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Bill Polian: Real Man of Genius

Three years ago, Vic Ketchman of ‘Ask Vic’ fame predicted that the Colts time on top would be short. He hilariously declared that the Colts were the perfect model of how not to build a franchise. Reading this article will be the highlight of your day.

Six weeks later they won the Super Bowl.

At the core his argument was that Colts had mismanaged the cap.

Pointing out that he was so very, hilariously wrong is not the point of this post.  But I thought I’d point it out anyway.

The other day I linked to the recent updates done at Coltscap.net, but I feel like they need some more attention.

I’m on record as saying I believe the salary cap system is leaving and not coming back.  Like everyone else, I pray I’m wrong.  The salary cap has provided the Colts with a massive competitive advantage.  Because Polian drafts so well, Indy is constantly stocked with cheap, talented players.  This allows the Colts to pay their stars big money, while keeping the team rolling.  What’s truly stunning when examining the contracts of the Colts biggest stars is how well they are constructed.

First, note how Polian has organized the salaries.  On a team you want your best players making the most money.  It enforces the idea of merit in the locker room.  When was the last time Indy had a player (not a new pick)  hold out in camp?  I don’t think it has happened on Polian’s watch.  The best players make the most money, and that keeps guys in line.  Here’s Indy’s top 10 cap numbers:

All vets.  All starters.  Other than Brock and Diem at #8 and 9, all elite players.  Polian can pay big money to those guys because right now he’s paying these 10 players a hair over $5 million TOTAL:
C Johnson
A Johnson
E Foster
$5 million is the cap figure this year of Raheem Brock, #9 on the first list.  Not everyone on that second list is a great player, though Bethea, Session, Bullitt, and CJ have proved they can play big time football.  Everyone on the second list is playing significant snaps for the team and making a contribution, however.
It’s interesting as well to see where Indy doesn’t spend money.  Combined, Addai and Brown have a lower cap number than Gary Brackett (11th on the list).  Since running backs are largely fungible in the NFL, it doesn’t make sense to pay them.  Brackett plays middle linebacker, so he got paid whereas all the other LBs on the roster make a combined $2.5 million (less than Brackett’s $3 million).
As we look forward, it’s amazing to see how sound this team’s future is.  Let’s assume that cooler heads prevail and there is a new CBA, and the cap stays.  The Colts aren’t headed for cap hell anytime soon. Cap hell hits when you have given big bonuses to players who can’t play and have to be cut.  Your cap space gets eaten up by ‘dead’ money (bonus money that you expected to credit in the future, but now have to account for in the present).
The two biggest obstacles to cap health Indy had were the contracts of 18 and 88.  They’ve already survived cutting Harrison, and that money will be off the books next year.  As for Manning’s then record deal, this is the year where it was supposed to sink the ship.  His cap number is a league high $20 million.  So what?  First, if the best player in the game has the highest cap number, you can live with it.  Secondly, the team is obviously not hurting at any position.  Manning’s number begins to recede over the next couple of years, so if he didn’t bust the Colts’ bank this year, he never will. 
Teams get in trouble when they outlay big money to aging vets and then have to cut them.  Will that happen to Indy?  Nope, Polian has you covered.
The ‘worst’ contract:  Dwight Freeney.  His cap number jumps steadily from 11 mil this year to 13.6 to 16 to 19 million in four years.  This deal will probably have to be reworked at some point, but considering that Freeney is the second most important Colt and a bona fide superstar, you can live with a huge number from him.  When your ‘worst’ contract goes to an elite special corner stone player, you can’t complain.
The second ‘worst contract:  Bob Sanders.  You can argue Bob’s value verses his injuries all day long, but Polian got him signed to a deal that is reasonable through 2010.  In 2011, his salary spikes to $5 mil a season.  So let’s envision a worst case scenario:  Sanders never stays healthy and is no longer elite next year.  Indy has to cut him after 2010.  The hit?  Only somewhere around $4.6 million (potentially split over two years).  Considering that Indy absorbed $6 million from Harrison with no trouble, Polian can get out from Bob’s contract with little worry.
Those are the “bad” deals.  Check out the great ones:
Reggie Wayne: 6.9 mil this year, 8.2 mil, 6.1 mil.  Any team in the league would take that deal in a heartbeat.
Dallas Clark: 6.8, 7.8, 7.1, 8.0, 8.8.  He’s arguably the best tight end in football, and certainly an indispensable part of the offense.  His cost is high for a tight end, but low for an impact player.
Jeff Saturday:  Ah, the angst over signing an old center.  His numbers?  4.0, 4.4, 4.8. Beautiful.  Even if he was cut after this season (obviously not going to happen), it would only cost Indy $5 million to be done with him.
Outside of Manning and Freeney, Indy doesn’t have another $9 million player until Kelvin Hayden in 2011.
What about impending free agents?  Couldn’t the Colts suddenly lose some of these good, cheap players?  Well, if the CBA doesn’t get redone soon, the only significant UFA the Colts will have is Gary Brackett.  Marlin Jackson, Charlie Johnson, Tim Jennings and Bethea are all slated to be UFAs, but will be restricted FAs if no deal is done.  You’d have to think that CJ and Bethea would get deals, but with all the young corners Indy has MJax and Jennings would likely be gone.
Bill Polian is more than just a great drafter.  He’s more than the guy who called the Manning/Leaf deal correctly.  He’s a true Hall of Fame architect.  Don’t take my word for it, just read what Vic Ketchman said Monday:

My philosophy has always been to build your team into a consistent playoff contender, and then wait for the one year when you get hot at the right time and everything falls in your favor. The Colts are the perfect example of that. My expectation for next season will likely be for the Jaguars to be a playoff contender. That’s as far as I can look ahead at this point.

Smart guy, that Vic.