Commentary

Different paths to winning ways

Homegrown Colts, "League of Nations" Saints reflect contrasting building plans

Originally Published: January 27, 2010
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Mickey Loomis and Bill PolianAP PhotosSaints executive VP/GM Mickey Loomis (left) and Colts president Bill Polian (right) have constructed Super Bowl XLIV teams using contrasting methods.

Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian and New Orleans Saints executive vice president Mickey Loomis count more than a half-century of NFL experience between them.

They have combined for seven NFL executive of the year awards, with Polian on Wednesday winning for a record sixth time. With their teams poised to play in Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7, Polian and Loomis share some philosophies and mutual respect -- but they have put their franchises together in different ways.

It's almost like architects planning and designing the same building, one using brick as a foundation and the other preferring steel. There might be more than one correct blueprint, but each finished product is nonetheless impressive.

Different strokes for different NFL folks, right? Over the next week, newspapers will publish those "how they were built" charts comparing the two teams. While the end is certainly the same -- South Florida and the title game -- the means are different.

"The only thing that matters is wins," New Orleans free safety Darren Sharper said after his team's victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

"You've got to create chemistry in the locker room, and there are a lot of different formulas for doing that. The key is to do it and create a [winning] atmosphere."

For the Colts' Polian, that means drafting well, developing players within his team's system, and not seeking much outside help. Polian might be old-school, but he is hardly old-fashioned. He remains fairly solid in molding his team with homegrown talent. The Colts have maintained a standard of excellence for a decade by retaining their own best players.

Consider the Colts' 53-man roster for their victory over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 39 Colts on the roster had never played for or been signed by another NFL team. The Colts' roster included 29 draft choices (six of them first-rounders) and 10 players who were signed originally by Indianapolis as undrafted free agents out of college.

Ten players were added as "street" free agents, whose NFL careers included stints with other teams. Three came in via waivers. Just one -- injured kicker Adam Vinatieri -- was signed as an unrestricted free agent. His replacement, Matt Stover, was technically a "street" free agent who went unsigned during the unrestricted period.

Not a single player on the roster was brought to Indianapolis via trade.

Polian is a big fan of the old baseball-style methodology for evaluating certain players and positions, and that is obvious with the way the Colts bring up players "through the ranks." Polian is particularly adept at identifying prospects who will fit comfortably with the Colts' paradigms on and off the field. Indianapolis is rarely a big player in veteran free agency.

"We never have a problem with a guy saying, 'Well, we used to do it this way [with another team],' because we don't have many guys who played somewhere else in their careers," said Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, an 11-year veteran who originally entered the league with the Baltimore Ravens in 1998 as an undrafted free agent. He signed with the Colts in 1999 and has never played a game for another NFL team.

"For most of us, the 'Colts way' is really the only way we know," Saturday said. "Guys start here and end here, for the most part, and that's it. There's a certain thread, a kind of continuity, to it."

Even in finding a new head coach for the Colts after Tony Dungy retired, Polian and team owner Jim Irsay stayed true to the model already created. They promoted assistant Jim Caldwell into the top spot. Caldwell might not be a Dungy clone, but he is close enough. They share the same even-keeled temperament.

Loomis' method for roster-building, while effective, is the opposite of Polian's approach. The Saints' various voices have blended nicely.

"We're kind of a little like the League of Nations around here," said middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, one of several Saints acquired in trades. "They have used every method [of player acquisition] at their disposal. But it's worked."

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints' 53-man roster includes 19 original draft choices, four players signed as college free agents, 12 "street" free agents who came into the league with other clubs, 14 unrestricted free agents and the four players added through trades.

New Orleans' defense in particular reflects Loomis' all-encompassing methods. Only two of the four linemen who started against the Vikings in the NFC title game -- right end Will Smith and tackle Sedrick Ellis -- began their careers with the Saints. In the secondary, Sharper and cornerback Jabari Greer were both signed in the spring as unrestricted free agents. All three of the starting linebackers came from other clubs -- Vilma from the New York Jets (trade), strongside linebacker Scott Fujita from the Dallas Cowboys (free agency) and weakside linebacker Scott Shanle from Dallas (trade).

The differences aren't as pronounced on offense, where just three of the Saints' 11 starters in the NFC title game came from other teams.

The Super Bowl matchup is proof that both styles can work.

"You do what you've got to do [to win]," said New Orleans wide receiver Devery Henderson, a second-round pick of the Saints in 2004. "You skin the cat any way you can."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.