INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bill Polian earned the trust of Colts owner Jim Irsay by presiding over the league's greatest turnaround in 1999.
The reversal cost Polian and his son, Chris, their jobs.
Less than 24 hours after a season-ending loss at Jacksonville gave Indianapolis the No. 1 pick in April's draft, Irsay fired the team's vice chairman and general manager and decided to keep coach Jim Caldwell at least until he finds a replacement for the father-and-son team.
"It was a very tough decision for me," the Colts owner said Monday. "I had a chance to talk to them both, I had a chance to express to them, and Bill in particular. You know how hard it was and the appreciation the franchise has for all that has been done by Bill, and obviously, him and I go back 30 years. So this is difficult, this is the tough part of this business."
For more than a decade, the Polians and Irsays seemed to operate in lock step.
Irsay sided with Polian after the 2001 season when the then team president and coach Jim Mora clashed. He thought enough of Chris Polian to begin the transition from father to son and he repeatedly supported Polian publicly even when fans were unhappy with Polian's decisions and reactions.
But after 13 straight losses, a 2-14 record without Peyton Manning and the second-fewest wins in the franchise's Indianapolis era, Irsay had no choice.
"I'm grateful for all the support the fans have shown us in good times and bad," Polian said in a statement issued by the team. "Indianapolis has been a wonderful place to live and work. Most of all, I would like to thank the players, coaches and staff who have played the pivotal role in this magnificent journey. I will miss them all."
Nobody ever doubted how much influence the elder Polian had on the game or the Colts.
He helped create the league's salary cap structure and was a longtime member of the league's rule-making competition committee.
He was the architect of four Super Bowl teams in Buffalo, the rapid ascension of Carolina's expansion team and the Colts' resurgence. Six times, he was named NFL executive of the year by The Sporting News. He drafted the Colts' career leaders in passing (Manning), rushing (Edgerrin James) and sacks (Dwight Freeney), and the No. 2 receiver in franchise history (Reggie Wayne). His teams won two Grey Cups in the Canadian Football League, played in eight NFL championship games and five Super Bowls, and the 10-game improvement from 1998 to 1999 set a league record. In 2006, Polian finally got his elusive Super Bowl ring.
The cornerstone for all that success in Indy, though, was Manning, and the inability to find an adequate backup proved Polian's undoing.
Manning missed the entire season with a neck injury after signing a five-year, $90 million deal in July. The Sept. 8 procedure was his third neck surgery in 19 months, and the Colts went through three different quarterbacks before getting their first win.
Players also became increasingly dismayed by the comments Polian made on his weekly radio show. The most vocal critic was Manning, probably the only person in the organization with more leverage than the team's vice chairman.
When Polian told listeners that he and Manning had discussed drafting his eventual successor and that Manning was "OK" with it, the four-time league MVP later said he and Polian had never discussed the 2012 draft and it would be inappropriate for him to have those discussions. Just before Christmas, Polian told reporters that Manning would fail his season-ending physical, too. Following Sunday's 19-13 loss, Manning said: "That's news to me."
Chris Polian, named the team's GM four years ago though he didn't start making the day-to-day decisions until this season, got caught in the crossfire. He was seen leaving the team complex Monday afternoon, just about the time word leaked of the firings.
The decision was a surprise to players.
"Shock, man, just shock," safety Antoine Bethea said after finding out. "I knew there were going to be some things happening, but I didn't expect them to come so soon."
Irsay has not established a timeline for finding a new general manager, though he said he would start contacting other GMs and teams Monday night.
No decision on Caldwell is expected to be made until after the GM is hired, though players have overwhelmingly supported him.
"One thing about Jim is that he's a stand-up guy, and guys respect that," cornerback Jerraud Powers said. "He's a great coach, a good guy, and it was an unfortunate situation this year. But he never lost the locker room."
In fact, Irsay said, there's a good chance Caldwell will be back.
Whoever replaces Polian will face an abundance of decisions in a major rebuilding effort.
Manning never played after having surgery in September, when doctors fused two vertebrae to fix a damaged nerve that was causing weakness in his throwing arm.
He did, however, start throwing to teammates in mid-December and received good reviews from both Bill Polian, who was watching, and running back Joseph Addai, who was catching the passes. Doctors familiar with the procedure who did not treat Manning say he should return to a high level of play now that the fusion has healed.
If he is healthy, Irsay has promised to bring back Manning regardless of the $28 million bonus he is owed in March, potentially putting two franchise quarterbacks — Manning and likely No. 1 pick Andrew Luck of Stanford on the same roster.
"I think I can co-exist with any player I've ever played with," Manning said Sunday. "I think I've always been a good teammate in that way."
If Manning returns, Irsay might be more likely to bring back former Pro Bowlers Robert Mathis, Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne, all of whom are now in their 30s, and keep other key high-priced cogs in the Colts' success such as defensive captains Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt.
But the Polians won't be making those decisions.
"Bill and I had a chance to have a second meeting and to have some tears and a hug, and that was good," Irsay said. "It's extremely difficult. Walking out of the locker room in Jacksonville that was a hard walk, and it's hard because my affection for them is deep."