Constants such as Polian, Manning keep Colts among contenders

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Indianapolis Colts have undergone plenty of changes in the past year.

New coach. New wide receivers. New defensive backs. New offensive linemen. New defensive linemen.

Yet, they're back in the Super Bowl because a couple of key areas have remained the same: Peyton Manning is still the quarterback and Bill Polian is still the team president.

Manning's record fourth NFL MVP season and stellar playoff performance are the primary reasons the Colts -- despite having a rookie, Jim Caldwell, take over as coach in place of retired Tony Dungy and new faces throughout the lineup -- will take on the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.

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But it was Polian's management of the roster surrounding Manning that went a long way toward putting the team in position to win a second Vince Lombardi Trophy in four seasons. For that, Polian was named the Sporting News' 2009 NFL executive of the year for a record sixth time.

His moves have helped keep the Colts in contention because they're based on a philosophy that has them conforming to, rather than fighting, the forces of the salary cap and free agency. In a nutshell, it calls for a payroll that has room for only one true megastar, Manning, and a handful of other high-priced players: wide receiver Reggie Wayne, tight end Dallas Clark, center Jeff Saturday, offensive tackle Ryan Diem, safety Bob Sanders, and defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

"It's a delicate balancing act," Polian said. "In essence, what the cap does is force you to invest less money on one side of the ball than the other."

In the Colts' case, the side receiving the bulk of the investment is the one where Manning resides. His extraordinary passing skills required quality receivers, such as Wayne and Clark (who each caught 100 passes for 1,000-plus yards and 10 touchdowns this season), and top-notch pass protectors, such as Saturday and Diem.

The defense has been solid, but there's no mistaking that the Colts' success is driven by their offense -- specifically, their passing game; they had the last-ranked rushing attack in the NFL. After parting ways with the franchise's all-time leading receiver, Marvin Harrison, following the 2008 season, Polian and his player-personnel staff came up with a couple of viable replacements. One was rookie Austin Collie, who ranked third on the team with 60 receptions for 676 yards and seven touchdowns. Another was second-year man Pierre Garcon, who barely saw action in '08, but went onto rank fifth on the team with 47 catches for 765 yards for four scores. He also leads the team with 16 postseason catches, 11 of which came in the AFC Championship Game victory over the New York Jets.

"What I've noticed in my brief time with (Polian and the rest of the Colts' player-personnel staff) is that they do a tremendous job of finding individuals that fit our system -- the kind of individuals that are highly motivated, that are smart, that are extremely passionate about what they do," Caldwell told reporters in Indianapolis last week. "They unearth these guys. It's not like everybody else is not looking at them as well, but what I think they do a great job of is identifying those that we really should target, and they do it early on, in particular those ones that might not be drafted. We seem to find, year after year, real quality of individuals that come in and help us."

But the task of keeping a quality roster intact is difficult.

"Very difficult," Polian said. "When you're faced with the deconstruction of your roster at the end of the season because of the cap, it's hard. It's the most difficult thing we do."

It's far more challenging than what Polian faced when he won his first two league executive-of-the-year awards, in 1988 and 1991, when he was general manager of the Buffalo Bills and put together a team that would reach three consecutive Super Bowls (1990-1992) on his watch and a fourth after he left the club in 1993.

Back then, Polian had no trouble retaining players such as eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame members Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Bruce Smith, and current Hall finalist Andre Reed for all or most of their careers. In addition, the Bills were able to do something that would never happen today: Hang onto one of the greatest reserve players in NFL history, special-teams ace Steve Tasker.

"Those players were there for as long as the football gods allowed them to be injury-free and for as long as you wanted to keep them," Polian said. "And, once in place, you didn't have to seek their replacement every three, four, five years, however long it might be. But once the cap came in, that all changed. You could only keep, for a long period of time, a small cadre of players and then everything else must be rebuilt, certainly every four years, but in reality, virtually every year.

"When we got to the Colts (in 1998), we had to change our approach dramatically and we really had to change on the fly because we recognized, about three years in (after Polian used the top overall pick of the '98 draft on Manning), that because of the nature of Peyton's talent, and what you needed to maximize that, that we were going to have to go to a different system of player selection on defense. We couldn't stay with the hybrid 3-4 system we were using because we couldn't acquire and keep (the more expensive) veteran players necessary to play it. So we were going to have to have a (4-3) defensive system that was simpler and more able to have young players come in and contribute right away, and understand that there would be turnover on the defense all the time, maybe more so than on the offense. You hoped that the young players would come on fast and become pretty good and accomplished players, and that's exactly what happened under Tony."

Under Caldwell, the transition has been seamless. The Colts went 14-2 in the regular season. They had an easy time disposing of Baltimore and the Jets in the playoffs.

Give Caldwell, whom Dungy hired as an assistant in 2002, plenty of credit for an amazing first season as an NFL head coach. But he's the first to acknowledge that it wouldn't have happened without the two constants of the past 12 seasons: Manning and Polian.

"We're competitive," Polian said. "We can come in every day and say, 'We can go compete for a championship,' and that's all you can ask."

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