Should Bill Polian be in the Hall of Fame? (updated: 1/15)

Before any discussion of Polian’s credentials, let’s begin with an understanding that ‘Team Builders’ do not make the Hall of Fame unless they are also owners.  In the history of the NFL, only 2 men have made it to Canton, OH primarily as team administrators.  This piece will compare Bill Polian’s record with theirs to determine if he belongs alongside them.First, however, examine the hard facts of Polian’s 24 year career as General Manager:

1986 – 1993 Buffalo Bills

Convinced Jim Kelly (HoF) to come and play for Buffalo

Hired Marv Levy (HoF) to be head coach

Drafted Thurman Thomas (HoF) in the second round

2 time winner “Executive of the Year” 1988, 1991

4 Division Titles (5 playoff appearances in 7 years)

1 AFC title game loss

Bills won 3 consecutive AFC Championships under Polian

Franchise Winning % for 7 years before he was GM:  .419

Franchise Winning % for 7 years he was GM: .622

Franchise Winning % for 7 years after he left: .589

1994 – 1996 Carolina Panthers

First General Manager of the Panthers

2 Time Executive of the year (1995, 1996)

Played in the NFC Title game in second year of existence as a franchise

1 Playoff appearance in 2 years

Franchise Winning % for 2 years he was GM: .594

Franchise Winning % for 2 years after he left:  .343

1998 – Present  Indianapolis Colts

Franchise Winning % for 13 years prior to arrival: .406

Selected Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf

Selected Edgerrin James over Ricky Williams

Hired Tony Dungy as head coach

2 Time Executive of the year: 1999, 2009

8 Division Titles (11 playoff appearances in 13 years)

1 AFC title game loss

2 AFC Championships

1 Super Bowl Championship

Franchise Winning % for 13 years he has been GM: .679

Observations on Polian’s record:

  1. It is hard to attribute wins to GMs in many cases, especially in the modern days, because coaches often have control over drafting and other personnel moves.  In Polian’s case, he has always been ‘the man’ who made the decisions.  This strengthens his case.
  1. He turned losers into winners. His performance with the Panthers is certainly indicative of a man who understood the system and played it expertly.
  1. His teams have appeared in 8 conference title games  and 5 Super Bowls in 22 years.  His teams have won the division in more than half of the seasons he was GM. His teams have had 5 losing seasons in 22 years.  Most of those (4) were in the first two years of his tenure as GM as he rebuilt whole rosters.  With Polian as GM, your team is more likely to play for a spot in the Super Bowl than it is to finish below .500
  1. His draft record and control of personnel is impeccable.
  1. He provided an atmosphere where innovation was encouraged.  The K-Gun, the Zone Blitz, and Manning calling all the plays were fostered under his oversight.
  1. He has been chosen Executive of the Year a record 6 times in just 22 seasons.

There is little question that Polian’s record is completely unimpeachable in terms of building teams that are consistent winners.  His acumen as a GM is not in question.  The issue is whether this is enough to overcome the selection committee’s bias reticence to select pure GMs to the Hall.  Now let’s compare Polian to the two men who did make in.

Jim Finks

1964-1973 Minnesota Vikings

1974-1982 Chicago Bears

1986-1992 New Orleans Saints

Here is his bio according to the Hall of Fame web site:

Minnesota fans remember Jim Finks as the man who elevated the struggling expansion Vikings to championship status. Chicagoans recall him as the executive who restored the Bears’ winning tradition.

New Orleans partisans salute Finks as the savior who brought the Saints their first winning season. Finks built perennial losers into playoff and Super Bowl teams in a stellar career as one of football’s most respected executives.

He placed indelible stamps upon the Vikings, Bears and Saints. All three franchises flourished with players developed by Finks. Finks drafted nineteen of the Bears’ 22 starters in the Super Bowl XX win over New England. Finks was named the general manager of the Vikings in 1964.

Not a quick-fix artist, his moves were tailored for the long haul. His program began paying dividends four years later when Minnesota won its first of five divisional titles. The Vikings also advanced to the Super Bowl twice during Finks’ tenure in Minnesota that ended following the 1973 season. The Vikings leader was not afraid to make controversial decisions and he proved that in 1966 when coach Norm Van Brocklin and quarterback Fran Tarkenton feuded. Finks traded Tarkenton to the New York Giants. And when Van Brocklin resigned a few months later, Finks tapped an obscure CFL coach, Bud Grant, to lead the Vikings.

The Bears, who had not won a championship since 1963, hired Finks as general manager and executive vice-president just before the 1974 season. The Bears, under Finks’ leadership, were a playoff team again in 1977 and 1979. He resigned following the 1982 season.

In 1986, Finks signed on with the Saints. In his second season at the helm, the Saints became winners for the first time in their 19-season history. Then, in 1991, the team captured its first-ever division crown. A long-time member of the NFL’s competition committee, Finks also played quarterback and defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, 1949-1955.

Super Bowls won: 0, 3 NFC Championships

Vikings Win %:  .622, 2 division titles, 3 conference titles

Bears Win %:  .422

Saints Win %: .621  1 division title

Tex Schramm

1947-56 LA Rams

1960-89 Dallas Cowboys

1989-90 Commissioner World League of American Football

Tex Schramm, except for a three-year stint as assistant director of sports for CBS television in the late 1950s, played a dynamic role in professional football throughout a 44-year span between 1947 and 1990.

He began his NFL career as publicity director of the Los Angeles Rams and finished as president and chief executive officer of the World League of American Football. In between, he served the Rams for 10 seasons and the Dallas Cowboys for 29 years.

Schramm earned his journalism degree at the University of Texas. After two years as a sports writer with the American-Statesman in Austin, Texas, Schramm moved to Los Angeles to join the Rams. He advanced through the ranks and was general manager of the team when he joined CBS in 1957.

Tex joined the Cowboys at the time of the team’s inception in 1960. In a 29-year tenure that ended after the 1988 season, Schramm fashioned the Cowboys into one of the showcase franchises of all professional sports. His Cowboys teams played in five Super Bowls, winning two, had 20 consecutive winning seasons, and 18 playoff appearances in those 20 years.

Schramm’s contributions to pro football did not stop with the Cowboys however. For 23 years, he was the chairman of the influential NFL competition committee. Along with Lamar Hunt, he was a leading force in the AFL-NFL merger that was culminated in 1970.

Schramm introduced the concept of three divisions in each of two conferences with wild-card playoff teams. He led the fight for instant replay as an officiating tool and a fan-interest enhancer. He was a leading advocate of such innovations as a referee’s microphone, a 30-second clock between plays, extra-wide sideline borders, wind-direction strips on goal post, uprights and multicolor striping for 20- and 50-yard lines.

Observations:

  1. Tex Schramm is in a totally different class than Finks and Polian.  He was an innovator who pushed the boundaries of football.  If this is the HoF standard, then almost no one can get in.
  2. Both men have had much longer careers than Polian, a function of them coming to the league when it was still young.  Finks served as GM for 24 years, Schramm for nearly 40.  Polian is already in his 70s and may not have many more years left in him.  Polian’s record is superior to Finks.  He has a better winning %, more title game appearances, and far more division crowns.  He, like Finks, took moribund teams to respectability.

Conclusion: Polian is a better candidate than at least half of the pure GMs in the Hall of Fame.  Unfortunately, there are only two of them.  It’s very difficult to compare Polian’s record to that of his peers, due to the number of GMs whose control of player movement is really dictated by an owner or a coach.  Polian, ever the exception, is the architect of many great teams.  His record is strong enough for inclusion, but based on the dearth of GMs in the Hall, I have no choice but to seriously doubt his eventual enshrinement.

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