When Bill Polian took over the Buffalo Bills in 1986, interest in the franchise was at a historic low. The team was fresh off back-to-back 2-14 seasons. Jim Kelly was in the United States Football League. The roster was short on talent.
Then, everything changed. The Bills went on to reach an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls.
On Aug. 8, the general manager behind it all will finally get his due in Canton, Ohio.
Polian will join Kelly, Marv Levy, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, James Lofton and Ralph Wilson Jr. in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“You almost can’t put it into words,” Polian said on a conference call Thursday. “The Hall of Fame is not something someone like myself ever envisioned. … It’s just an incredibly momentous occasion and an incredible honor to think that you’re there with people you’ve revered and looked up to all your life.”
After Polian was named GM, the Bills went 4-12, 7-8 and then enjoyed one of the best stretches in NFL history. Polian was at the helm for three of the team’s four AFC championships.
Polian said the approach, the mind-set, was simple with this hodge-podge roster: Put the best team on the field and leave the past behind. He didn’t want his team “dragged down” by the past.
“Not to have that as a legacy that somehow affected us,” Polian said. “And most importantly, to put the very best team we could on the field. To be very aggressive in terms of not settling for second best, not making excuses, not allowing atmospheric or outside issues come into play. It was a straightforward, single-minded ‘let’s put the best team we can on the field and let’s win.’ ”
Polian was fired by Wilson in 1992 and he went on to build two more winners. With a flurry of free-agent signings, Polian took the expansion Carolina Panthers to the NFC Championship Game in their second year of existence. And then in Indianapolis he drafted Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf, continued to build through the draft, and proceeded to win eight division titles and one Super Bowl (2006).
The Bills tried luring Polian back this offseason to run their football operations, but he passed after seeing the departures of both the head coach (Doug Marrone) and quarterback (Kyle Orton).
Asked about this year’s team – and the offseason moves made since his decision – Polian cited Rex Ryan, the signing of LeSean McCoy, re-signing of Jerry Hughes and said it should be “an exciting year.” Yet he also noted the uncertainty at the most important position in the game.
“Obviously the big question is who plays quarterback?” Polian said. “And we’ll find that out as the preseason goes along. The battle for the starting job at that position will be I think the No. 1 story in Buffalo and maybe even around the National Football League as we go forward. I, like every other Bills fan, will be watching that with a lot of interest.”
Of course it all began in Buffalo for Polian, who was named the NFL Executive of the Year in 1988 and 1991.
He hopes he’s not the last person from those teams enshrined. Polian believes both center Kent Hull and special teams ace Steve Tasker should get the call. He called Tasker the greatest special teams player he’s ever seen and Hull the most “respected” and “feared” player on the team.
Polian knew that when he left Buffalo, it would be difficult for anyone to build a team like that again.
“I said at the time that I left, ‘Cherish them because you’ll not see their like again,’ ” Polian said.
“It was unlikely that there would be another team that was as good top to bottom as our team was, as the Cowboys of that era was and the 49ers, who kind of bridged both eras. … All three of those teams are very unique teams in pro football history because it’ll be very difficult unless there’s a major change in the labor situation and the collective bargaining agreement to put together a complete team like those three teams were.”