Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: The Game Plan (2014)

By Bill Polian with Vic Carucci

The number of football executives - and let's exclude coaches from that description - who have been become relatively well-known for their work to the sport's public at large is extremely small. The names of general managers may pop up frequently in hometown stories, but few make the jump to national figures.

There are only a few exceptions, and the biggest is Bill Polian. Football writers have awarded the NFL Executive of the Year title since 1993, and Polian has won it four times. Only a couple of others have won the award more than once.

Mix that fact with the fact that Polian currently works as an analyst with ESPN, and you have a nationally known figure on the sports stage. Even though he might not be done working for a team, this seems like a good time for him to write a book. Apparently even Polian agreed, as he has written a book on his football experiences called "The Game Plan."

The story essentially concentrates on the football portions of Polian's career. Don't look for many stories about his family, because they aren't there. While there are references to Polian's career before he arrived in Buffalo, the story essentially begins there. But there are, naturally, plenty of references to football philosophy - as promised by the subtitle - along the way.

As an example, Polian outlines what he wanted when he went searching for a head coach. The needed skills include organization, leadership, communication, emotional stability, vision, strategy, flexibility, ability to judge talent, public relations, earning player respect, and character. That's a long list, and Polian adds plenty of related questions under each area. But you've have to say the formula works for him. He did pick Marv Levy and Tony Dungy, among others. Levy is in the Hall of Fame and Dungy probably will be.

There are other insights into building a football team here. There are some good examples at how important it is to find players who fit into specific systems, and how salary cap management is far more important than many would have thought. For example, quarterbacks can make staggering amounts of money in a given year, particularly a veteran like Peyton Manning. They are worth it, but sometimes a team gets lucky with a young and thus cheaper quarterback. Think of Russell Wilson of the Seahawks, who surprised everyone with his play. Wilson isn't making superstar money yet, and thus Seattle had extra dollars to spread around the rest of the roster. That was crucial in its Super Bowl season of 2013-14, and will be helpful until Wilson starts to get the paydays he no doubt deserves.

Still, football fans want to read behind-the-scenes stories about their favorite game, and Polian has plenty of them here. A good portion of the book (more than expected, really) is devoted to his time in Buffalo. If there had been an executive of the year award back then, Polian certainly would have added to his hardware collection for his work with the Bills. He tells about working his way into the general manager's job in 1985, when the franchise was in even worse shape than most thought, and putting together the pieces for the team that went on to appear in an unmatched four straight Super Bowls.

It's great fun to reach at length about negotiations with Jim Kelly, the Hall of Fame quarterback who had started his career in the United States Football League. Kelly wasn't anxious to come to Buffalo, and the talks were difficult. But eventually the quarterback landed with the Bills and went on to 10 great years there. There's also some good details about the trade for Cornelius Bennett, part of a three-way swap that sent Erik Dickerson to the Colts. Polian got one look at Bennett at a practice upon the linebacker's arrival in Buffalo, and told a friend that Bennett was "Mickey Mantle in football cleats."

The Bills never did reach their final goal of being Super Bowl champions, but Polian certainly writes as if he loved the building process immensely. He hands out plenty of credit to other staff members in the Bills' organization along the way - names that will be remembered in Buffalo but in few other places. Just as an example, Kay Stephenson is not exactly an icon because he took over as head coach just after Chuck Knox had left after the 1982 season and the team was headed into a serious decline. Polian joined the Buffalo front office, and he credits Stephenson for some lessons he learned along the way - including one that says it's always correct to do what's best for the franchise, even if it's not strictly in your best interests.

After an unexpected departure from Buffalo - Polian admits he could have handled the internal politics better there - it was on to a brief stop in the NFL office and then to start up the Carolina Panthers franchise. That team decided to try to be respectable in a hurry, and it succeeded in part because it could attract quality free agents.

Then it was on to Indianapolis. Considering Polian's time with the Colts was long and successful, the stories in the book are a little underplayed. However, the most fateful decision in recent football history is well covered. That's when the Colts had the top overall draft choice and needed a quarterback. The decision came down to Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf. Polian and his staff got that one right, as Manning became an all-time great and Leaf washed out in no time.  In the initial interviews, Manning arrived with a number of questions for the Colts' staff. Leaf didn't even show up.

The book can be a little technical in a few spots, and it's easy to wonder why the departures from Carolina and Indianapolis are reviewed so briefly. Still, Polian comes off as an interesting and gracious character thoroughout. You can see why he was so good at what he did.

I was looking forward to reading this even before my old friend Vic Carucci came back to Buffalo to be a co-worker with me at The Buffalo News. I won't give this a rating here now because of that connection. Still, I believe most football fans will find what's between the covers of "The Game Plan" to be quite a interesting peak behind the curtain of how a football team is really run. And if you followed the Bills during the glory years when Polian was running the team, you'll be riveted.

Learn more about this book.

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