MIAMI GARDENS -- Bill Polian clutched a blue Indianapolis Colts hat and stood in a corner of Dolphin Stadium yesterday afternoon. If he took three steps forward, he would be in the media-access area, and fair game for questions.
The question was, "Would he step over the line?"
For the Colts president, that's a question often posed. The man who constructed the Colts into a perennial AFC title contender, helped lead the Bills to three Super Bowls in the early 1990s, and built the expansion Carolina Panthers into a team that made it to the NFC Championship in its second year of existence (1996) is one of the league's more on-the-edge personalities. He is gruff, confrontational, and abrasive. He also knows how to build successful football teams.
The Patriots have been a continual source of frustration for Polian.
Reporters in the press box at Gillette Stadium remember the time he continually pounded his fist during a Patriots-Colts game in 2005, then screamed for the Colts to break the leg of Patriots backup quarterback Doug Flutie, who had entered late in the fourth quarter of a game that Indianapolis had all but sealed.
This past spring, Polian agreed to speak with Boston sports radio station WEEI after the Colts signed kicker Adam Vinatieri in free agency, which could have been viewed as adding salt to the Patriots' wound in their own backyard.
And as a member of the NFL's Competition Committee, Polian was part of the group that voted to make defensive contact a point of emphasis in the 2005 season, which was convenient, considering he felt the lack of penalties called on such plays helped end the Colts' 2004 season in a playoff loss to the Patriots.
So here was Polian yesterday, toeing a different type of line during media day festivities at Super Bowl XLI. Would he cross over the security line to meet the press? Or keep a lower profile, away from the spotlight of the NFL's championship game?
After some hesitation, Polian stepped over it, and a surprising thing happened. He couldn't stop praising the Patriots, the team the Colts beat to advance to Super Bowl XLI.
"There's no special feeling about [beating] the Pats, other than great respect for them," said Polian, whose Colts were knocked out of the 2003 and 2004 playoffs by New England. "They're a great football team, the best-coached team that you're going to play year in and year out, in terms of detail and creativeness. A great organization."
There was also Polian's response as to why the AFC has had more success than the NFC in recent years.
"I think you've had a lot of great quarterbacks in the AFC and you had a great team in New England, a transcendent team," Polian said. "They won three of the last six. That skews it a great deal."
Polian hopes the Colts are now in position to make their own Patriotlike run, and a win Sunday would give him his first Super Bowl championship since he entered the league as a pro scout for Kansas City in 1978. After five years with the Chiefs, Polian moved on to the Chicago Blitz of the old US Football League, before a brief stop with Winnipeg of the Canadian Football League.
He joined the Bills in 1984 as pro personnel director before being promoted to general manager at the end of 1985. After posting an 8-40 mark from 1984-86, the team went 58-22 from 1988-92, with quarterback Jim Kelly leading the Bills to Super Bowls (all losses) in the final three years of Polian's tenure. The personnel philosophy Polian employs with the Colts was shaped in those years.
"My beliefs are going to reflect a lot of [Bills coach] Marv Levy, who was my mentor," said the 64-year-old Polian. "We want people with good football temperament. We want people who have great work ethic. We want people who are dedicated to the team goals. And we want folks who can conduct themselves as professionals."
Another mentor in Polian's early years was Norm Pollom, the Bills' director of pro scouting. Pollom had a saying that only two things counted: finding good players and coaching them well. These days, Polian said the saying still fits, but a third is making sure "you get value for your money under the salary cap."
The Colts have spent heavily on offense in recent years, with big contracts going to quarterback Peyton Manning and receivers Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. But Polian said the idea that the Colts don't lose star players is not accurate, listing a group of defectors that includes running back Edgerrin James, defensive lineman Larry Triplett, and linebackers David Thornton, Mike Peterson, and Marcus Washington.
Polian insisted that star defensive end Dwight Freeney, who is scheduled for unrestricted free agency in March, won't be the next name on that list.
"We're going to keep Dwight Freeney, period," he said. "That's a given."
Such definitive statements are, in many ways, a Polian trademark. They're right there with his overflowing emotions in the press box, which were evidenced once again after this year's AFC Championship when he was pumping his fist, and later when he was jumping up and down in the elevator after defensive back Marlin Jackson sealed the victory with an interception.
"Sometimes you learn to control it," he said. "It's not easy. We care."
Yet one thing Polian said he doesn't care about is how people remember him when he retires. Nor does he care how he's perceived in some league circles.
"I don't want to talk about myself," he said. "I'll leave that to others."
Polian has provided plenty of material to do just that.
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.