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The good, the bad and the ugly in the NFL: Part 1c, Can a bad owner be redeemed?

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FBN-SUPER BOWL-FRONTIERE-TROPHY Photo by PETER NEWCOMB/AFP via Getty Images

Thus far, we’ve written a couple of articles examining the ways that owners of both successful and unsuccessful franchises run their operations, and found several broad themes:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

This article will focus on a deeper dive into theme #6. In particular, this finding:

Among this group, there’s no evidence that poor ownership transforms into good ownership over time.

In the 14 teams that we looked at - the 7 best and 7 worst - over the course of the past 20 years (and in some cases, a bit further back), the pattern was unmistakable: The owners of the best teams were often associated with a fairly dramatic improvement in the direction of the franchises they purchased, with the ultimate success - a Super Bowl victory - almost always coming within two decades of them taking control (Kraft, Bisciotti, Irsay, Allen; Lurie took a little longer).

Among the worst teams, however, there was essentially no evidence that long-time terrible owners: Bill Bidwill (Cards), Fords (Lions), Ralph Wilson (Bills), Bob Irsay (Colts) eventually became good owners. To the extent any of those teams have improved (Colts) or will improve, it’s because their prior owner shuffled off this mortal coil. With a relatively young - and distinctly terrible - owner in Dan Snyder (55), that got us thinking.

Have Terrible Owners Outside These Ends of the Spectrum Ever Turned Things Around?

With an in-depth review of the ownership groups of all 32 teams in the league being beyond the scope of my capacity at this point, we contemplated potential candidates. Matt offered a few teams for consideration: The Saints, The Cowboys, The Vikings, and The Rams. I proceeded to delve a bit more into the histories of each, focusing on the last 30-40 years primarily.

2010 Krewe Of Endymion Mardi Gras Parade Photo by Skip Bolen/WireImage

The Saints

The Saints end up being a classic example of new ownership turning around - positively - the direction of an otherwise lackluster team. From 1967-1984, the Saints were owned by John Mecom, and were largely horrible (78-176-5).

They were purchased by Tom Benson in 1985, and although it took him 25 years to hoist the Lombardi, he fielded a respectable team almost immediately, posting three 11+ win seasons in his first 8 years. Recall, Daniel Snyder has never had even one. Benson’s record as owner of the team, through 2017 was 271-256, a dramatic improvement over the bad old ‘Aints days.

Super Bowl XXX - Dallas Cowboys v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Cowboys

As much as it pains us to admit it, Jerry Jones purchase of the Cowboys franchise, at least in his earliest days of ownership, was a wild success. Jones bought the Cowboys from Bum Bright (27-26) in 1989. Jones proceeded to guide a team that won 3 Super Bowls in his first 7 seasons. In 31 years of ownership, Jones’ record is a very respectable 270-226, even if his teams’ successes of the 1990s are a distant memory.

Jones is - potentially - at risk of falling into the “late stage Al Davis” category, but it appears that his son, Stephen Jones, stepping into a leadership role - unfortunately for us - may have cut off that possibility.

Classic NFL Photo by Icon Sportswire

The Vikings

While it’s true the Vikings have never won a Super Bowl in their 60 year history, the reality is that they’ve been a respectably decent franchise for most of the last 50 years. Their current owner, Zygi Wilf, has owned the team since 2005 and has a 126-112-2 record. The previous owner, Red McCombs, had a 64-48 record from 1998-2004. Before that, Roger Headrick, the owner from 1991-1997, was - coincidentally - also 64-48.

Los Angeles Rams Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Rams

Stan Kroenke has been the owner of the Rams since 2010, eventually moving the team from St. Louis back to Los Angeles. The team has been less than mediocre under him, with a record of 73-86-1, with their only real highlight during his tenure coming with their Super Bowl appearance in 2018. It certainly would surprise very few if, ultimately, Kroenke ended up among an eventual list of bottom-tier owners, but, at this point, he’s not the counter example we’re searching for: A bad owner who eventually turned things around.

But Kroenke hasn’t always been the team’s owner, and the Rams did enjoy significant success in the period before Kroenke bought the team. Those were the Georgia Frontiere years. My arm’s length, visceral associations with the Frontiere ownership period (1979-2007) weren’t particularly positive going into this exercise: I vaguely recalled the controversy of her moving the team from LA to St. Louis in the mid-1990s, as well as a perception of the Rams as also-rans during much of that period, at least until the “Greatest Show on Turf” showed up in the late 1990s.

Frontiere hadn’t expected to own an NFL franchise. She had started her career as a Las Vegas showgirl and nightclub singer and she ended up inheriting the Rams when her husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, died of a heart attack swimming in Florida in 1979.

For her first 20 years (1979-1998), the Rams were largely a moderately competitive to bad team (140-172), winning several playoff games in the 1980s, but dropping off the map completely for much of the 1990s. In her last 9 seasons as owner, however, she did manage to turn things around, overseeing a Super Bowl victory in 1999 and a 81-63 record over that period.

In Dan Snyder’s first 20 years as owner of the Redskins, he was a remarkably similar 139-180-1. He didn’t manage to win a Super Bowl in his 21st season, like Frontiere, but might there otherwise be cause for optimism?

Grasping At Straws

After a decade in which the Rams went 63-96, Frontiere hired a coach with NFL experience who had taken his prior team to the playoffs 4 times, eventually winning an NFC championship with them. Dick Vermeil, formerly of the Eagles, was hired in 1997 and coached the Rams for three years, leading the franchise to its only Super Bowl title, in 1999. On the trail to his eventual Super Bowl victory, Vermeil was asked about Frontiere:

“I felt very comfortable around Georgia,” Vermeil said. “I talked to a lot of people who worked for her and was told ownership never interfered with the team. Therefore, I had no concern.”

It wasn’t always that way, however:

“[Frontiere] sits there while she straightens the seam of her skirt and says, ‘I’m so unhappy about the way things are going,’ “ former Rams defensive end Fred Dryer [1972-1981] once said about her. “She’s run the [Rams] franchise into the ground.”

As the Rams packed up for St. Louis in 1995, the LA press was brutal:

Management—and I use the word loosely—of the Rams tore down this team, piece by piece, pad by pad, then sold it like a chop-shop sells a Corvette. This team that has been so completely mismanaged is St. Louis’ problem now, and wait until the suckers there get stuck paying the tab...I can still see Frontiere—standing there wearing bunny-rabbit earrings—introducing the coach who was going to turn this team around, her old friend, Chuck Knox. A man who went out and actually made the team worse, just when you thought such a thing wasn’t possible.

There was a very strong sense that Frontiere’s actions in the lead up to the move were aimed primarily at extracting more money from the franchise, though perhaps that changed when she brought the team back to the town of her birth, St. Louis.

After years of criticism, Frontiere, like Dan Snyder, had become reclusive with the press, rarely granting interviews. However, by the Vermeil years, she at least seemed to have a better reputation among Rams’ players:

“Mrs. Frontiere is really a unique owner,” [defensive tackle] D’Marco Farr said. “She’s so down to earth. I mean, we don’t really deal with her a lot on the football level. It’s more when we’re out in the community [doing charity work]. That’s where we see her. And that’s her strength. But she’ll talk to us after games, tells us how proud she is. And that’s what it’s all about, right? Trying to impress the boss. We love her.”

Ron Rivera, like Vermeil, took his first team to 4 playoff births and an NFC championship. Also, like Vermeil, Rivera is seen as a player’s coach - as a man of integrity who cares about his players not just for what they can do for him on the field, but how they can develop as men.

In their second stint, both men were given assurances from ownership that they were in charge of their own destiny, and that there wouldn’t be interference. The challenge now becomes, can Snyder, like Frontiere, remain a person of his word and stay out of his coach’s way?

Poll

Do you believe that Dan Snyder is capable of making the conversion from bad owner to good one?

This poll is closed

  • 55%
    Yes, everyone is capable of personal growth.
    (141 votes)
  • 44%
    No, we’re doomed.
    (111 votes)
252 votes total Vote Now