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SUPER BOWL XXV : BUFFALO BILLS vs. NEW YORK GIANTS : Polian Builds a Team That Is Not a Laughing Matter : Front office: Bills' general manager enjoys signing million-dollar players after his days in the USFL.

January 23, 1991|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAMPA, Fla. — 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."

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