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Dismissal of Polians first step in 'direction back to greatness'

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Posted Jan. 02, 2012 @ 6:38 p.m. ET
By Arthur Arkush

One day after the conclusion of one of the worst seasons in franchise history, Colts owner Jim Irsay dismissed vice chairman Bill Polian and GM Chris Polian.

Irsay has yet to announce a decision on the fate of head coach Jim Caldwell and his staff. It is likely he will hire a new GM and allow the GM to review the coaching staff before making that decision, although Irsay said Monday that is not set in stone. He added that Caldwell "very well could be back next year."

Bill Polian, who joined the Colts in 1998 and drafted future Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning first overall that year, oversaw 10 postseason appearances and two trips to the Super Bowl, including a win in Super Bowl XLI. But a 2-14 season, in which the Polians badly underestimated the talent on the roster behind Manning, proved to be too much for one of the great personnel evaluators the game has ever known.

Chris Polian, who had taken on more responsibility behind the scenes in recent years, was said to be the driving force behind the removal of many long-tenured members of the coaching and scouting department since he became GM.

After nine consecutive playoff appearances, the Colts experienced a shocking free fall this season without Manning, who missed the entire season after undergoing his third neck surgery in 19 months in July. Irsay, who said he did not make a decision on the Polians until this morning, said this sharp of a decline was impossible to imagine less than two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance.

The dismissal of the Polians, who drew great ire from the Colts' fan base this season, could be just the first chip to fall for the Colts, who could be on the verge of a complete rebuilding process.

That is dependent on what happens with Manning, owed a $28 million bonus that triggers the final four years of his five-year, $90 million deal before the league year begins. Manning continues to rehab his neck surgery but there has been no timetable outlined for his return.

The Colts hold the top pick in the '12 draft, and are widely expected to select Stanford QB Andrew Luck.

Indianapolis has several other key veterans on the roster whose contracts have expired, including former Pro Bowlers WR Reggie Wayne, DE Robert Mathis and C Jeff Saturday.

The PFW Spin

Although Irsay is a strong believer in keeping continuity, he spoke Monday of how he felt intuitively that it was time for a change. One of the main themes during his press conference to announce the changes was "unity and an organization all heading in the same direction." There were numerous instances of Bill Polian not being on the same page with the front office, coaching staff and players this season.

A sure-fire future Hall of Famer, Polian did a marvelous job building one of the great dynasties the NFL has seen, led by Manning, but all good things must come to an end. Polian also fell out of favor in both Buffalo and Carolina — despite very successful tenures — but winning cures most things. With the losses mounting this season, Polian, who's notorious for his arrogance and stubbornness, became too difficult to tolerate, we hear. Irsay painted broad strokes on this issue, saying multiple times what a difficult decision this was to remove someone he has known for 30 years. But he also used the word "deficiencies" on several occasions, and spoke about timing and energy playing a large role in his decision.

Polian's personnel gaffes, of course, were likely the leading contributor to his removal. The Colts' defense was underequipped from Day One and the backup QB situation was a nightmare. Indianapolis was woefully thin in the secondary and the Colts waited until just two weeks before the season to bring in an experienced backup QB, Kerry Collins. What's worse, they stuck with third-stringer Curtis Painter far too long once Collins went down, which looked even worse after Dan Orlovsky finally was given a chance and provided a major spark late in the season.

After hitting home runs in the draft in the form of Manning, Dwight Freeney, Dallas Clark, Wayne and Bob Sanders among others, Polian's recent drafting record has declined. Irsay discussed Polian's "magical, very rare talent in evaluating players," but the magic seemed to run out in recent years. Fans still lament misses on OL Tony Ugoh and Mike Pollak, and last season's top overall pick, Jerry Hughes, has been a complete nonfactor.

If Caldwell is eventually relieved, his resistance to change this season will have hurt his cause. Although the Colts were not built to be a passing team without Manning, it took the head coach two-thirds of the season before he finally accepted that reality and leaned more on the running game. When a team loses its first 13 games, major changes better have happened along the way to find solutions. Simply put: they did not and Caldwell also could be held responsible.

Still, the key difference between Caldwell and the Polians is that Caldwell never lost the locker room; clearly, there were guys who did not trust Polian. His public spats with Manning were a prime example.

So, where do the Colts go from here?

Irsay will begin interviewing GM candidates immediately. However, he specifically said this is a much more complex situation than in '97, when Bill Tobin was dismissed and Bill Polian was hired within two days. Irsay expects this process to "be more extensive, perhaps taking multiple weeks," he said.

If the new hire decides Caldwell is not the right guy for the job — and Irsay said the head coach "could very well be back next year," having the rights to Luck in their back pocket makes the Colts a very attractive destination — with or without Manning.

But remember: Irsay just last week said Manning would be back with the Colts if he proved he was healthy and Irsay was confident Manning could regain his prior form in time for next season.

Don't expect that to change.

The decision on Manning ultimately will be made by Irsay, who is very close with Manning and made that very clear during his press conference.

"On major issues with the franchise — and it has been this way since Bill [Polian] was hired — I have final say," Irsay reiterated.

Although we don't yet know the fate of Caldwell, one can bet that "rock star" candidates like Jeff Fisher and Bill Cowher —and maybe even ESPN's Jon Gruden — would be in play if the job comes open. Irsay is quite fond of Fisher and the door swung open for Cowher now that Polian's ego is removed from the equation.

It is critical to have a vision and direction back to greatness," Irsay said. "A game plan on how to get there."

The planning begins now in what is sure to be a very important offseason for the Colts' organization.

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