By dealing Montana to Kansas City in April of 1993, Policy made room for future All-Pro QB Steve Young, and got a nice package from the Chiefs in return.
But Policy didn't squeeze every last drop he could out of the deal. The reason why illustrates the challenging circumstances currently facing Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay.
Prior to trading Montana to Kansas City, the Niners were offered the Cardinals' first-round pick, third overall in the 1993 draft. The Niners wound up taking considerably less from the Chiefs -- packaging safety David Whitmore and a 1994 third-round pick with Montana for K.C.'s 1993 first-rounder (18th overall).
The Niners did it, in large part, in deference to the legend. Policy is clear that Montana was great through the process and never objected to playing in Arizona. But Policy knew the right thing to do was to do right by the player. That's something the Colts have to consider now, in a different-but-similar situation with Manning.
"[The things you're mindful of are] almost exactly the same things you would keep in mind with a breakup of a personal relationship," Policy said on Wednesday night. "Ideally, you maintain balance, calmness and objectivity, but sensitivity as well. You can't become overly aggressive or overly defensive. Also, you always have to keep your perspective, not only in the present situation, but also remembering how far you've come together, what you've accomplished as a partnership, all those great memories.
"Are they worth maintaining? If so, do everything you can to not tarnish them."
This moment for Manning and the Colts is coming in the next month. And just as Johnny Unitas finished a Charger, Joe Namath ended up a Ram, Montana was a Chief, Emmitt Smith last wore a Cardinal uniform and Brett Favre was a Jet and Viking, Manning likely will soon wear colors other than the Colts' blue and white.
So while the prospect of that No. 18 being stitched onto another jersey is still weird, these aren't exactly uncharted waters. Those who've been there before echo what Policy is saying: Respect for the player's situation is key.
With Smith, even as it became clear that then-new Cowboys coach Bill Parcells was planning to move in another direction, it was important that the legendary tailback heard first from the man signing his checks and making the final call. So when the decision was finally made, owner Jerry Jones -- who learned from botching the PR end of Tom Landry's dismissal in 1989 -- sat down with him.
"You don't want the news] to get to the player before you have a chance to talk to him," [Cowboys Executive Vice President/COO Stephen Jones said. "Our first thoughts were to get with the player, tell him that we want to handle it with class, and see how he wants to handle it. They don't want to hear it, period. And usually, the first reaction is that they're gonna be pissed, bitter, mad. You let them work through that, use their support group, the team's support group. You do your best. But it's not easy."
Some bitterness with Smith remained. He later referred to himself as a "diamond surrounded by trash" in his Dallas twilight, but the scars were far from permanent. In February 2005, he asked for and was granted his release by Arizona, so he could sign a ceremonial contract to retire as a Cowboy. Stephen Jones says the Cowboys expected some lingering resentment because "no players think it's over, especially the great ones." But the club kept it a priority to tread carefully because "our alumni is our lifeblood."
And any Smith/Cowboy dustups now look like lover's quarrels compared to what happened in Green Bay, where hard feelings linger between some in the organization and Favre. It wound up working out OK for both sides -- Favre played in an NFC title game with the Vikings and the Packers have a 28-year-old successor with league and Super Bowl MVPs already on his résumé -- but that doesn't mean there weren't mistakes made along the way that poisoned the relationship.
It goes right back to Stephen Jones' point on making conversations between the team and player frank and clear.
"I agree that, at the time, it was the proper decision to move on," said Andrew Brandt, a Packers VP until early 2008, just before Favre's first retirement. "We all felt so confident in Aaron, we thought he was ready. The problem was I never felt Brett's heart was in that retirement. And if the Packers had the courage in their convictions, they knew Brett would have that itch again. So you have to have that conversation. 'Just so you know, in case you're going to come back, we're handing the keys to Aaron.' "
To trace the issue back another step, Brandt says there was a belief in the organization that the reason Favre retired in the first place was because the club wasn't "wooing" him back the way it had in the past. Furthermore, there was a sense that had Favre decided to return in 2008, the Packers wouldn't have said no to him.
The bottom line is the situation became complicated because the player wasn't clear with the team, and the team wasn't clear with the player.
That brings us right back to the key in all of this: communication. It's something, clearly, the Colts struggled with over the past few weeks. This PR battle is about how each side will be seen in the aftermath of one of the highest profile breakups in NFL history.
But the truth is that more clarity between the two parties would be enormously helpful at all levels of the process.
Here's an example: As the Niners and Chiefs neared the consummation of their deal in 1993, Policy dispatched Montana to DeBartolo's Youngstown, Ohi, offices to break the news and explain why the trade was right. The quarterback and owner had a teary conversation there, and by the time it was over, the boss has convinced his employee to stay in San Francisco. Montana told Policy about it and asked Policy to talk with DeBartolo and explain why the trade needed to happen without emotion the quarterback could not avoid. The trade was finalized shortly thereafter.
Two years later, after leading the Chiefs to an AFC title game and watching Young win a Super Bowl, Montana was back to announce his retirement in the Bay Area after signing a one-day deal with his old team (like Smith did in Dallas). The way Policy and DeBartolo handled the whole situation allowed for this pleasant final chapter, something the Colts and Manning should heed now.
"Don't let him find out from his agent, who heard it from someone else, and don't let him find out in the newspaper," Policy said. "Joe was plugged into everything we were thinking and doing. I told him about all my conversations with (then-Chiefs GM) Carl Peterson, and said to him, 'If you hear something else, I'll get you on the phone with Carl and I so you get the whole story.' "
What Policy's saying is something Stephen Jones can explain clearly. He remembers Smith's comments about the state of the Cowboys. He also remembers showing restraint in responding.
"You can't hold anything against them. They've given a lot, their heart and soul to your team," Stephen Jones said. "It's no different than fighting with your wife. Maybe you say something you don't mean, but deep down, you love each other, and a little later, you see each other and everything's fine."
The final goodbyes still haven't been said in Indy. But there's another page out of the Niners' old playbook that might be worth reviewing for Irsay and Manning.
After all the fits and starts on the Montana deal were done, and he was truly on his way to Kansas City -- and not Phoenix -- the Niners held a press conference to announce the franchise-shaking move. Outside, DeBartolo's driver was waiting for Montana. He'd take the quarterback to the executive airport, where the owner's private jet would whisk him off to Missouri.
The little things count.
"Ultimately, what you want is a total reconciliation," Policy said, "so when the Hall of Fame calls, you can all be there together."