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Bill Polian on GM vacancy: It checks all the boxes
The Pro Football Hall of Fame executive gives his assessment on the Atlanta Falcons’ opening
By Matthew Tabeek Dec 17, 2020
Photographs By The Associated Press

When it comes to turning a team's fortunes around and building them into consistent winners, few have done it better than Bill Polian.

Polian spent 32 seasons in the NFL and made his mark as a general manager for three different franchises – the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and the Indianapolis Colts. Those Polian-built teams appeared in eight conference championships and five Super Bowls, including the Colts' win over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

To top off his amazing run, Polian – a six-time NFL Executive of the Year by The Sporting News – was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.

So, who better to assess the Atlanta Falcons' current vacancy at general manager? I caught up with Polian on Wednesday and asked several questions about the position.

We covered a number of topics, including what Polian thinks about the makeup of the Falcons roster, the salary cap, front office structure, ownership and how this job compares to others currently open around the league.

Question: The core of the Falcons roster is a mix of older and younger players. When you look at Matt Ryan (35 years old), Julio Jones (31), Jake Matthews (28), Grady Jarrett (27) and Deion Jones (26), is that collection of players that makes this job more attractive or will their ages and contracts scare some candidates off?

Bill Polian: No, I don't think so at all. There are only 32 of these jobs in the world. People don't get scared off by that; they're anxious to be employed. I don't think that's an issue. 

Second of all, player personnel issues are the purview of, in some cases, ownership. I think that would be a discussion regarding Matt [Ryan]. Everybody else is the purview of the general manager and the coach, so they can make those decisions accordingly. As they go through the interview process, they will make their opinions known, I'm sure. And that's how the process works.

My personal feeling is that there's some talent here. Julio has still got some good years left. Matt has some good years left. I certainly think [Calvin] Ridley does. There are some guys on defense like [Grady] Jarrett and [Deion] Jones. Perhaps both safeties have some merit. So, I don't think the cupboard is bare. I think there are worse jobs, let me put it that way. But the new coach and general manager are going to go through that one and sort it out.

Question: When looking at the Falcons roster from top to bottom, what stands out the most about it to you?

Polian: I think Rich [McKay] would tell you and any other experienced football man would tell you, you look at the roster and say, what is it we need to win? You need 53, but beyond that, you do need some people who can change games.

Running back is one of those. I think you're pretty good at receiver. The offensive line – I can't offer an opinion on it because I haven't seen that much film, although I would think that the tackle position is one that bears some scrutiny.

On defense, that's been the principal problem. I think … [A.J.] Terrell has a bright a future. [Deion] Jones strikes me as a player who can be a big contributor. And certainly, Grady Jarrett has been a big contributor over time – and those big guys who can play are hard to find.

As I said, I think the cupboard is far from bare here. And Matt still has some good years left in him, I think.

Question: How important is it for this team and fan base to experience success early with a new regime?

Polian: I don't think you can expect to have success early. I think that's a false expectation. The bottom line is that you're going to have a new coach who will bring with him a new staff. The players have to learn a new system. The offensive guys will have to learn probably their fourth new system in at least six years. Defensively, who knows what the system may or may not be.

It's not a drawback. It's a growth process. It's an opportunity. But it does not bring with it instant success. And I don't believe – and I've been in the game a long time and built three pretty good teams – I don't think that the idea there will be instant success makes any sense at all.

My experience tells me that is simply talk radio or talk TV fodder. The real world doesn't work that way.

Question: What do you think will be the biggest part of the initial job in Atlanta in terms of roster and salary cap management?

Polian: I wouldn't let the salary cap worry me at all, to begin with. First of all, the NFL will do the correct thing in order not to have a blood bath, in order to not have the salary cap go down so far that teams are forced to have wholesale releasing of players. That's not gonna happen. The union and the NFL will get together, they'll work it out, smooth it over time. So, that's not a big issue. The idea that a doomsday is coming which I see bandied about, particularly on the internet, is simply not true.

Secondly, I think you make a decision on Matt. I'm not taking a position one way or the other. I'm just saying that with a new GM, a new head coach, ownership and senior management with Rich [McKay], you have to sit down and make a decision. Do we go forward with Matt or do we not? That's logical. That's not a knock on Matt, it's a question that simply has to be answered. It's what you do when you do business.

That decision that has to be reached, and then everything flows from there.

As far as the cap and who may or may not be affordable, first of all, I would never lose a wink of sleep over that because Rich is as skilled as anybody and knowing and operating and managing that. He's a tremendous resource in that regard. And secondly, I don't think that at this stage where the Falcons are that cap concerns are of any concern.

The key is, how do we get the kind of players that it takes to win consistently on offense and defense.

Question: Will it be challenging for a new GM and coach to implement their long-term vision or plan and still win games right away (which will be important for both the fan base and locker room)?

Polian: The answer is yes (laughing).

Question: Based on what you're saying, is there some kind of understanding that there are going to lumps – maybe some tough days, some tough stretches – during that that first year?

Polian: I think I would phrase it a little differently. First of all, Rome wasn't built in a day. The reason it's a cliché is because there's some truth to it. And it's more true in football than any other phase of certainly of life.

Secondly, you're going to have a break-in period as I said before, a learning curve. A new coaching staff has to get to know their players and what they can do and, more importantly, what they can't do. The roster has to be improved. Running back is obvious, need a bell cow there. That's just one area. Pass protection would be another.

All of that has to take place within the context of a new system, new personal relationships, new nomenclature, etc. You would be foolish to say, 'Oh yeah, we'll come in here and wave a magic wand and all of the sudden we're going to be back to 11-5.'

That's not realistic.

On the other hand, it is realistic and aspirational to say we want to build a team that gets better every week. That by the end of the season is competitive. And by the end of the season is invested – coaching staff and the players, players and the coaching staff.

Those are the benchmarks for success in the first year.

I never worried about what the record would be in the first year. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not. A lot of that is the bounce of the ball. My lord, this year with COVID, how would anyone predict anything? The NFL is a crazy place anyway – add that to it, it's worse.

You want aspirations, and you want to see the aspirations coming to life. But expectations are something that should be tempered.

Question: What does the continuity in the GM position under Arthur Blank show when you look at the Falcons are one of only seven teams who had not changed the position in 12 years? Is that enticing to a candidate?

Polian: Absolutely. Not only that, but Mr. Blank is committed to winning. He's committed to running a first-class operation. He's one of the foremost owners in the league. He's a person that everyone looks up to. He's a leader in the community. The Falcons are leaders in the community because of his direction. That's a plus, and a given.

Question: At least one national writer has reported that there is concern from potential candidates about team president Rich McKay's involvement in football operations. Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports wrote that one of his sources said the Atlanta job "won't be attractive to top candidates" because of the structure. Do you think when it comes to managing football operations that is a legitimate concern?

Polian: No, it's completely illegitimate. It's foolish. I wouldn't know Mr. Jones if I tripped over him, but his source isn't very intelligent if that's the position he takes. First of all, if you know Rich, he's a football man through and through, No. 1.

No. 2, he's exceptionally smart. No. 3, he's an expert on football management – by that I mean the salary cap, the rules, all of that. He's an incredible asset to any organization, to any football operation. And he's supportive and a good person.

You would want to work for Rich McKay.

Question: Arthur Blank is largely viewed as an owner who wants to win (and win now), cares deeply about the fans, isn't afraid to spend money if necessary and doesn't meddle with coaching and personnel decisions. How important is that when it comes to attracting the best candidates?

Polian: As I said at the outset, there are only 32 of those jobs. People covet them no matter what. But if you have a choice, then you are going to look at places where ownership is stable, professional, where other people in the organization are good people, committed people, experts at what they do. And an owner who is willing to make the commitment financially, emotionally, to put together a first-class organization.

The Falcons check every box, including a great city to live and work. It's as simple as that, they check every box.

Question: Of all the current open positions, how do the facilities in Flowery Branch, living in the Atlanta area and playing at Mercedes-Benz Stadium stack up?

Polian: Oh I think they are second to none. It's a great area in which to live and work. The fact that Flowery Branch is in a very desirable suburban location is a real plus for players and staff.

The stadium is top shelf. The owner is top shelf. The president is top shelf. What's not to like?

Question: Since these positions – and NFL GM and head coach – are so hard to land, how much does the city and facilities really come into play?

Polian: Frankly, there is some of that. If you come into a situation that is subpar, which of course the Falcons are not in any way, what you'd like to get from ownership and senior management is a commitment to improve.

You don't want to be behind your competitors. You don't want to be behind the times. But the Falcons, since Rich has been president and Mr. Blank has been the owner, have never been behind their competitors and never been behind the times.

So that's a given that you don't have to worry about. You know that you're going to get the kind of commitment, the kind of support that you'll need to win.


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