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The good, the bad and the ugly in the NFL: Part 1b, Bad Owner Behavior

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The Bottom Feeders

Buffalo Bills Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

The 2020 season marks the beginning of one of the most significant overhauls of the Redskins franchise under Dan Snyder’s ownership. As the organization crumbled to one of its low points in the last 20 years, the owner seemed to have had an epiphany, enlisting a group of football experts from outside the organization to advise on development of a new coach-centered management approach, modeled on the most successful teams in the NFL.

To get a better understanding of the challenge facing Ron Rivera and his leadership team, we decided to have a look at factors that differentiate the teams that have managed to achieve sustained success in the salary cap era, from the teams, like the Redskins, that have consistently occupied the bottom of the league tables.

The real constants in the team’s struggles this century have been Dan Snyder’s meddling in football affairs, and his apparent tolerance of incompetence and dysfunction within his organization. For that reason, we thought the most obvious place to start this series was to look at the management styles of owners of the best and worst teams over the last 20 years.

In the previous article, we examined the owners of the league’s most successful teams. We found that owners of perennial contenders tended to focus on hiring the best possible talent to run their teams and then, either sit back and let the experts do their thing, or take advisory and minimally interventionist approaches to managing their assets. We also found that owners of successful franchises often have deep attachments to the communities around their teams and tend to see positive engagement with their fanbases as critical to their teams’ success.

In this article we will switch the focus to the owners of teams that have somehow managed to avoid taking advantage of the levelling effects of the league’s competition rules throughout the majority of the salary cap era.

The Bottom Feeders

Since 2000, the group of seven teams below has been the worst in the NFL, winning, collectively, just 13 playoff games and posting losing seasons in at least 75% of the years during that period. These teams have been consistently terrible for a long time.

New York Giants v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Cardinals

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 5

Owner: Michael Bidwill

Tenure: Inherited the team from his father, Bill Bidwill (380-493-15), in 2019 (he had been the sole owner since 1971).

Prior to Michael Bidwill inheriting the team, Bill Bidwill had been at least part owner for 58 years, and during that tenure, the Cardinals were consistently among the worst teams in the NFL, only making the playoffs 8 times. The elder Bidwill had a reputation for being notoriously cheap, moving the beloved team from St. Louis in 1988 because the city refused to build the team a new stadium. The team finally began to spend more money in 2006, after moving to State Farm Stadium - where they were able generate higher revenues - and they won their division in 2008, the first time they had done so since 1975.

By at least one account - former QB Carson Palmer’s - Michael Bidwill is an engaged, though relatively hands off owner, leaving the details to GM Steve Keim (hired in 2013):

“And you would never know it. He doesn’t want to be here when the media’s here. He’s not doing interviews left and right, but he’s picked the right people to hire and he wants to win. … He doesn’t have a hand in every decision, cutting this guy, bringing in this guy. He’s hired the right people, and he knows it.”

NFL: DEC 29 Packers at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Lions

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 5

Owner: Martha Firestone Ford (45-50-1)

Tenure: Inherited from her husband, William Clay Ford (334-457-15), in 2014 (he had been the sole owner since 1963).

The Lions’ historied ineptitude certainly rivals - and probably exceeds - the Cardinals’, and much of that was attributed to a sense that Martha Ford’s husband, William Clay Ford, the team’s previous owner, was interested only in making money from the team. WC Ford was described in his obituaries as “patient and kind,” and a believer that “stability was key to successful organizations.” That overestimation of the value of stability could explain how he was able to endure 1 playoff victory in his 50 year ownership of the team, the league’s first 0-16 season, and ten head coaches given at least 2 years apiece to turn the franchise around. Former Lions’ tight end Charlie Sanders offered:

“Never saw him angry, never saw him raise his voice, just like he was really interested in what you had to say. It was almost like sometimes he wanted someone to talk to.”

At 94 years old, some wonder if Martha Firestone Ford might be less than fully engaged in the management of the team and instead is surrounded by flatterers and yes-men and women more interested in preserving the golden goose of an NFL franchise than they are in team success.

Despite fan interest in seeing the Ford’s finally sell the team, there have been explicit statements from Martha Ford’s heirs (and their functionaries) that the team is not for sale. Earlier this week, it was announced that Martha Ford is stepping down, with her daughter, Sheila Ford Hamp stepping in as principal owner.

Oakland Raiders v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Raiders

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 4

Owner: Mark Davis (55-89)

Tenure: Inherited the team from his father, Al Davis (409-310-11), in 2011 (he had been the principal owner since 1972).

Unlike the first two teams on this list, there was a time when the Oakland/LA Raiders - under Al Davis - were among the best teams in the NFL. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the Raiders were a formidable franchise. Aside from a few years of Jon Gruden and Rich Gannon, however, late stage Al Davis was a disaster. Whether the league had passed him by, or he had lost his touch, the Raiders have generally been pretty awful for the last 35 years or so. During the elder Davis’ last decade, he ran the team through a cycle of hiring and firing that was fundamentally at odds with his “Once a Raider, always a Raider” mantra from earlier in his career. He reportedly grew resistant to change and focused on his legacy in a way that ultimately crippled the team. As his health declined, his trademark non-conformism amplified, and he refused to listen to his coaches and his staff, convinced he alone knew the right way to run The Raiders.

Mark, Al’s son, appears to have decided to go in the opposite direction, pursuing long-term stability instead, locking Jon Gruden into a 10-year $100 million contract, and starting anew in Las Vegas, leaving the bad blood with the city of Oakland behind.

Aston Villa v Fulham - Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final Photo by Marc Atkins/Offside/Getty Images

Jaguars

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 4

Owner: Shahid Khan (38-90)

Tenure: Purchased the team in 2011. (Wayne Weaver (138-134) had owned the team since its inception in 1993).

Trained as an engineer, Shad Khan was born in Pakistan and, in many respects, is emblematic of the American dream. Out of college, he started working for a manufacturer of automotive parts, eventually starting his own company manufacturing bumpers. He grew that company to $2 billion in sales in 2010 and bought the Jaguars shortly thereafter.

Interestingly, a read of Khan’s discussions of the Jaguars often times seems to evidence a similar theme - that his primary focus is on growing the “brand”, as opposed to winning games:

“We have made a great effort to stabilize the Jaguars and London has played a key part in that. We see the Jaguars as an engine and catalyst for the overall growth of Jacksonville, and I believe we have proven our commitment beyond a doubt.”

Khan has poured tens of millions of dollars into improving the Jaguars’ stadium, and he has also been perhaps the most active owner in the NFL in trying to build inroads into London and the international market. He has grown the Jaguars’ brand dramatically, increasing the team’s valuation by about $1.5 billion in the decade he has owned the team. Although the business has fared well, the team has not enjoyed much success on the field during his ownership tenure. His management style has been described as hands off - staying out of football operations - and overly patient: In his ten year ownership of the team, he’s had one GM (David Caldwell) for eight years, despite the team’s poor results.

Might he move the Jags to London? It’s possible, but I could also see a scenario in which the NFL puts an expansion team there, Khan sells his interest in the Jags, and buys the new team. Above all, this is a man who sees the endless business possibilities of owning an NFL team.

San Francisco 49ers v Washington Redskins Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Redskins

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 5

Owner: Dan Snyder (142-193-1)

Tenure: Purchased the team in 1999 from the estate of Jack Kent Cooke (250-169-3).

Twenty years in, we’re all painfully familiar with Dan Snyder’s story: As a young boy, he grew up loving the Redskins. He created a communications company with his sister, placing advertisements in doctors’ offices and colleges, eventually selling the business in 2000 for $2 billion. He bought the Redskins in 1999 from the estate of Jack Kent Cooke and proceeded to micromanage the team into near oblivion (the team has a 142–193–1 record since he bought it).

Despite his connection to the team and the area, much of Snyder’s interaction with the fanbase was antagonistic and exploitative: From selling them expired airline peanuts in 2006, to conducting the biggest ticket increase in team history, to fleecing fans for parking at scrimmages MC’ed by Vinnie Cerrato. The stories of Snyder’s half-cocked attempts to extract a few extra bucks from DMV residents are legend.

Snyder seems to be sincere in his interest to field a winning team, but to-date, he has lacked the wherewithal to make it happen, hiring a pair of incompetent general managers (Vinnie Cerrato, Bruce Allen) in succession and meddling in personnel decisions, while allowing the Redskins’ brand and fan experience to crater. With the new “coach-centered approach” headed by Ron Rivera, we’re told that the buck should stop with him now. Only time will tell if that 1) actually happens, and 2) ends up improving outcomes on the field.

Wild Card Round - Buffalo Bills v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Bills

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 4

Owner: Terry and Kim Pegula (49-47)

Tenure: Purchased the team in 2014 from the estate of Ralph Wilson (376-436-8), the team’s original owner.

The original owner of the Bills, Ralph Wilson, was such a notorious cheapskate he once told OJ Simpson’s agent:

“What good would a championship do me? All that means is everybody wants a raise.”

It should come as no surprise then that he was, like the Bidwills and Fords above, far more concerned with the money he could generate from the team than he was its on-the-field success.

As one of the founding AFL owners and a long-time player in the development of the NFL, Wilson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009. However, at that point, likely because of the fact that he was reviled for poor management decisions and team performance, he cancelled the ring presentation ceremony that was supposed to take place at the halftime of a Bills game with the Browns out of concern he would be roundly booed.

The Pegulas made their money in the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas (“fracking”) business and have had long term connections to upstate New York. They bought the team (outbidding Donald Trump and Jon Bon Jovi) in 2014, and have, cumulatively, purchased six separate sports teams in the western New York area.

In the short time the Pegulas have owned the Bills, the team has made their only two post-season appearances in the last 20 years. Of all these bottom feeding teams, the Bills’ star seems the most ascendant in the near term, coming off a 2019 playoff appearance, with a young, tough QB, and catching the Patriots in the midst of a re-load.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns

Browns

Number of winning seasons since 2000: 2

Owner: Jimmy Haslam (33-94-1)

Tenure: Purchased the team in 2012 from Randy Lerner (56-104), who had owned the team since 2002 (he inherited the team from his father, Al Lerner).

Al Lerner had been a partial owner of the old Browns franchise and was responsible for bringing a team back to Cleveland after Art Modell moved the previous franchise to Baltimore. Lerner’s son, Randy, took over the team in 2002 after his father’s death. The Browns proceeded to finish 4th in the AFC North for 8 of the next 10 years. Both his Browns’ experience, and then his later failure owning an English soccer team - where he lost nearly $30 million on the transaction - led to this scathing account from a Cleveland-based writer:

Despite his gentle nature and good intentions, Lerner ranks among the sports world’s most inept owners. Problems that plagued his decade-long reign over the Browns followed him across the pond. He made some curious hires, grew more reclusive from his team’s fans and lacked the acumen required to oversee a major franchise.

He did manage to sell the Browns to Haslam for $1.05 billion in 2012, but still somehow managed to lose over $400 million in the period after 2006 on his larger suite of investments.

Haslam is the CEO of a truck stop chain that is one of the top 10 privately held companies in the United States. That business success has not translated to professional football as he has subsequently established himself as perhaps the most meddling and over-involved owner in the NFL, with his team posting a 33-94-1 record since he bought it.

Since Haslam bought the team in 2012, Cleveland has had an astonishing five general managers/executive VP of football operations. They’ve also had six different head coaches in that timeframe. To top it all off, Haslam brought in a “chief strategy officer” - Paul DePodesta - as his own personal svengali, ostensibly pulling the strings on all of the Browns’ administrative moves as part of some grand plan whose complexity renders it opaque to mere mortals. For the time being, as long as Haslam is around, Snyder can rest comfortable knowing he’s not the most micromanaging owner in the league.

Final Thoughts

To conclude this look at the contrasting ownership styles of the best and worst teams in the NFL, we’ll revisit the common themes of the first article and compare them to the behaviors of the worst team owners.

  • We saw in the first article that great NFL teams tend to have owners who make wise hiring decisions at the general manager and head coach positions and empower their upper management to use their expertise to run football operations.
  • But good owners are seldom completely detached from their teams. When they are involved in team management, owners of successful franchises tend to take a consultative approach and act to facilitate open discussion amongst their front office and coaching staff leaders. Unlike many owners of bad teams, good team owners do not allow bad situations to fester for long. Two notable examples of good team owners intervening to correct bad situations are Bisciotti’s firing of Super Bowl winning head coach Brian Billick, and Jeffrey Lurie’s termination of the failed Chip Kelly experiment.
  • None of the best teams were characterized by meddling owners, whereas several of the poorest teams were (Redskins, Browns, Raiders under Al Davis, Colts under Bob Irsay).
  • Many of the owners of the worst teams look at their teams, and fanbases, and cities as resources to extract, rather than assets to invest in. However, some of the owners of the poorest teams buck this trend, such as the Raiders under Mark Davis and Jaguars under Khan.
  • The two cases of great teams having intergenerational leadership (Steelers and Colts), stand in stark contrast to the terrible teams with intergenerational leadership (Cardinals and Lions). The Steelers were imbued with a philosophy from their founder that put winning above money-making in a league where the early owners of the Cardinals, Lions, and Bills all used their teams as cash cows for their financial gain. One could easily argue the “new” management of the Redskins has been similarly inclined for most of its tenure, reaping the easy revenues of an NFL franchise and strip-mining its assets - like FedEx field - as they fall into disrepair. The Colts, who suffered the same fate under Bob Irsay, were fortunate enough to eventually be guided by a son who went in a completely opposite direction and turned the team’s fortunes around both on and off the field.
  • Nearly all of the great teams turned around or improved dramatically after an ownership change (Patriots, Colts, Seahawks, Eagles, Ravens). And, several of the poor teams appear to be on the right track after an ownership change (Bills, Cardinals, and, potentially, the Raiders). Among this group, there’s no evidence that poor ownership transforms into good ownership over time. This doesn’t bode well for the Redskins. The two franchises with persistent ownership are the Steelers and the Packers (being owned by the City of Green Bay), which are probably the most consistently great franchises in NFL history. But the two losingest franchises of all time, the Lions and Cardinals have also remained the same families’ hands for over half a century.
  • As long as the great teams stay under their current ownership, we suspect they will continue to see success, in large part because of their ownership philosophies. Among the bottom dwellers, the Bills and perhaps the Cardinals, who have both experienced ownership turnover in the recent past are probably best poised to change their fates going forward.

To sum up, what does all of this mean for the chances of Ron Rivera’s rebuild taking hold and leading the Redskins back to their former glory? Can Dan Snyder really turn over a new leaf and transform himself from a meddling owner to one who steps back and empowers his head coach and GM to take control of football operations? We suppose there could always be a first time. And whether you believe that time is now brings us back to the red and blue pills we mentioned in the introduction to the previous article.