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The good, the bad and the ugly in the NFL: Part 1a, Good Owner Behavior

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The Cream of the Crop

Super Bowl parade Staff Photo By Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

MattInBrisVegas recently wrote a couple of articles examining how long it takes teams, like the 2020 Redskins, to rebuild after hitting rock bottom. The answer was that it can vary quite a bit. The top teams in the league over the last two decades seem to have worked out how to win consistently within the competitive regime established by the salary cap and free agency. They seldom have really bad seasons, and when they do, they bounce back quickly.

Throughout Dan Snyder’s tenure as owner, the Redskins have been at the other end of the spectrum. They are one of seven of the league’s bottom dwellers which have never managed to achieve sustained success in the latter part of the salary cap era. These long term losing franchises seldom climb out of the cellar to win a playoff game, and when they do, it has taken an average of over seven years to climb back to respectability after bottoming out.

Those findings set the scene to start asking what are the keys to the success of the perennial contenders, and what keeps the bottom dwellers from ever getting really good. Over the coming months, Matt and I will be taking a look at the factors that differentiate the best teams in the NFL from the worst, to shed some light on just what it will take to turn the Redskins around.

Like Neo in the Matrix, Redskins’ fans have a choice between taking the blue pill, and living under the illusion that “we’re close,” or the red pill, and peeling back the façade to reveal the ugly truth about just how far our favorite team has to go to return to being a regular playoff contender. If you are the blue pill kind of fan, this might be a good time to flip to another article.

The ugliest truth about the Redskins franchise for the last two decades has been the mismanagement of the team by a meddling owner, who has no actual football background, and the incompetent sycophants he has chosen as GM. To a fan who has lived through the extended series of failures during Snyder’s reign of error, from Jeff George to Albert Haynesworth, Deion Sanders to RG3, Champ Bailey to Alex Smith, the obvious first place to look is what role owners play in the success and failure of NFL franchises.

In the first article of this two-part series we will take a look at the behavior of the owners of the seven teams that have achieved sustained success throughout the last two decades of the cap era. In the following article, we will examine the seven league bottom dwellers, including the Redskins

The Cream of the Crop

The teams we will examine in this article have had sustained success since 2000, posting winning records in at least 70% of the seasons in that time frame. Collectively, this group has won 14, or 70%, of the Super Bowls during that period as well. This group represents the league’s long-term, elite teams, 4 from the AFC and 3 from the NFC.

Patriots

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 19

Owner: Robert Kraft (291-125)

Tenure: Purchased the team in 1994 from former owner James Orthwein (7-25).

The Patriots’ organization really belongs in a class of its own. The other teams in the elite tier have had 14 or 15 winning seasons out of the last 20, compared to the Patriots’ 19. Even more impressively, the Patriots have won six Super Bowls in this period to pull even with the Steelers as the two franchises with the most championship wins in the Super Bowl era. If we are looking for clues regarding the keys to achieving sustained success in the NFL, the Patriots are the first place to look.

Kraft, born in Massachusetts, made his fortune in the paper business and had deep roots in New England throughout his professional life. He’s also been one of the most generous philanthropists in Massachusetts over the past 25 years. Since purchasing the Patriots in 1994, he has overseen the construction of the most impressive dynasty in the Super Bowl era of the NFL.

Kraft’s most important move for the Patriots was - in retrospect - hiring head coach/general manager Bill Belichick, a move which was far from universally lauded at the time. Recall, the Patriots actually traded a first round pick (#16) to the Jets in order to secure the man who would become the greatest NFL coach in history:

“I’m kind of a little surprised. Giving up a No. 1, I think, is a lot. Belichick is one of the game’s outstanding defensive coaches, but as a head coach he didn’t prove much,” said Ron Jaworski, yet to begin his long-time association with ESPN. “I would think there were other qualified coaches out there so you don’t have to give up a No. 1, who should be a Pro Bowl player. And they don’t have the talent to give that up.”

After hiring Belichick, Kraft gave him virtually complete control of the team, and Belichick has only posted one losing season with the Patriots since (his first, in 2000). It’s speculated that Kraft - seeing the change to the league coming as a result of the salary cap in the mid-1990s - appreciated Belichick’s long-term vision (a contrast with previous head coach, Bill Parcells) and allowed him to take a deliberate approach to team building that recognized that it was possible to win a Super Bowl with lower cost players, as long as they were all on the same page. Fundamentally, that shared notion of long-term, sustained success, provided Kraft the comfort level that his team was in good hands.

Super Bowl XL - Pittsburgh Steelers vs Seattle Seahawks Photo by Allen Kee/NFLPhotoLibrary

Steelers

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 15

Owner: Art Rooney II (30-17-1)

Tenure: Inherited from his father, Dan Rooney (288-203-1), in 2017. (The team has been family held since its inception).

Amazingly, the Rooney family have been the majority owners and operators of the Pittsburgh Steelers since the franchise’s inception in 1933. Their ownership has been characterized by patience and a consistent approach to team building - they’ve only had three head coaches since 1969, which is the least of any professional franchise in American sports. And, it’s hard to argue with the model - the franchise has won 6 Super Bowls - a feat matched only by the New England Patriots, the first team on this list.

When long-time owner Dan Rooney passed away in 2017, ownership stakes were given to several of the Rooney offspring, but the guiding philosophy seems to still harken back to that of the team’s original owner, Art Rooney:

“I didn’t like losing games and I didn’t like losing money. But I’ll tell you from the bottom of my heart: whatever I lost in money I was lucky to be able to lose it. I’d pay to lose it…to keep in this game. I love it that much.”

Dan Rooney was a renaissance man and an enlightened thinker, serving as the US ambassador to Ireland from 2009 to 2012, and leading the charge for inclusion of African American talent in the head coaching and general manager ranks. Dan Rooney implemented a number of elements that put the Steelers on the track to their storied success, including being methodical and tough, when necessary, firing his own brother at one point.

He was noted in his obituaries for his consensus-building approach as well as his philanthropy to the Pittsburgh community and his role in helping to revitalize the city after the economic malaise of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Super Bowl XLVII - Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers

Ravens

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 14

Owner: Steve Bisciotti (151-105)

Tenure: Purchased the team in 2004 from Art Modell (63-64-1) (had purchased 49% of the team in 2000).

Bisciotti grew up in the Baltimore suburbs and became an incredibly successful businessman by starting his own staffing firm with his cousin shortly after graduating from college. Eventually, that company - the Allegis Group - grew into the largest staffing firm in the world. Bisciotti has had at least partial ownership in the Ravens since 2000, and was instrumental in firing Super Bowl winning head coach Brian Billick after the 2007 season and replacing him with the relatively inexperienced John Harbaugh, whose previous coaching work had been as a defensive backs coach and special teams coordinator.

The gamble on Harbaugh worked out - he has posted a 118-74 record with a Super Bowl win in 2012. Of course, Bisciotti was also fortunate to inherit one of the game’s foremost general managers - Ozzie Newsome - when he purchased the team. But, he also recognized the talent he had and left them to their own devices:

“He lets us do our job,” Newsome said, by way of explanation.

In contrast to the imperiousness used to describe some of the worst owners in the NFL (and those in other business ventures), Bisciotti’s style is described broadly as collaborative and philosophical:

Whether it’s preparing for the draft or making key hires, Bisciotti prefers to sit in the room and listen to everyone else speak before opening his mouth. When he does talk, he’s often asking questions, and making sure all lines of communication are open.

“He says it’s his bubble in the straw mentality. One small bubble can block everything,” explains Eric DeCosta [the team’s current GM]. “He wants more of an open forum where everybody can speak their mind.”

Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Eagles

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 14

Owner: Jeffrey Lurie (231-182-2)

Tenure: Purchased the team in 1994 from Norman Braman (79-63-1).

Lurie began his career in academia, working as a professor at Boston University after earning his PhD at Brandeis University. He founded an Oscar-winning movie production company in 1985 and, though he grew up a fan of Boston sports’ teams, he purchased the Eagles in 1994, largely with the assistance of family wealth.

Lurie’s ownership style has been described as one of “delegation”:

Jeffrey’s in the room on draft night, he’s part of decisions with big free-agent signings, but even with a head-coaching search, which is his final call, he listens and asks questions and wants help. He doesn’t dictate — and, in fact, Lurie claims never to have overruled a draft decision by his lieutenants, which [Howie] Roseman and others confirm.

Early in his tenure, Lurie brought on Joe Banner, a childhood friend and successful businessman, as team president. That would lead to a key decision, the hiring of Andy Reid in 1999. That hire at the time was viewed with some skepticism, as Reid had no prior experience as a coordinator, but it paid off. During his time with the Eagles, Reid collected six division titles, 5 NFC conference game appearances, and a trip to the Super Bowl.

Eventually, Lurie did fire Reid, hiring Chip Kelly - a move it took him very little time to regret. In contrast to Reid’s genuine compassion and respect for others, Kelly had very little respect in the locker room. For Kelly’s replacement, Lurie would again turn to Reid, grabbing his offensive coordinator in Kansas City - Doug Pederson, another “nice guy” - as a result of the former coaches’ endorsement. A decision he would not regret.

Super Bowl XLVIII - Seattle Seahawks v Denver Broncos Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Seahawks

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 14

Owner: Paul Allen Trust (Jody Allen, his sister) (196-155-1)

Tenure: Purchased the team in 1997 from former owner Ken Behring (61-83).

Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, grew up in Seattle and was a brilliant computer programmer and businessman. In 1997, he bought the football team he had grown up rooting for and proceeded to turn a perennial loser into one of the most successful franchises in the NFL, reaching 3 Super Bowls and winning one. He passed away in 2018, but the team remains held in a family trust and run by his sister.

Allen’s ownership and management style was repeatedly referred to as “laissez faire” - hands off - relying upon the skills of his general manager and coach to get the job done:

“From my perspective it’s so much about finding the right people — both to coach the team and help find the talent, the general manager,” he said. “That is your most important job as owner, is those two positions.”

He saw his role as one of advisor to the experts he had hired to run his business:

“In football and basketball I like to think of myself as more of a sounding board,” Allen said, “somebody that, especially with the general manager, will talk through some things, different options.”

After Allen hired former Redskins executive John Schneider as general manager and Pete Carroll as head coach in 2010, he let them do their jobs. And, they rewarded that trust.

“He’s given John and I such tremendous freedom to run the program — couldn’t ask for anything better,” Carroll said. “To me, it’s the best situation that you can have in professional sports.”

Super Bowl XLI: Indianapolis Colts v Chicago Bears Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Colts

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 14

Owner: Jim Irsay (216-152)

Tenure: Inherited the team from his father, Robert (153-226-1), in 1997.

When Irsay’s father, Bob, passed away in 1997, he ended up inheriting the team after a legal battle with with stepmother. At the time, he was 37, the youngest owner in the NFL. Where the elder Irsay was known as a cheap, “tinkering owner” who presided over one of the less successful teams in the league, Jim appeared to have learned from his father’s mistakes. He grew up around the team, and, by several accounts, was responsible for helping to frequently reconcile his father’s interpersonal gaffes while he was still running the team.

His father’s missteps led directly to his own success. For instance, Bob Irsay’s perspective was, by Jim’s account, “I just can’t see paying all that money to a guy who’s never played a down in this league.” This frugality, and the poor management of the franchise, combined with Bob’s hiring of Frank Kush, a coach known for treating players poorly, led to the Colts losing Hall of Famer John Elway when the team was in Baltimore. Jim used that experience to shape his negotiations with Hall of Famer Peyton Manning much later down the road, keeping the superstar in Indianapolis for most of his career.

Once given the full reigns in Indianapolis, Jim was able to put his own stamp on the franchise, abandoning the domineering style of his father and delegating responsibility to football experts, like general manager Bill Polian, whom he hired in 1998. Simultaneously, Irsay spent generously on the team, expanding its sales and marketing staff and engaging community support to pump up the fan base. Where his father had been openly hostile to the fans in Baltimore, Jim recognized the critical role of fan support to team success.

“I look at myself as a steward,” Irsay said. “And a good owner always keeps the fans at heart. We want this to be a vehicle that pulls this community together.”

Super Bowl XLV Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Packers

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 14

Owner: Publicly-held (Mark Murphy, CEO (119-71-2))

Tenure: Murphy has been in the CEO role since 2007, and was preceded by Bob Harlan (222-171-1)

The Green Bay Packers are the only publicly-owned, not-for-profit professional team in the United States. They are owned by hundreds of thousands of fans. As such, they make an interesting counterpoint to the other teams that are owned by billionaires. The team is run by a seven person executive committee, headed by President and CEO, Mark Murphy (a former safety for the Redskins), who has been in the role since 2007. The Packers won a Super Bowl, in 2010, during Murphy’s tenure with the team.

Recently, the Packers made a move to set the head coach and general manager up as co-equals, having them both report to the team president, and contrasted with the previous chain of command which was president > general manager > head coach. Despite the change, Murphy was insistent that he would stay out of the football decision making:

“I’ll be involved and supportive, but I’m not going to make football decisions,” he said. “I’m not making decisions on who we are going to draft or who’s on the 53-man roster or whether we should pass on third-and-1. It’s completely up to [head coach] Matt [LaFleur] (to complete the coaching staff).”

In his estimation, the new configuration incentivizes the general manager and head coach to collaborate and work together, only involving Murphy when a consensus can’t be reached.

That arrangement leaves time for Murphy to focus primarily on the business of making the team profitable. He’s been involved in spending over $500 million to improve Lambeau Field and the surrounding vicinity, helping to put the Packers in the top third of revenue generation despite being one of the smallest markets in the league. The Packers also have a charitable foundation that awards around $1M per year to civic groups throughout Wisconsin working on various causes, such animal welfare, health and wellness, and domestic violence issues.

Final Thoughts

In an exercise like this, it’s difficult to quantify the ownership differences between persistently good teams and bad ones, but there are certainly qualitative variations between the groups of teams that surface as general themes. Among them:

  • Several great teams are run by owners who empower their upper management and generally get out of the way (Kraft, Murphy, Jim Irsay). Of course, that requires making wise selections at the general manager and head coach positions in the first place.
  • Among those owners of great teams who are more involved (Bisciotti, Allen, Lurie), they tend to be collaborative and consultative, and absolutely not heavy-handed, serving as sounding boards and advisors for executive level staff.
  • None of the best teams had owners who micromanage or intervene extensively in football decisions.
  • Owners of four of the seven great teams (Kraft, Bisciotti, Rooney, Allen) grew up in the local area or had strong links to the community where their team is based before taking ownership.
  • The owners of great teams look at their teams, and fanbases, and cities as assets to invest in (Patriots, Steelers, Seahawks, Packers, Colts). The relationship between team owner and community is turned on its head in the case of the Packers. But in all cases ownership, or team executive management, views strong engagement with the community and fanbase as integral to the team’s success.

Next up, the Bottom Dwellers.