Is Colts General Manager Chris Polian a Toxic Byproduct of Nepotism?

Though its often forgotten, Chris Polian had multiple chances to sit at a press conference by himself for other NFL organizations. (Darron Cummings | AP Photo)

In his Sunday Column, IndyStar Columnist Bob Kravitz writes that GM Chris Polian is at least partly to blame for the Colts 0-9 start. Kravitz cites former Colts employees – who spoke anonymously for various reasons – saying that Chris Polian “has been a toxic force who has brought this franchise to its knees for reasons other than Peyton Manning’s injury.” Kravitz goes on to imply that Chris Polian’s sole reason for rising through the ranks of the Colts organization is due to the fact that he is Bill Polian’s son. To support his point, Kravitz lists various organizational personnel decisions and draft picks and points to them as evidence of Polian’s toxicity. The first question I asked myself after reading this article is “what was the motivation for it?” Bob Kravitz has stated publicly many times that he is not a fan of Bill Polian’s arrogant nature. He has had issues with the way the local media – which basically consists of his paper – is treated by the Colts: the denial of media availability of certain staff or players, the way “leaks” tend to find their way to the national media before the local guys, and so on. When writing a story such as this, a story that seems to clearly be a “hit piece” during a time when there seems to be a legitimate reason for the Colts’ poor start, I have to wonder: is there some bias at play? As I wrote last week, the Colts are vulnerable for the first time in the Polian era. Is this just Kravitz taking a shot at the Polians because he can?

As for Kravitz’s sources, he describes them as not going on the record because “many have non-disclosure agreements and fear public comment will hurt their NFL job prospects” – being former Colts employees, is it possible that some of them have an axe to grind? Perhaps all of them are rational, cool-headed individuals who hold no ill will towards the Colts or the Polians, but it is fair to question their motives. The fact that many of the former Colts employees listed by Kravitz have been “former Colts employees” for some time, yet are still unemployed, seems to suggest that they should be more worried about their skill level keeping them from employment, as opposed to private gripes about an ex-boss. There is, of course, a sure-fire way to protect yourself from claims of bias: facts. Kravitz lists a lot of organizational decisions – draft picks and firings, mainly – but do any of them point to evidence that Polian carries out decisions based on his lust for control? Is there any evidence that any of these moves hurt the Colts, and, more to the point, are directly responsible for the Colts 0-9 start to the season? Let’s start with the firings, here is the list of people – per Kravtiz’s column – that the Colts have fired (or otherwise let go of) since 2004 — year the person was fired in parentheses:

  • Scout Tom Gamble (2004)
  • Scout Paul Roell (2006, post draft)
  • Director of college scouting Mike Butler (2006 after the draft)
  • Scout David Caldwell (2007)
  • Coordinator of player personnel John Becker (2008)
  • Area scout Ryan Cavanaugh (2008)
  • Assistant general manager/scouting Dom Anile (2009)
  • Offensive line coach Howard Mudd (2009)
  • Running backs coach Gene Huey (2010)
  • Offensive coordinator Tom Moore (2010)

[Note: From the tone of Kravtiz's descriptions, it seems like the likely candidates for "anonymous sources" would be Anile, Mudd, Huey, and Moore. This is just speculation on my part based on the biting, angry description Kravitz has for each of their firings.] I’ll start with the coaches first, as they are the easiest to judge. Howard Mudd, the Colts offensive line coach, was beloved by fans and media alike. Experts often claimed he could work miracles with unwanted offensive linemen – a trait the Colts seemed to buy into given their proclivity for comprising their offensive line of either late-round draft picks or undrafted free agents. Mudd lost his magic touch in 2008, however, as the Colts had one of the worst offensive lines in the league with a league-worst 3.4 yards per-carry (ypc) average, and 79.6 rushing yards per game (ypg) (31st in the league). The unit did not fare much better in 2009, as they helped running backs to a 3.5 ypc average (30th in the league) and a league-worst 80.9 ypg. Slight improvement was accomplished in the first year after Mudd’s dismissal, as the Colts 3.8 ypc average was good for 25th in the league, though their 92.7 ypg totals were still 29th. The second year under a new coaching staff and philosophy brought stark change, however, as the Colts rushing attack through 8 weeks has gained 4.5ypc (good for 9th) and 102.1 ypg (22nd). Looking at advanced metrics confirms the base numbers: in 2008 they were 23rd in DVOA, in 2009 they were 25th, in 2010 they were 22nd, and in 2011 they are 7th through 8 weeks. At the end of his article Kravtiz notes: “It wasn’t Caldwell who chose to start the season with a paper-thin secondary. It wasn’t Caldwell who woke up one day and said, ‘Gosh, I’d really like to start the season with four offensive linemen who are either starting for the first time or playing a new position.’” While the criticism of the secondary certainly seems valid – though, with the way Larry Coyer is destroying the Cover-2, who really knows how good or bad those players are – the note about the offensive line seems out of place, as it has been one of the strongest units on the team. Looking at the numbers, perhaps the Polians felt that they needed a new voice, a new philosophy along the offensive line. If so, the numbers, while part of a limited sample, seem to indicate they were right. Gene Huey was let go at the end of the 2010 season. Many fans – and even some media – were outraged at his dismissal after 18 years with the club. As noted under the Mudd section, the Colts offensive line and running game struggled for a long period of time (2008-2010) and was seen by many as the weak link of the team. Did Chris Polian fire Huey unjustly? Let us take a look at the two running backs that were with the Colts both pre- and post-Huey: Donald Brown and Joseph Addai.  

Joseph Addai Yards Per Carry DVOA Rank
2006 4.8  5th
2007  4.1 7th
2008  3.5 26th
2009  3.8  17th
2010  4.3  8th
2011  4.4  7th*

 

Donald Brown Yards Per Carry DVOA Rank
2009 3.6 41st*
2010 3.9 29th
2011 4.8 2nd*

* – denotes approximate position, player did not receive enough carries to be officially ranked, but this is where their DVOA would have slotted them There are two things you should take from these stats. First, Joseph Addai is really good. Some people forget that, don’t be one of them. Second, while Addai’s been a pretty consistent performer despite a poor offensive line and injury problems, Donald Brown has really improved this year. Part of that could be attributed to better line play in front of him, but Brown must get some of the credit as well. And while Brown struggled with his biggest weakness early in the 2011 season – pass blocking – he has definitely progressed in that area this year — and has shown signs of being at least an average blocking back. Gene Huey coached with the Colts organization for 18 years. Bill Polian had 13 years to fire him if this were about pushing unwelcomed voices out the door. Chris Polian had 7 years to do the same. Perhaps this was not about finding someone that would agree with Chris Polian as much as it was finding someone that could better develop the running backs on the roster. Tom Moore is a saint. I have nothing bad to say about Tom Moore (and if you do, go away!). I also have very little in the way of samples, stats, or anything else to argue the points Kravitz makes. Given the way both QBs Painter and Collins have played this season, it is hard to imagine Tom Moore having any more success than the current staff has had. The scouting staff is much harder to discuss as we simply do not know what goes on behind closed doors — what scouts were responsible for what regions, who was high on what players, which scouts were against which players – all of this is information we will never know. What I did find interesting, however, is that Kravitz points to four specific drafts – 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 – as weak points for the Colts organization. Kravitz then mentions that four scouting department members – David Caldwell (2007), John Becker (2008), Ryan Cavanaugh (2008),  Dom Anile (2009) – were fired after some of those drafts. All of this begs the question: if the drafts were as bad as Kravtiz is suggesting, would it not be normal to hold someone accountable? The bigger issue, in my mind, is that Kravitz is making an issue out of these firings. Don’t most organizations go through some kind of turnover every year? It seems pretty reasonable, expected even, for organizations to make tweaks to their staff in an effort to put the best possible team on the field — especially an organization that Kravitz has said chokes. Would it not be worse if the Colts were – as Kravitz says – chokers, and they did nothing to improve their team – on and off the field? Regarding Kravitz’s specific claims of poor drafting from the Colts, I will say this: a lot of intelligent words have been written about the Colts drafting, and I feel like I’m becoming a broken record on the subject. To list the players the Colts have drafted from 2007 to 2010 and say, “the Colts are bad at drafting, end of discussion” without any context, research, or deeper understanding of the purpose of the NFL draft is lazy and irresponsible. The Colts have had the lowest average draft position of the entire league since 2007. Their first round picks are basically early second round selections. To expect consistent Pro Bowl talent (let alone the Hall of Fame talent some seem to be demanding) from their draft position is both unreasonable and unrealistic. Further, the NFL draft is designed to be a talent drain on the best teams while filtering the best talent to the worst teams. The fact that the Colts went a decade without a disastrous season speaks to their ability to build a team. If you want to read about these topics in more detail, I’ll point you to two of my past articles: Rebuilding a Franchise and Questioning the Colts, as well as the Draft Project at 18to88.com, as well as this piece on 18to88.com from Ajit Kirpekar examining the first round of the draft. Finally, there are the claims of nepotism. These are the toughest of the claims to deal with, because no one knows what is going on in Bill Polian’s mind, but perhaps we can get a clue of some of his qualifications from one of the very men that Kravitz claimed were pushed out the door by Chris Polian: In an article from 2007, Dom Anile called Chris Polian, “the best research-and-development guy I’ve ever seen”, high praise for a man that many apparently think rose through the ranks due to his name. But praise alone is not enough to validate Chris Polian’s status as GM of the Colts. So why don’t we let not one, not two, but three other NFL teams do that for us: the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers tried to make Chris Polian their GM in 2005 and the Atlanta Falcons attempted to do the same in 2008. The next year Jim Irsay would put a stop to any outside attempts to poach Chris Polian by promoting him to General Manager of the Colts. As Brad Wells put it, Bill and Chris Polian both locked up for at least three more seasons was “A nice thought for Colts fans, indeed.” The Colts are a bad team for the first time in a long time. Many people seem unwilling or unable to accept the obvious answer: that they were built around the best player of their era and have been unable to overcome his injury. Instead, those people have embarked on a mission to figure out what is wrong with this team and who is to blame. Most wind up blaming the same people: the Polians. After all, their arrogant, condescending tone makes them easy targets. I believe Bob Kravtiz had sources that made the claims that Kravitz reported, but is it news that an ex-employee might bad mouth his employer? I believe some coaches have been fired after many years of service to the Colts, but while it’s tough to see those coaches go, the units they left behind have improved under new leadership. I believe that the Colts have missed on some draft picks, but to say they are bad at drafting is flat out wrong. I believe that Chris Polian is a General Manager that happens to be Bill Polian’s son, not a General Manager because he is Bill Polian’s son. And I believe that, despite a poor 2011 season, Chris Polian will do what his father did before him: turn a bad Colts team into something special.

-Special thanks to Laura Calaway with her help researching the various links in this article
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