Bill Polian helped write the book for success in today’s NFL.

As co-author of the salary cap, he always figured it would force teams to draft well, be frugal and make smart decisions. Then the New England Patriots showed everyone how to refine the winning formula.

“They know exactly what they want to bring in, in terms of players who fit their system, and they stay with that,” Colts president Polian said before Indianapolis played at New England on Monday night. “We’ve learned a valuable lesson there and the same is true with Philadelphia.”

When the salary cap was adopted in 1993, Polian figured it would start an era in which dynasties were as prevalent as dinosaurs.

The Patriots, Colts and Philadelphia Eagles have shown over time that the NFL can still have its share of consistent winners by following a not-so-secret plan: Spend wisely, draft for the future and never sell out your team for a championship run.

The results have been impressive.

– New England has won three of the last four Super Bowls and had a 21-game winning streak spanning two seasons, including a Super Bowl title.

– The Eagles played in four straight NFC championship games and finally reached the Super Bowl last season.

– The Colts have been to the playoffs six times since 1999, played in the AFC championship two years ago and are chasing their third straight South Division title.

It’s the kind of long-term success Polian and some of his counterparts thought would vanish when the cap ramifications kicked in.

“George Young and myself felt that continuity would be the biggest casualty of the cap,” Polian said of the late general manager of the New York Giants. “We figured you would not have the ability to be good for a long period of time. That’s not been true in the Patriots’ case and kudos to them.”

Polian is one of the few who has made a seamless transition from the pre-cap days to today’s complex environment.

As general manager in Buffalo, from the mid-1980s until the early 90s, Polian gradually turned the Bills into the AFC’s dominant team – the only one in league history to play in four straight Super Bowls.

After a short stint as an NFL executive, Polian joined the then-expansion Carolina Panthers. There, he took advantage of extra draft picks and the salary cap to sign veteran free agents. In their second season, the Panthers were playing for the NFC title.

Polian took a different tack in Indianapolis, where he orchestrated the league’s biggest turnaround and transformed a once-beleaguered franchise into a perennial playoff team. Polian rarely wavered from his strategy.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is impressed.

“They have a college safety playing linebacker. They have a linebacker that is not a prototypical build. They have a defensive end that is 230 pounds,” Belichick said. “How much do you respect that they’ve gone the unorthodox route?”

But Polian also learned some twists from New England.

The Patriots relied on a combination of bargain free agents, low-round draft picks and just enough high-profile stars to create the perfect chemistry for a winner – and give Belichick and the front office a reputation as geniuses.

Around the league, there are few critics.

“You have the utmost respect for them when they run the tables like that,” said Colts defensive tackle Corey Simon, who played on the Eagles’ team that lost to the Pats in February. “Look at what they’ve done, and they keep getting better.”

And the Patriots’ success has continued to add to the pressure the Colts have endured.

“As a coach the challenge is that you don’t want things to get stale, but you don’t want the routine to get different,” the Colts’ Tony Dungy said. “That can be hard to do, especially for a team like us because we’ve been fairly good and haven’t won it.”


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