Q&A: HoF Exec Bill Polian on Building NFL Dynasties

Hall of Famer Bill Polian is a six-time Executive of the Year as general manager of the Bills, Panthers, and Colts, presiding over the Colts’ win in Super Bowl XLI. He also served as NFL vice president of football with then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue before becoming a TV and radio analyst.

Polian co-authored a new oral history with Vic Carucci, “Super Bowl Blueprints: Hall of Famers Reveal the Keys to Football’s Greatest Dynasties.” 

Sports Section sat down with Polian to talk about building those dynasties, the direction of the NFL, and more.

Is there one common denominator among NFL dynasties?

There are actually three. One is an owner who is supportive, steadfast, stays the course, and turns football over to the football people. That’s absolutely true in every single case. 

The second thing is a general manager who knows football — a football person who knows talent, who can understand what the coach is looking for in talent and give him that, and then give him the institutional organizational support to let that talent flourish.

The third thing, overwhelmingly, is a charismatic coach who’s a great teacher, who has a unique system of football that he can meld the team into, and who plays an inordinately large role in the life of the team — a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, almost minute-to-minute presence in the lives and careers of the players. The average fan and media person has no idea what a force they are. 

What was the impetus behind writing the book? 

We wanted to expand a little bit on a book that we previously did, “The Game Plan,” and a group brainstorm morphed almost magically into an oral history of some of football’s greatest dynasties of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

It was so enthralling and so much fun to hear these guys talk. We allotted an hour for every interview, and there wasn’t one that went less than 90 minutes. They just wanted to talk and tell us about their careers, relationships, and how they interacted with their coaches — many things that I don’t think have ever been explored before with these guys, an overwhelming majority of whom are in the Hall of Fame.

My biggest takeaway from the book is that there isn’t one set blueprint for building a dynasty.

These coaches make it evolve — that’s the other message that comes through. Al Davis took the Sid Gillman passing game that he got when he was with Sid in San Diego and molded that into a big-play, down-the-field, speed-oriented offense blended with a power running game. John Madden took that philosophy, added defense to it and created a dynasty. 

Chuck Noll created a defense along with Bud Carpenter, the coordinator who brought in Cover 2, that was absolutely unbeatable. People can argue if the ’85 Bears or the ’70s Steelers were better, but Pittsburgh was overwhelmingly dominant at the time.

Marv Levy, almost by accident, invented the modern, uptempo, no-huddle offense suited perfectly to the quarterback the Bills had in Jim Kelly. If ever there was an offense that was suited perfectly to the personality of its quarterback, it was that offense. 

Based on a total happenstance, an injury to the prototypical, modern NFL quarterback — Greg Cook in Cincinnati — Bill Walsh was forced to invent the West Coast offense, because Virgil Carter did not have a strong arm and could hardly throw any of the routes that Greg Cook could. So Bill invented the West Coast offense, and it took over football at every level. 

Is it harder to build a dynasty these days under the NFL’s financial system?

It’s much, much harder. The basic theory of the salary cap was that it would rob from the rich and give to the poor. I was on a committee with (former executive) George Young and others that helped craft and negotiate the salary cap. 

Unless we had movement of players and a salary cap that prevented rich teams from hoarding all the good players and a floor which made everybody compete to win, we would have an unbalanced product that people would not want to watch.

What we created was competitive balance. And because of that, people wanted to watch it. So, now in 2021, we’ve seen the New England Patriots go from a team that was absolutely bereft of talent in ’20, and in a snap — with cap money to spend because Tom Brady and other players left — they created a very competitive team. 

And as Bill (Belichick) always does, he played his cards close to the vest and played them right, and waited for the right quarterback to fall into his hands — and lo and behold, they’re on their way to another great dynasty.

Conversely, the system has eroded a great Seattle Seahawks team of the talent necessary to win. Why? Because they have to pay Russell Wilson. When you have to pay the quarterback at market rate in a free-agent market, you’re going to lose two or three defensive players who make a difference. So competitive balance was created. 

That’s why it’s so much harder to be good now than it was back in the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s. 

Do you like the direction the game is headed?

I do. I love the fact that we’re playing 53-and-a-third yards wide. I like the fact that we’re playing better and more important defense. I like the fact that people like Ron Rivera and others are saying that the way to win is to run the football. It’s great for the game. 

Officiating is a problem. We have to get that straightened out. I’m not a knee-jerk guy. I’m not saying, “Well, there’s too much of this or too much of that.” There isn’t enough of anything.

There’s a talent gap in officiating, and I think there’s also a teaching gap. That worries me, but otherwise I think the game’s in great shape. 

Who’s going to win the Super Bowl?

I can’t tell you who’s going to win or lose — it depends on the phases of the moon and who’s healthy that day or whether the wind’s blowing left-to-right when a 43-yard field goal goes wide right, as Bill Parcells talks about in the book.

I think that Tampa Bay is for real as long as they stay healthy, but to me, the real dark horse is Dallas, because if they’re healthy and they’re clicking on all cylinders, they’re really tough to beat — there’s just so much talent there: two running backs, three wide receivers, two pretty good tight ends, a great quarterback, a defense that the new coordinator has made whole. Instead of the worst defense in the league, it’s one of the best. 

So, I think they’re a team to keep an eye on if they’re healthy — but that’s a big if, of course.”

Chris Kuc is a sportswriter who covered a myriad of sports during his career with the Chicago Tribune, The Athletic, and the Chicago Blackhawks before joining Sports Section. You can reach out to Chris at Chris.Kuc@thesportssection.com or on Twitter: @ChrisKuc.