Choosing Lamar Lathon as a pass rusher over Bryce Paup for the Carolina Panthers? Bill Polian regrets that one.
Picking Kerry Collins over Steve McNair with the Panthers’ first-ever draft choice? Polian believes he got that one right.
Those insights and a whole lot more for the NFL junkie can be found in Polian’s new book “The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team.”
If you like the NFL, it is impossible to dislike talking to Polian.
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As a general manager and team president, Polian was one of the best NFL executives in history. He built teams that went to the NFL’s version of the final four for three franchises – Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis – and now works mostly for ESPN as an NFL analyst.
Polian worked for the Panthers for too short a time – constructing Carolina’s first three teams. He and his wife have kept their primary home in the Lake Norman area for the past 20 years, though.
His book, written at the behest of his children, recounts Polian’s 40-plus years in football. A six-time NFL Executive of the Year, Polian was one of the most perceptive talent identifiers in league history.
Anyone who ever has wanted to be an NFL general manager – or who thinks success managing a fantasy football team would equate to success running a real one – would do well to read Polian’s accounts of how player acquisition and retention really works.
You will find hardly any stories from his childhood here, for this is no typical autobiography.
“And there’s nothing interesting about that, anyway,” Polian laughed during a phone interview.
He skips straight to the stuff an NFL fan might not have even thought to ask, like why he believes hiring the players for a 3-4 defense costs more than constructing a “Tampa Two” defense, for instance.
He and co-author Vic Carucci throw in plenty of anecdotes, like the time the sometimes temperamental Polian challenged a disagreeable sports agent to get in a three-point stance and come at him.
Polian goes into depth as to why he picked future Indianapolis star Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf in 1998 (back then, the two were seen as near-equals). He said during our interview that decision was far easier than the Paup-Lathon and Collins-McNair choices he faced in 1995 in Carolina.
“Of all the tough decisions I’ve had to make throughout the years,” he said, “those would be the two toughest. The two players in both cases were just so close together in terms of their measureables, and I was terribly torn by both of them. The Manning/Leaf decision, which is the one that gets the most publicity, wasn’t nearly that close.”
Lathon was a standout for Carolina’s 1996 team that made it to the NFC Championship Game, but was never effective again because of problematic knees that required more than a dozen surgeries. Polian wrote that Paup would have gladly come to Carolina as a free agent in 1995.
“Bryce wound up signing with the Bills, but we could have easily outbid them,” Polian wrote. “And I think that Bryce wanted to come to Carolina. We took the guy who was a better athlete, which was the exact opposite of our philosophy.”
Paup ended up having the longer and more productive career. He played 11 years in the NFL compared to Lathon’s nine and ended up with exactly twice as many sacks (75 compared to 37.5).
Of the Collins-McNair decision in 1995, Polian said: “In Steve McNair, you had a player who had incredible gifts. He was a bigger version of RG3 and maybe a better passer when it’s all said and done. He had just had the little bit of difficulty translating verbiage to process.
“And Kerry Collins had the most gifted arm maybe since Dan Marino. Certainly it was on par with Jim Kelly’s.”
The ultimate reason Carolina took Collins was that the Panthers thought he could play more quickly, Polian said, and indeed he was starting by the fourth game of his rookie year. He wrote that McNair’s psychological reports “revealed that Steve had a learning style whereby he could not quickly process what was told to him.”
Polian wrote that he believes the two ultimately had about the same level of career, although Collins’ greatest success came with the New York Giants. Polian mentions that Collins’ time at Carolina included “some personal difficulty and it was resulting in a little too much drinking, which became an issue.”
As for Manning vs. Leaf, that was the most well-known call Polian ever made. In 1998, when the Colts held the No. 1 overall draft choice, Leaf was considered just as good a prospect as Manning.
Polian remembered in the book what Manning said to him during one of their interviews: “If you draft me, I promise we will win a championship. And if you don’t, I promise I will come back and kick your a--.”
Polian, of course, ended up picking Manning, and the two won a Super Bowl together in Indianapolis. That was the crowning point of Polian’s career – and I still wonder if he had stayed in Charlotte for 15 years as a GM if he would have won a Super Bowl here instead.