jets and Ravens – in the regular season and Cincinnati in the preseason. Does that help?
A: What it does is it gives you at least a working knowledge of their personnel. We saw Cincinnati's first club for about a quarter (in the preseason finale) and it was obvious they were a playoff team at that point in time. I said that after the game. This is a group that we have not seen in anger, if you will, in a regular-season game where they substitute tactically the way they do normally. That's going to take some getting used to, and I suspect the vast majority of us will be glued to the television set when they play the Jets. Our focus will largely be on Cincinnati. We played the Jets very recently. That's pretty recent. (The regular-season meeting with) Baltimore is a little ways away. (Running back) Ray Rice is playing a larger role now than he did then. That's plenty of reason to lose sleep, because he's a great back, but there is some familiarity there. There will be some carryover, but Cincinnati is the one team we didn't play recently that we need to pay close attention to. They're a very good football team, and they will have (running back) Cedric Benson back and they will have (defensive tackle) Domata Peko back. They will be at full strength.
Q: The Colts' injured players: do you believe all or most will be ready to go for the playoffs?
A: There are always things that crop up that you never anticipate, but I think, by and large, we achieved one of the goals we had of getting to the postseason as healthy as we can be. There are no glaring long-termers out there on the horizon. There are guys who probably won't be full strength this week but the expectation is virtually everyone will be next week.
Q: And as you said, fan support will be critical . . .
A: We're all in this together. We can only go so far as all of us help each other go.
Q: Can you explain why many of the Colts' starters played nearly a quarter Sunday?
A: First of all, personal milestones are important in that they play a vast role – perhaps too much of a role – in Hall of Fame, All-Decade Teams, things of that nature. So, for players and for posterity and for that player's individual ranking within posterity, it plays a role. I guess as a football purist I'd rather that it didn't, but the fact is that it does. I've always worried that (former Buffalo Bills running back) Thurman Thomas would not make the Hall of Fame because he essentially sacrificed two rushing titles in order to keep himself healthy for the playoffs (in the early 1990s). We subsequently made the Super Bowl in each of those years. I worried terribly it would be held against him. Fortunately, it was not. That's why those things are important. Jim Caldwell told the team that if in the regular flow of the game you could reach a couple of those milestones – in this case it happened to be (tight end) Dallas (Clark) getting 100 catches, which has only been done once by a tight end in history. So, it's a very rare achievement. And (wide receiver) Reggie (Wayne) getting 100 catches, which of course is a milestone for any receiver and would be a tremendous milestone for Reg, who in the early part of his career was the companion to (former Colts wide receiver) Marvin (Harrison), who is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Those would be important milestones to reach – if we could reach them in the normal flow of the game. The first series was unsatisfactory because we threw an interception. We weren't going to close it out on that series, because you want to be sharp. When we came in on the second series, we scored a touchdown. That was better. We were in flow and we were moving and the weather was not affecting us. Jim elected to let them go and try with one more series to see if they could reach it. At that point, they were seriously within reach. That was the decision. It was a good decision. It was the right decision. Fortunately, everybody came out of it OK.
Q: Does the injury to New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker last Sunday help illustrate the Colts' late-season approach?
A: You hate to see anybody get hurt. This is a game in which, unfortunately, injury plays a large role. When you have a player like Wes Welker, you really, really hate to see him get hurt. He's such an asset to the game, and he's such a good player. But obviously, it is part of the problem we run into in this game. I heard some discussion – just a snippet – Monday and someone was talking, 'Well, in basketball they rest people, and in baseball, they rest people. They clearly do in baseball, with the 40-man roster at the end of the season, but those are long seasons and football is not a long season.' Of course, what was missing in that discussion clearly is the fact that injuries play such a critical role in our game. We have probably at least 10 times as many injuries as baseball and 25-to-50 times as many as basketball. It's just a completely different situation and that comparison, I don't think, is really germane.
Q: The Buffalo Bills really seemed to do a great job preparing and playing Sunday . . .
A: I have to take my hat off to (Buffalo Bills Interim Head Coach) Perry Fewell and his whole staff for having that team play as hard as it did – and (former Head Coach) Dick Jauron, before he was fired – as physically as they did and as well as they did, with all of the uncertainty that surrounded it and all of the injuries they've had. They did a remarkable job and certainly deserved a better fate.
Q: Some fans seem to still feel while they support the team the team let them down not pursuing an unbeaten regular season more aggressively . . .
A: As I said before, the past is prologue. There's nothing we can do to change what's happened in the past – the 14 wins or the two losses. There's nothing we can do about that except perhaps to celebrate it. You make the point that you (fans) expect winning: believe me, winning is not easy in this league and I'm glad that you've come to expect it. I really am. You (fans) are a big part of it. We can't do it without you. As we approach the playoffs, which is the critical time when we really need that support and when the margin of error and the difference between teams shrink dramatically – everybody's good in the playoffs. Everybody has flaws, too. There are no Superteams, but everybody is good. That's why they got here. We sold out to get the home-field advantage. All of those injuries that I cited are proof of that. We sold out to get the home-field advantage. Guys played hurt all season long. We played nail-biter games all season long. We don't need to repeat that. Everybody knows that, but the bottom line is we now have the home-field advantage. We have what everybody fought so hard for. We need everybody's support going forward. We need everybody to play their role. It isn't a matter of support. It's a matter of playing their role. The crowd is a major, major factor in our building. That's why we fought so hard to get the home-field advantage. The past is prologue. That's over and done with, and now we need to get on with the job of trying to go as far as we can go in the playoffs. We need the fans very badly in order to that.
Q: Can you update the status of S-Bob Sanders and does the team plan to keep him?
A: He has had tough luck the past two years with injuries. There is no doubt about that. Personally, after speaking to the doctors and speaking with Bob himself, we see no reason not to bring him back. We all agree that he is a dynamite player and a guy who brings a dynamic set of skills. Sometimes that dynamic set of skills leads to injury that maybe the average player would not incur because he hits so hard. If you're asking me, 'Is that dynamic set of skills a good tradeoff for perhaps not being available all of the time?' I'd probably say yes. We anticipate that Bob will be back hale and hardy and ready to go, and that there won't be any problems. He'll have the first offseason he has had in the past four years without surgery. That's going to be a good thing for him. It's going to be good for his mental frame of mind, and it certainly will be good for his body. We look forward to having him back. He's an impact player. I would refer you to the (Pittsburgh) Steelers, who were the defending Super Bowl champions and who did not make the playoffs this year. I think they would probably tell you, in large measure, because Troy Polamalu, their great safety who is often compared to Bob and Bob to him, was missing for a good portion of the season. Those kinds of unique players, those kinds of dynamic players, you don't part with very willingly.
Q: When referees conference on the field, is there any way to keep players from getting in the face of officials when they're making their decisions?
A: No player, first of all, may touch an official under any circumstances. Secondly, the wing officials principally – or the unoccupied officials – are instructed in those kinds of situations to make sure they remove players who are in the vicinity of the officials. Under no circumstances are players allowed to interject their opinions or their thoughts into a crew conference. Crew conferences, it seems, have been reduced. At least that's my impression. I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. The fact that they get together and talk about it and arrive at the right decision is really a good thing. The rule is in the book and if it is not being enforced adequately, then the league certainly needs to take steps to be certain that it is. I have not seen any egregious examples that I can think of, but I don't watch every game on television. The vast majority of games I see are on tape, so that part of it would not be in (the tape). You may have a better point of reference than I.
Q: And players absolutely can't touch officials . . .
A: That is ironclad. You simply cannot contact an official. We had a player fined this year – it's erroneous and I'm sure it will be rescinded – but we had a player fined who happened to bump into the official in the course of making a play. He knocked the official down, and they fined him. As I say, it's erroneous and probably will be rescinded, but that's ironclad. You simple cannot touch an official.
Q: How concerned are you about the Colts' long layoff before the first playoff game. Against the Jets, the Colts seemed sluggish after a 10-day layoff . . .
A: You have the symptom. I'm not sure the diagnosis is correct. You're quite correct that we weren't in sync in the first half of the Jets game, but rather than attributing that to a layoff, I would attribute it to the fact that we were a very tired team. I mentioned earlier that we had expended all of the energy we could to get that 13th win and secure the home-field advantage, which is so critically important and we need the fans to provide that advantage. They're part of the team. That's the 12th Man. Then, we had a short week – an incredibly short week. Think about this: all-out game Sunday, Monday off, Tuesday practice, Wednesday practice, get on a plane, play Thursday night – almost impossible to do. Then, we played a knock-down, drag-out game against a team that really, really wants to beat us. That game at their place (in Jacksonville) is one of the highlights of the year for them. It was the only sellout they had all year. Part of that is that it's a division opponent and one they feel they absolutely have to beat. Emotion was running high. It took a lot out of us. We were a pretty beaten up and beaten down football team when we came into that Jets game. You're seeing and I'm seeing the same symptoms. I'm just saying I think the cause is fatigue as opposed to rustiness. One of the ways you deflect and do away with rustiness is to is do what we did Sunday – play as many people who are healthy as long as you reasonably can, keeping mind that you don't want to risk injury, but get them enough (work) to keep them sharp and keep them humming. I think we did that Sunday. We certainly did it for two-and-a-half quarters against the Jets. Really, when you boil it all down, what we're discussing is probably one series against the Jets. The fact of the matter is I believe we'll come into this game in good shape, healthy and playing our best football.
Q: Can you comment on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell saying the league may ask the Competition Committee to consider ways of getting teams to play starters late in the season?
A: Unfortunately, I cannot. I did not hear his comments, nor did I read anything about them. Someone told me Monday that the gist of his comments was that he was going to discuss with the Competition Committee what his feelings were. That's all I know. Certainly at the time he's ready to do that, as a member of the committee, I'll be very respectful and listen to what he has to say, but I can't tell you anymore than that right now.
Q: One thought is draft selections might be used as an enticement . . .
A: I don't know how you would do that. It needs lot of discussion and explanation. I will say this: I think it was Commissioner Tagliabue who brought it to us as a Competition Committee some years ago. The coaches – and the non-coaching members of the committee concurred – were adamant about the fact that they wanted the freedom to make decisions on the rosters themselves in what they felt was the best interest of their football team. The only comment that I've seen personally was one from Greg Aiello, who is the NFL's director of information, who said that it is the league policy that each club makes it own decision with respect to that. I have not seen or heard the Commissioner's remarks.
Q: A lot of people are tired of hearing the fans complain about the past couple of games, particularly considering the injury to Welker in New England . . .
A: I respect the opinions of every fan. You're entitled to your opinion. Everybody in this building respects your opinion. We have ours, and they differ. Sometimes we're right. Sometimes you're right. That's what makes the world go around. The most important thing, however, to us is to have home-field advantage throughout (the playoffs) as long as we play. I'm not one to say we're the best team in the National Football League. In fact, I never say that. Every team in the playoffs is a good team. Every team has some flaws. No one's perfect. The salary-cap system sees to it that that's the case. The bottom line is getting home-field advantage was a terrific, terrific accomplishment. It has sort of been lost in the shuffle, but it's not there any longer. The past is prologue. What's done is done. Now, we have to look to the future, to the playoffs. We have gotten here and gotten home-field because the fans are an integral part – the 12th Man is an integral part – of what we do. We need them 100 percent and fired up.
Q: And now, the Colts are two home victories from the Super Bowl . . .
A: Let's get the first one first. One game at a time. Let's get that one. We need everybody behind us to give it our best shot in that first ballgame.
Q: The Colts are playing on Saturday in the Divisional Playoff round. With the best record, shouldn't they get to play Sunday?
A: It's no longer done what way. Many years ago, it was usually done with two things in mind – No. 1, weather, so that you would never get a late game in Buffalo, New England, Green Bay, etc. And secondly, it was generally done with the seeding mind, so that the team with the best record usually got the best seed, or at least close to it. That is no longer the case. The reason for that is very simple – the two byes. Once they went to the Wild Card round and you had the two byes, the league office feels that the bye for the two teams that have the best record in each conference is ample reward for what they've done. They then schedule with the idea of television ratings, travel, things of that nature, in mind. Obviously, weather is no longer a concern, because they have had evening games in New England forever. They've had some in Green Bay, so that's no longer an issue. Like everything else in this world and this country, times have changed. But the idea is that the bye is the reward for what you have achieved in the regular season, and we have earned that. That was the most important accomplishment of the season, so obviously we need to make good use of it in the week to come.
Q: What is the rule on roster moves in the postseason?
A: We're allowed four moves starting Monday all the way through to the last game of the season. You cannot make more than two moves in a given week. On game day, the regular rules prevail – an hour and a half before the game on game day.
Q: Any final thoughts as you enter the postseason?
A: It is very hard to win in this league, and what we've accomplished this year with 14 wins and getting the home-field throughout is a major accomplishment. It's rare. It doesn't happen very often. The reason it's so important is we do have the benefit of the best fans in football. The past is prologue. We need everyone to come together now. It's in our hands – fans, team – we can make this happen. But we can't do it without you.