Earlier today ESPN’s six-time National Football League Executive of the Year Bill Polian participated in a media conference call to answer questions about the 2013 NFL season.
Polian contributes to multiple platforms on ESPN, including the new show, NFL Insiders (weekdays, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN), which debuted Monday and – also new this year – Sunday afternoon NFL broadcasts on ESPN Radio.
I’m curious about Colin Kaepernick and how much better prepared defensive coordinators might be after an off season to prepare for that read option that the Niners like to run. And with the Raiders, they’ve got Matt Flynn and no NFL experience behind him, so I’m curious your thoughts on the depth there and how risky that situation is.
BILL POLIAN: Well, let’s talk about the Raiders first. You know, this is a transition year for the Raiders. They had to clear cap space, they had to get themselves in a position where they got younger and hopefully better players on the team. They had to have some flexibility on the cap. They had to begin a building process. The first part was clearing the roster. I don’t want to speak for Reggie, but it’s probably not a high priority, given that there are other more important priorities such as getting the team in a position where you’ve got play makers playing, much less backups.
So that’s a process, and it takes time, and you prioritize it. It looks to me like that’s what they’ve done.
Relative to Colin Kaepernick, first of all, he’s an immensely talented quarterback. Secondly, the 49ers have a sound, solid offensive system which is not predicated on the read option. As a matter of fact, they run — I don’t want to get into a big technical discussion — but they run the option differently than Washington does, and it’s more in conjunction with what they normally do anyway.
So while defensive coordinators around the league will of course have studied it and be prepared for it and they’ll be showing wrinkles that perhaps the Niners didn’t see last year, there are only so many things you can do against it. The general consensus, and I’ve spoken to over 15 coordinators and defensive head coaches this year during the off season, everybody says you play assignment football, and that’s true. All of us that have been around the game a while ago go back to the days of the wishbone and the veer, so we all know how it was handled in those days, so they’ll have different wrinkles.
But I don’t think it’ll have any effect at all on how the Niners run their offense because the option is just a part of a much larger philosophically sound offensive approach. The Niners are still going to run the ball. They’re still going to throw high percentage passes. They’re still going to have the power running game. They’re going to have all those things, and they’re not dependent on Colin Kaepernick running the option.
My question is about Drew Brees. Where do you rank him right now among the NFL hierarchy of quarterbacks, and can you talk about his value to the Saints and where you see his career? He turns 35 this season; where do you see his career headed?
BILL POLIAN: He’s an elite quarterback. He’s in my opinion a Hall of Famer. That’s all you need to say. You know, when you talk about the best quarterbacks in football, Drew is solidly in that company.
I was in their camp about 10 days ago. I think that he’s in a much better place this year because he doesn’t have to bear the whole burden of being the face of the franchise day in and day out. Sean is back. Sean and he together are the driving force behind that team, but Sean plays a major role in that, and having Sean back allows Drew to just concentrate on doing what he does best, which is to be a great football player and not have to worry about some of the ephemeral stuff that he had to deal with last year. I think his future continues to be bright. He’s a great football player.
In Jimmy Graham they have a unique weapon that he’ll make use of. He’s at the peak of his talents, mentally, physically. This is a team — the Saints are a team that will be as good as ever offensively, and if they can improve markedly on defense, they’ll very likely be a playoff team.
And I can tell you from having watched them practice and talking to their people that I think they’re really in a great spot. They’re upbeat, enthusiastic. Sean is back, and Drew is as he always was, and everything is looking up in the Crescent City.
Curious about the Patriots. Obviously they’ve had so much flux on offense. They lost Welker, they lost their two tight ends. How do you see them adapting the offense to their new personnel, and how much concern do you have about the Patriots still being able to be an elite offense this year?
BILL POLIAN: Well, any time they have Tom Brady they’re an elite offense, so that’s the answer to that one. So long as he’s playing, they’re an elite offense.
I said this on Insiders the other day: I thought they’ve already begun to gravitate to the use of their personnel in a way different than they have in the past. When Gronkowski was hurt toward the end of the year, when Edelman got hurt. They began to rely much more on the run. I think if I’m not mistaken, the statistic is they ran the ball more than anybody else in the National Football League last year, and I think that will continue.
The guy that is likely to be the breakout guy has been Vereen. He’s got the ability to make big plays both in the run and pass game. I would look for him to play a larger role, and that gives them two very solid running backs that they can rely upon.
So I think they become much more like they used to be in their championship years when they had that running game that was a big staple of what they did. And so that will help them through this period of time when they’re breaking in Amendola and whomever else is going to play.
Two parter on the Jags: Having David Caldwell under you in Indianapolis, what makes him a good fit here to be the general manager of this rebuilding process? And the second part is they’re not talking about wins and losses down here this year. What would be a successful year in terms of moving forward for the Jaguars this year?
BILL POLIAN: Well, Dave is very, very talented young man. He’s got great understanding of the game. He’s got a very strategic mind in the sense that he understands how all the pieces fit together, roster building, cap management, coaching, team chemistry, organizational stability, all those things he’s very familiar with and has very strong views on how they should work. He’s had great experience with two winning franchises: Indianapolis, where he was there at the beginning and where we built it from scratch; and Atlanta, where he was part of a rebuilding process after coming out of the Michael Vick situation.
He’s been there and done that relative to building franchises and played a big role in both of those.
He’s faced with a situation that he’s been through before, and he’s going to, I think, fall back on the tried and true principles of winning. Wins and losses at the outset doesn’t count. You have to teach the players how to practice. You have to teach them how to approach the game. You have to teach them how they should conduct themselves, win, lose or draw. You have to set priorities within the organization. You have to build a template for the scouting staff so they can go out and find players that fit what you want. You have to get the medical and conditioning and strength staffs on the same page.
All of those things are part of what you do in an organization when you come in from the outside and start fresh.
The most important part is getting the players to accept and buy into what the coach is teaching and then to get the kind of players who can execute what he wants. And they realize that there are not a lot of those kinds of players on the team based on last year’s performance. Now, they’re going to judge this team based on their standards, and I’ll bet they’ll find four, five, maybe a half a dozen players that they didn’t think played particularly well under the old regime that will thrive in their regime so that the fans can look for people stepping up that maybe all of us don’t recognize as household names, so to speak.
But no one there disputes the fact that they have a long way to go, so this year is a year of evaluating, adding to the roster. The cut to 53 will be very important because they’re first in the claiming priority, and they’ll get some good players on waiver claims, and so this will be a building process throughout the year.
But he knows that. I think Gus knows that. And they’ll go about it in a very systematic and orderly way.
I was wondering what you thought Charles Woodson might have left, and specifically also, how a general manager goes about making the decision to bring in a once great player who’s maybe a little bit past his prime in determining what he can bring, because since the athlete is so often the last to know that it may be over.
BILL POLIAN: Well, I wouldn’t want to make an evaluation on Charles as a player right now because I haven’t studied any tape recently. I go all the way back to Art Still when I was in Buffalo. We were in a situation very much like that which I just described in Jacksonville, and we didn’t have very many players on the team who were, A, veteran players, or B, guys who knew how to practice, who knew how to prepare for games, who knew how to deal with life in the NFL in a positive way. And Marv Levy had drafted Art Still in Kansas City, and of course I was part of his staff there, albeit the last guy on the totem pole, but nonetheless I was able to see what value Art brought, and we brought him in at the very tail end of his career in Buffalo to be in essence a role model for all of those other young players to say here’s a guy who’s been an all pro, who’s a really great player, who still has a little bit left, but he knows he’s approaching the end, and he will give you — just follow him. Just do what he does, and you’ll learn how to become a winner in the National Football League.
Ironically I was talking to a couple guys that had played with us, with the Bills, in that era, not too long ago, and they all mentioned what a terrific role model Art was. Twenty-five years later they still remember the fact that he was somebody that they looked up to when they were young players.
So that is clearly the role Charles can play because he’s been such a great player over time and such a great leader and a great person, and I’m sure that’s what the organization knows for sure he can bring. What he can give you as a player is almost a bonus in that situation when you’re in this kind of a rebuilding mode.
I know you were out at Lions camp already this summer. I just wanted to kind of get your impressions of the team first, and maybe second, when you have an entire regime whose future seems to be as clearly on the line as the Lions’ is, what sort of stresses does that put on an organization?
BILL POLIAN: Well, I’m not sure there’s any real stress. I know Martin doesn’t feel any, and I don’t think Schwartzy does, either. They’ve had a plan, and they’re following it. First of all, it’s an extremely talented team in all the places that count. I mean, the defensive front is immensely talented. Reggie Bush adds a dimension to the passing game that they haven’t had before. Joique Bell has emerged. He’s one of those players that I talk about with respect to Jacksonville, virtually no one knew his name, and he’s emerged a year ago, and he’s emerged as a solid player.
They have good players. Stafford has all the talent and the get up and go and the moxie you need to be a good quarterback. They make no bones about the fact that they need better production from the tight end position, and they need to stay healthy at receiver opposite Calvin. But they do have the best receiver in the National Football League, and that means a lot.
So offensively I think if the line can perform well and efficiently, they’re going to move the football. They did last year, as limited as they were at the running back position. Now they have Reggie and they have Bell emerging, and you hope that Leshoure can stay healthy and provide something there. So if that’s the case, then they’ve solved that problem.
Defensively the key is to stay healthy in the secondary. I know they think a lot of Slay, and they feel he’ll emerge, and that’s great. Houston is a good, steady guy. And if Louis Delmas can stay healthy, the addition of the safety from Houston gives them a really solid defensive backfield, which of course defense against the pass last year was a problem for them.
So it looks as though they’ve rectified some of the problems. A lot of it depends on health. Fairley needs to produce at a consistent level. He has the capacity to play at a high level. He needs to produce at a consistent level. Those of you that followed all of our opinions on the draft know that I’m tremendously high on Ziggy. I think he’s an immensely talented player who has the intelligence and the work ethic to just bloom and blossom, and yeah, like every rookie he’ll go through some rough spots, but he’s an immense talent, and he’ll work at it every day. So that’s a plus.
When you stop and think about it, he’s gone through the immigrant experience at a very young age. I don’t think that the National Football League is going to bother him too much. If you can come from Africa and not speak the language, have no one here, et cetera, et cetera, the National Football League is not going to bother you a whole heck of a lot.
I think it’s a team clearly on the rise, and it looks like if they can stay healthy, they’ll have a playoff shot in a very, very difficult division. Everybody talks about the NFC West being a tough division, and it is. It has two exceptionally good teams and two teams that are building. But I think the Central is as tough — is the toughest division because they have really good teams and teams that, like Chicago and Detroit, are teams that, well, Chicago was a 10 win team last year, and Detroit has all the capacity to be that. So it’s a tough division.
Two quick questions on the Bucs: Speaking of tough divisions, NFC South, tell me if I’m wrong, but on paper the Buccaneers seem to have a lot of talent. They’ve got eight players that have made Pro Bowls, they’ve got Revis. Can they compete in that division? And question two, they haven’t won a playoff game in 10 years since that Super Bowl win. What’s the key to emerging quickly from the end of a running five- or six-year cycle where your players are getting old? What’s the key to emerging from that quickly?
BILL POLIAN: Well. Getting younger, better players. That’s number one. Second, I think you have to know how you want to play, and I think Greg Schiano does know that and is implementing that. They’re in a very tough division, and there’s no question that New Orleans has improved simply because Sean is back and because of how much he means to that franchise and that team. Atlanta is what they are; they’re a bona fide Super Bowl contender. And Carolina has the capacity to be a pretty good team.
So I think you’ve got — you have Atlanta, and then you have three teams, all of which have yet to prove that they have the capacity to be complete teams. New Orleans has to improve dramatically on defense. Carolina has to play consistently. And Tampa Bay has to play consistently. And that’s usually the difficulty for a new coach. I mean, it’s hard for him to get them to recognize how they have to play consistently. That’s part of what I talked about with Jacksonville. That’s part of the changeover.
That said, I think Carolina and Tampa Bay hinge directly on how well their quarterbacks play; the avoidance of turnovers, good decision making, the ability to bring your team from behind within the context of teams that are not going to throw the ball wildly all over the place. Neither team is going to be a spread team. They’re going to run the ball, and they should. And then the ability to finish games on defense.
You know, we’ll see as the season progresses whether both Carolina and Tampa Bay will do that, and I think that therein lies the story of their season. If the quarterbacks perform and the defense performs at critically efficient times, then they’re going to have a real chance to be playoff teams. If they don’t, then they won’t. It’s really that simple.
What’s going to be the biggest challenge for a coach like Chip Kelly who has never coached in the league before? And how do you think his offense is going to do this season?
BILL POLIAN: Well, the challenge is to simply adapt to the rules of the game, which are different than college. And in Chip’s case, because they run an up tempo offense, they’ll just have to recognize the time management issues, which are not — they’re not terribly significant. He’ll get used to them here in the preseason. It’s just a matter of getting used to the rhythm of an NFL game.
He is by definition, because of the way his offense is constructed, he’s a match up coach, so he’s going to recognize that the match ups in the NFL are more difficult every week. I’m sure he already knows that.
And then, believe it or not, getting used to the long season. That’s probably the biggest difference between the two levels of play. In college, at Thanksgiving, you’re finished and you’re on to recruiting and you’re getting your team ready for pre bowl game preparations. In the NFL at Thanksgiving the season is just beginning. As our linebacker coach in Indianapolis Mike Murphy used to say, then begins the dash for cash.
That part of it is totally different, and everyone who comes in from the college level has to experience it before they recognize how difficult it is.
That said, again, it’s not a major transition. People make it every year. Players make it every year. Coaches, assistant coaches make it every year. And Chip is nothing if not intelligent and forward thinking. So I’m sure he’s already researched that with any number of people. I know he has, as a matter of fact.
I think that transition will be far less difficult than some people may think.
As far as offense is concerned, I have no idea, and I’m anxious to see what he does offensively and how it functions in the NFL. He has better players obviously than he had at Oregon, and that’s a function of the NFL. That’ll be fun to see how he operates that. He’s going to call the plays, and that’s fine. He knows exactly how he wants to play, and that’s a good thing. So he’ll be able to inculcate that into his team and his staff very quickly.
But I think that — I’ve said this on air at ESPN: I think that this year, for people who really like Xs and Os, for football junkies like Jaws and myself and others at ESPN, this NFL season is going to be one of the most interesting in a long time, because as you mentioned at the outset of this call, the idea of how people are going to defense the option is interesting and exciting, and how the new parts of the spread offense and the up tempo offense come into the National Football League and how they function and how people defend against them will be interesting.
But Marv Levy taught me a long time ago there’s nothing new under the sun. And speaking of him, we were in essence a three wide receiver up tempo no huddle offense in Buffalo starting in 1990, so it’s not that it’s never been done before; it has been done and quite successfully; it’s just it hasn’t been done in a while, so there will be an adjustment period for defenses, and it’s going to be fun to see how those match ups proceed over the course of the season.
When you evaluate quarterbacks for the draft and you look at a guy like EJ Manuel, he holds the ball up a little high. He had some fumbles at Florida State. When you’re trying to grade a quarterback like that, and he obviously has a lot of good tools, how big of a factor are mechanics, and sometimes coaches and executives have told me sometimes you can’t change a quarterback’s mechanics because if a guy is throwing the same way his whole life you don’t want to do that. How much are mechanics a factor when you’re grading quarterbacks?
BILL POLIAN: Well, I think it is a factor, but you’re right, the people that have told you that are right. You work within what a player has learned to do during his career. Now, you can improve his footwork, you can improve his ball security, you can even improve his accuracy with work, and so you expect improvement. Coaches work on mechanics all the time. In fact they do more of it in the NFL than they do in college because of the 20 hour rule in college. The college coaches would like to do it, but they don’t have as much time to spend with mechanics as we do in the NFL in season. I wish we had more time in the off season.
But the bottom line is that they’ll improve mechanics, and unless it’s a huge flaw like arm angle, delivery of the ball, it’s really not an issue. It’ll get corrected. I harken back to when Peyton Manning came out he had a habit of moving his feet and staying alive in the pocket, tapping his feet, short, choppy steps while he was in the pocket, and people called that nervous feet. They thought that it was a detriment. Now every quarterback beyond the fourth grade is taught to tap his feet in the pocket the way Peyton does.
Mechanics can be — mechanical flaws can be overblown, and they often are. You work with what the player has and improve it, and players always improve.
I’d like to ask you about a notion that some observers had about the Packers last season, that they’re a soft team. As elite as they are, some NFL observers put them in the category of soft. I wondered what you thought of that notion, if there’s any merit to it in your mind. And secondly, the Packers were pretty well thrashed in their season ending game against San Francisco. What do they have to do better to put themselves in a position of winning that kind of game again?
BILL POLIAN: Well, any observer who describes any NFL team as soft has never been on the field, that’s for sure, because it isn’t soft down there no matter what style you play. Our Indianapolis teams were hit with that label a few times, and it was completely false, and it’s completely false here. There are no soft teams in the National Football League. And by the way, who was it that the Green Bay Packers beat in the Super Bowl? Can anybody remember and tell me? Well, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers, wasn’t it? And I don’t think anyone would consider the Pittsburgh Steelers soft. To me that’s nonsense.
Secondly, I think that they are one of the best teams in the league. They’ve had a real difficult time with injuries, particularly on defense, and they’re going through a tough time with injuries now on offense, more than their share. So I give them a lot of credit in terms of being mentally tough in coming back from those kinds of situations. I don’t doubt that they’ll do that now.
I think they’re a very good team. I think that their offense will have a new dimension this year because of the quality of the running backs that they drafted, and that’ll make a huge difference. Once you run the ball consistently, then nobody thinks of you as soft. To me that’s a red herring. I don’t even pay any attention to it very honestly. And secondly, they’re a very good team, and there are a lot of very good teams in the National Football League. They’re one of them. They got beat by the 49ers last year in the playoffs. That’s going to happen. You’re not going to win every year. You know, just back to the drawing board and accent your positives and be ready to do the best you can.
As I say, I think they’re a team that’s going to have to fight through injury at this point, but it’s a long season, and they may get some of those guys back.
First, did you ever think you’d see Peyton Manning operating out of a pistol offense in a game? And second, with Peyton this year, do you think we’ll see him have a little bit stronger arm? And with Welker in the mix now, do you possibly see kind of a Colts record breaking type year he could have when he had Wayne, Stokley and Harrison in I think it was 2004?
BILL POLIAN: Yeah, Dallas Clark was part of that, too, and a key part. I think that the offensive part of it, he can operate any offense. It doesn’t matter. In terms of how they’re going to do, a lot depends on how the running back situation sets itself and develops. If you’re going to have the kind of year that he had in ’04 and we had in ’04, it’s dependent on the running back being a big threat, and is his threat play or whatever your signature running play is working with a high degree of efficiency so that you set up the play action pass, which with Peyton is a — always turns into a big play. And with Demaryius Thomas, it has the capacity to turn into a big play. With Jacob Tamme, it has the capacity to turn into a big play.
That’s the key to it, and so whether it’s the second year player from San Diego State or whether it’s the young man they drafted from Michigan, somebody has to emerge as an explosive runner in order for the offense to function as efficiently and as effectively as it can, and that’s really the answer. Without a good running game, you have to gravitate more to short passes, and you don’t get the kinds of explosive plays that you get when that runner can threaten the edge with an average of five yards or more a carry, which is what Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes did.
Arm strength, by the way, is no issue. His arm is what it always was.
What do you think Denard Robinson will bring to the Jaguars’ offense this year?
BILL POLIAN: Well, he’s an extremely explosive player with the ball in his hands at whatever position he might play. What they’re going to have to do is to find out where he’s most effective, and as I said early in the call, this is a year of discovery for Jacksonville. It’s a year of discovering players. It’s a year of discovering how their people adapt to the program that Coach is putting in, and it’s a year of discovering the strengths of players like Denard who have explosive skill sets. So it’s a work in progress.
They’ll figure out over the course of the season, usually the first six weeks of the season are sort of break in time, if you will. I’ve always said a team develops its personality from week seven on, or game seven on. The first six weeks tell you what a team is going to be and how they’re adapting to the various circumstances that surround them, i.e., the Packers and trying to adapt to all of these injuries.
That’s the period of time when you begin to fit everybody into place, and a coach understands what he’s got. Marc Trestman made that statement the other day, and it was right on the money as far as I’m concerned.
They’ll find out over the first six weeks what Denard does best and they’ll fit him in and develop plans to exploit that. He’s a weapon. This guy is a dynamic, really a big play football player with the ball in his hands.
As you know, the Colts had a lot of money to spend in free agency last year and awarded about $140 million in contracts to 11 players. I wonder what your thoughts might be on the approach they took. They stayed away from the real big names and expensive guys and went after guys they felt fit. Any thoughts on the group they brought in and how they approached it?
BILL POLIAN: Well, you described what they did very accurately, and now the proof will be in the pudding. We’ll see exactly how those guys fit and how they play. Whether or not they perform to a championship level, I mean, that’s what the season will tell us, and how they fit particularly in the new offense. The defense is obvious, how they fit in the new offense, and how the new offense fits with the talent level that’s already there.
As we know, it’s essentially similar to that which they ran at Stanford. The defense in many ways is similar to that which they ran at Stanford. Andrew is certainly familiar with the offense and certainly familiar with the necessity to — with a bigger defense, to extend drives and things of that nature. They clearly are banking on being a better power running team than they were a year ago, and that’s all well and good. And ultimately the proof will be in the pudding.
Again, this is an interesting year from an X and O standpoint. This is a team that seems to be, at least from the outside, changing their X and O approach on offense. They’ve already committed to changing it on defense, and that’ll continue. So it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. But as my buddy Chris Berman says, that’s why they play the game.
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