When he took over, they were the punch line, not the punchers: the horri-Bills, the misera-Bills--2-14 and looking as if two victories a season was something Buffalo fans might have to get used to, say, for the next decade or so.
When Bill Polian took over, he got the job only because his boss, Terry Bledsoe, had suffered a heart attack. There was no reason to believe the general manager’s job with the Bills wouldn’t ruin Polian’s health, too.
When he took over the Bills’ franchise after the 1985 season, Polian got a team with no quarterback, a skeleton defense and an owner, Ralph Wilson, who had never been known to spend the dollars Polian knew were necessary to turn the tide.
But Polian had seen worse. Being unable to pay the bills is worse than trying to rebuild them.
You want punch lines, Polian said, all you have to do is ask about life with the now-defunct USFL’s Chicago Blitz. You want perspective, Polian said--now that he has forged the Bills into favorites over the New York Giants in Sunday’s Super Bowl XXV--you had to live through the fitful final year of the Blitz, a franchise fading from existence even as Polian signed on.
“We couldn’t pay anybody. Players weren’t sure if they were going to be paid from week to week. Nobody was sure what was happening,” Polian said Tuesday. “One time, somebody decided that we couldn’t afford buses, and we didn’t have a bus to take us home from the airport.
“That’s pretty darn difficult to deal with.”
His coach in that last Blitz season was Marv Levy, who handled the storm and fury amazingly well. Polian remembered.
So when Polian was hired in 1985 as the Bills’ pro personnel director after the demise of the Blitz, then was elevated a year later to take Bledsoe’s place as general manager of a team that had consecutive 2-14 seasons, he could handle it.
He had a plan. “Basically, my plan now is to stay employed from week to week,” Polian had said with a wide smile. Ah, those Blitz memories.
After guiding the Bills through their careful rise from poorhouse to powerhouse, firing Hank Bullough and replacing him with Levy in 1986, drafting NFL defensive MVP Bruce Smith and a slew of other key players, acquiring the rights to quarterback Jim Kelly, trading for linebacker Cornelius Bennett and persuading Wilson to open up his pocketbook to pay for it all, Polian is the safest general manager in the league.
After the Bills’ 51-3 rout of the Raiders in the AFC championship game, why wouldn’t he be?
The bricks, Polian says, began falling into place when he was pro personnel director, back during the 1985 draft when the Bills took Smith with the first choice. Now, Smith and Kelly are the team’s foundation.
“The key thing was the commitment, as shown by the draft of ’85, to completely overhaul the team,” Polian said. “That’s what really started us on the road to success.
“I wanted to follow the examples of George Young and Bobby Beathard. They used every method available to improve their team--via trades, via the draft, via free agency, everything. That’s what we had to do.”
Polian happily admits that he modeled the Bills on Young’s reconstruction of the Giants: Hire a coach you trust, get a quarterback and make sure your defense can pound people. Then stick with the formula, even in bad times.
From there, the Bills’ 15-3 record this season seemed to flow naturally.
“George (Young) was able to come into a situation (in New York) that had been down for quite some time,” Polian said, “and he was able to prioritize things, bring the right people in and he was able to put the organization in the position where it was able to win. It was as clear as a bell that that’s what we needed to do.
“We made the commitment to suffer through the hard times. Kay Stephenson (who was fired as Bill coach during the 1984 season) initiated it, and he deserves the credit for starting us on that path--and he lost his job for it.
“But we believed, Marv and I, that in order to succeed, we needed to have a dominant defense, so we set about building the defense first--much like the Giants did and continue to benefit from.”
After Smith was in place, the next key pickup was Kelly, another USFL veteran who was drafted by Buffalo when he came out of college and was their property unless he sat out of football for a season and decided to re-enter the draft.
While many assumed that Kelly would sit out the season to avoid playing in the cold and calamity of Buffalo, Wilson came up with the millions it took to get the Bills their franchise quarterback. Kelly signed in August of 1986 and immediately was the team’s starter and future.
“We didn’t have a quarterback capable of getting us to the Super Bowl,” Polian said. “And, fortunately, Jim became available just as Mr. Wilson made the commitment to get him.”
Then came the deal that Polian says put Buffalo over the hump. In October of 1987, Buffalo jumped into--and eventually became the main benefactor of--the three-way deal that sent Eric Dickerson to Indianapolis, holdout Bennett to Buffalo and six draft picks and Greg Bell to the Rams.
Buffalo finished that strike-shortened season with a 7-8 record. In 1988, the quarterback-attacking Bennett’s first full season, they went 12-4 and began their run as Super Bowl contenders.
“In a narrow context, it was probably the trade for Cornelius that was the single most important move we made,” Polian said. “Now, that puts too much emphasis on one guy, but that was the one I would point to.
“Having Cornelius allowed Shane (Conlan, the team’s top pick in 1987 and steady inside linebacker) and Bruce to operate at their maximum efficiency, and at that time we needed badly to have a dominant defense if we were going to be a Super Bowl football team.
“After we got Cornelius, I thought we had the opportunity to be good enough to get to the Super Bowl.”
Three frustrating seasons later, after the Bills fell short in the playoffs and there were instances of public bickering, the pieces of Polian’s careful plan have fit together.
Even the ugly finger-pointing match between Thurman Thomas and Kelly in 1989, a season that culminated in the Bills’ loss to Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs, didn’t dissuade Polian.
Polian stayed calm. Levy assured him things weren’t out of control, and the team ignored stories that intimated the Bills were a talented team hopelessly divided.
“We came out of that game last year feeling just the opposite,” Polian said. “We knew we were just this far away. If the organization could just accomplish a little more, put things together a little better, we could get there. I think this is a tribute to that kind of thinking. This organization is a tribute to Mr. Wilson’s patience.
“I never thought we were in need of reconstruction. We didn’t go to Lourdes or whatever, because we didn’t need to.”
And a 51-3 victory over the Raiders in the AFC championship game is proof of that.
Wilson had a major financial gut-check during the 1988 off-season when Smith got a five-year, $7.5-million free-agent offer from the Denver Broncos. It was, at that time, the richest contract offered a defensive player, by far.
But Wilson matched the offer, kept Smith and all the pieces stayed in place.
“I didn’t talk him into loosening the purse strings. He was committed to winning,” Polian said of Wilson.
The commitment paid off last Sunday when Wilson advanced to his first Super Bowl after 25 years. In tribute, the Bills sang a chorus of “Hooray for Ralph” and gave him the game ball.
Polian beams when he talks about Wilson, an original AFL owner who shuns the spotlight, finally reaching the Super Bowl.
“This is just the culmination of all his years in the league for him--his high point, as he said so himself after the game Sunday,” Polian said. “I know he’s darned happy about it. We’re overjoyed for him, and so are the players. That’s why they gave him the game ball.
“Ralph, he’s an owner, but he’s also a custodian of the values of the game. He’s got great wisdom when it comes to dealing with various issues--he’s seen the issues. Mr. Wilson is one of the people who built this league. He’s spent a great deal of life with this team.”
And Wilson is the one who stood aside after hiring Polian to run his team and gave him the time and the cash to make the transformation. If anyone can appreciate that, it’s the man who was once stranded at the airport with no ride for his team.
“I believe Mr. Wilson knew what we were doing, and he knew very clearly how far we had to go and that it would take some time to get there,” Polian said. “And here we are. He’s smiling a lot now.”