INDIANAPOLIS – Bill Polian and his scouting staff did their due diligence, which means they wore out video, conducted extensive interviews and held the appropriate workouts. Yes, they turned over every necessary rock.
The opportunity was there for an aimless franchise to find its direction at the top of consecutive NFL drafts.
The 1998 draft delivered Peyton Manning to the Indianapolis Colts with the 1st overall selection. They finally had their unquestioned leader, their triggerman.
The 1999 draft added Edgerrin James with the 4th overall pick. They had their relentless runner who brought balance to the offense with a unique blend of power and finesse.
Imagine if the decisions had been different.
Imagine Ryan Leaf and Ricky Williams.
“That was the popular consensus, wasn’t it?’’ Polian said with a laugh.
Added Manning: “Bill Polian knew what he was doing, let’s put it that way.’’
The Manning-Leaf debate was split, more inside than outside the Colts’ complex. While the public was enamored with Leaf’s raw skills and perceived better upside than Manning, Polian and his staff had gravitated toward Manning.
The James vs. Williams discussion? Williams was the Heisman Trophy-winning back out of Texas. James labored on the periphery, in large part because his Miami Hurricanes were on probation, which limited their national TV exposure.
“He was literally unknown,’’ Polian said.
Fans clamored for Williams. The Colts determined James was their guy after a visit during the NFL Scouting Combine.
“He was as complete a back as it gets,’’ Polian said. “He was perfect for what we wanted at the position.’’
Yet to describe the selection of James unpopular among the fan base would be a gross understatement. At one draft-day fan gathering, they booed lustily when James’ face flashed on the TV screen.
“That as an extremely unpopular pick,’’ Polian said. “We had threatening calls to the switchboard after we made the pick and people were just going nuts because we traded Marshall and now instead of drafting Ricky Williams we drafted Edgerrin James.
“We felt good about the pick, let me put it that way.’’
Fast forward to early August in Canton, Ohio. The former teammates will be reunited on the NFL’s grandest stage: The Pro Football Hall of Fame.
James is part of the Class of 2020 and will be enshrined Aug. 7. The ceremony was postponed from last summer by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Manning’s moment comes a day later. He’s a headliner of the Class of 2021.
“It’s really special to be going in on the same weekend as Edgerrin . . . drafted in ’98, drafted in ‘99,’’ Manning said. “Edgerrin is one of my favorite teammates of all time. Just great attitude, unselfish, loved football. (I) always felt safe with him in the backfield next to me.’’
James takes a wider view as he and Manning prepare for what will be a very Colts-flavored weekend in Canton.
“It kind of makes it better for me because now you have more Colts’ star power in the building, you know what I’m saying?’’ he said.
Polian was enshrined as part of the Class of 2015. He’ll be on hand Aug. 7-8, just as he has been whenever a player or coach he’s been associated with has been enshrined.
“I’d have to be bed-ridden not to go,’’ he said.
Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison were inducted the following summer with the Class of 2016. Previously, Marshall Faulk (2011), the Colts’ 1994 first-round pick whose career really took off following a ’99 trade with the Rams that paved the way for James’ arrival, and Eric Dickerson (1999) had bronze busts added to the Hall of Fame.
Now, Manning and James.
“For the organization, it’s good,’’ James said. “You’re getting two-for-one. We’ve got to keep running it up there every year.’’
Reggie Wayne has reached the Final 15 in each of his first two years of eligibility. Robert Mathis, the team’s career sack leader, is eligible for the first time this year. Next year, Dwight Freeney, Mathis’ quarterback-wrecking cohort, is eligible for consideration.
James always felt comfortable working alongside Manning, on and off the field.
As the quarterback, Manning was the face and voice of the franchise. James and Harrison were the silent sidekicks. They willingly deferred to Manning’s persona.
“The thing about it is Peyton has always been the one who has grabbed the mic for us,’’ James said. “That always took a lot of pressure off us. We didn’t care about grabbing the mic. We wanted to play and produce.
“Me and Marv would talk every day during special teams. That worked in our favor because that’s not our personality. Our personality was we came in to play football and do a job. I didn’t come in to be this person or that person. That wasn’t my thing. Same with Marv.’’
The Colts Triplets combined for 23 Pro Bowl selections: 11 for Manning, eight for Harrison, four for James. Manning holds virtually every meaningful team career passing record. Harrison is the franchise’s career leader in receiving and James in rushing. Manning earned four of his NFL-record five MVP awards in Indy. James led the league in rushing in each of his first two seasons and Harrison led the NFL is receptions twice and yardage on two occasions.
Manning, James and Harrison were voted to the NFL’s 2000 All-Decade team.
Through it all – the individual accolades and honors – jealousy never seemed to seep into the locker room.
“Who cares who gets the credit?’’ James asked, knowing the answer. “As long as we’re making some money – and we always want to make some money, you know? – and we get a chance to do what we set out to do when we came here, that’s all that mattered.
“It all worked. We orchestrated a nice plan that Bill put together. It couldn’t have worked no better.’’
“I never sensed (jealousy),’’ he said. “Look, both of those guys were competitive guys, but they weren’t selfish guys. Marvin wanted the ball, but Marvin wanted the ball because he felt it would help us win if he got the ball. And you know what? He was right.
“Edgerrin wanted to get his carries and his touches, but he also knew because of his presence that brought eight guys down in the box and that allowed Marvin and Reggie do be one-on-one. Edgerrin took a little pride in that.
“They were great teammates from that standpoint. We always had team over self and the common goal was to try to win games.’’
James’ preference to remain in the shadows will change in August. Twenty-four hours before Manning makes his acceptance speech, the mic belongs to James.
“I have to,’’ he said with a laugh. “Anything I have to do, I usually do. Things I don’t have to do, it’s always up in the air.’’
As each savors the moment, they’ll be surrounded by hundreds of Hall of Famers, including former teammates and colleagues.
“Really kind of hard to believe it,’’ Manning said. “To be going in with Edgerrin is really special. Really kind of hard to believe it and to rejoin Marvin and Marshall being an old teammate and Tony being our leader and Bill Polian our architect.
“Kind of glad to be their teammates again.’’
Polian’s insistence on being in the audience whenever the situation warrants is understandable.
“No. 1, you want to share the joy and congratulate the person. It is such an honor,’’ he said. “I don’t think I’ve missed one that I’ve been invited to and wouldn’t.
“No hyperbole, it is a life-changing honor.’’
Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James. Together again.
“Look, I can’t sit here and tell you that we knew they were going to end up in Canton,’’ Polian said. “No one can predict that. But I can tell you the minute we made the picks we knew they were going to be successful. They were just those kind of guys.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.