HOW FAR above the rest of the NFL are the Patriots and the Colts? Since the 2000 season those two have gone a combined 19--7 in the playoffs and taken four of seven Lombardi Trophies. In that span, the Pats have won an NFL-best 84 regular-season games, including Sunday's 24--20 victory over the Colts, who are second, at 83. Great coaching is one reason for such excellence; Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy are masters of defense and motivation. Great quarterbacking is another; Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are already among the alltime greats. And behind the scenes, both teams let smart football people call the shots.
Bill Polian, 64, has the final say in all Colts personnel matters as well as a strong partnership with Dungy; he won't sign a player the coach doesn't like. Belichick makes the final call on Pats player acquisitions, but in drafting and free agency he entrusts the table-setting to Pioli, 42. Polian builds almost exclusively through the draft, putting together an impeccable record in 10 seasons with Indy: 19 of 22 starters came to the team in the draft or as rookie free agents. New England drafted 15 of its 22 starters but has relied on free agency and trades much more than Indy.
Polian and Pioli, who've been named Sporting News executive of the year a combined seven times, don't care much about public opinion. Polian was slammed for bypassing Ricky Williams to draft Edgerrin James in 1999; James outrushed Williams by more than 2,000 yards from '99 through 2005. Polian also ignored the injury risk of smallish Iowa safety Bob Sanders, making him the team's first draft pick in '04. Belichick got strong agreement from Pioli when he benched a healthy Drew Bledsoe, the AFC's highest-paid player, for an inexperienced sixth-round pick named Brady. And the Pats got the steal of 2007 when they snagged Randy Moss, viewed as a malingerer by much of the league, for a fourth-round pick.
Both executives hate the star system. "Scott talked to our team after the Patriots won their first Super Bowl," says Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. "He said, 'Who here has played in a World Series and an All-Star Game?' Eddie Murray was the only guy who raised his hand. Scott said, 'Which was better?' And Eddie said, 'No question, the World Series.' That was Scott's point—we all play this game to win championships."
Polian also has good friends in baseball. He says he's learned from executives such as Jim Hendry of the Cubs and Theo Epstein of the Red Sox. "They don't worry about losing free agents every year," Polian said last week. "[The Colts] lose the off-season every year. The baseball people have helped me understand it's meaningless." Case in point: Polian has let four very good linebackers walk as free agents over the last five years: Mike Peterson (to the Jaguars), Marcus Washington (Redskins), David Thornton (Titans) and Cato June ( Bucs). The small, quick, sure-tackling linebackers called for in Dungy's scheme are commonplace in the draft. The average 2007 cap cost of the four lost linebackers: $3.81 million. Average cap cost of current starters Gary Brackett, Tyjuan Hagler and Freddie Keiaho: $1.1 million. The lesson is, spend money on indispensable players, and trust your scouts to find winning players at other positions.
Every year these two teams go to camp knowing that Polian and Pioli have filled in the blanks in the off-season. "I haven't been worried about the players I go to training camp with since the day I got here," Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel (free-agent signee, 2001) said last week. "Every year we create competition with good players at every position. That's how you win in this league."