Angry Pope

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Feb 2, 2006
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In good (and bad) hands

Evaluating and ranking all the NFL owners from 1-32

Updated: Thursday June 29, 2006 2:56PM

The Dallas Cowboys' team charter had begun its initial descent, and Bill Parcells settled into his first-class seat and prepared for an uneventful touchdown. The Cowboys had a road game against the New England Patriots the following day, and Parcells, one of the NFL's biggest control freaks, had mapped out a specific itinerary for his players.

But on this mid-November evening in 2003, the Dallas coach still didn't realize where the plane was about to land. Because the team was staying in Providence, R.I., Parcells assumed the Cowboys would be arriving in that city and taking a short bus ride to their hotel. There was just one catch: That night the families of Dallas owner Jerry Jones and Patriots owner Robert Kraft were scheduled to dine together -- in Boston. Rather than drive there from Providence, Jones had chosen to have the plane land at Logan Airport, where several buses were waiting to transport Parcells, his players and the rest of the team's traveling party 60 miles to the south.

The stunned Parcells undoubtedly simmered during his hour-long bus trip to Rhode Island, especially given the fact that he had a contentious relationship with Kraft dating back to his stint as the Pats' coach from 1993-96. Picturing the two families enjoying an upscale dinner probably made the coach want to hurl.

Yet Parcells never said a peep to his boss. As a man who'd spent more than a quarter-century working in the NFL, he knew a good deal when he saw one. Bizarre as it sounds, even in the world's most prosperous professional sports league, a good owner is hard to find.

With so much money at stake, and so many big egos involved, you'd think there'd be good owners in every NFL city, or close to it. The truth is much more depressing than that, though the football fans of Dallas and New England certainly have reason to smile. So, in honor of Parcells' long bus ride, here are our first NFL owner rankings, with many factors considered, but the biggest of all being this: If you're a fan of the team in question, how happy should you be about the person or people running the show?

Top Shelf

1. Robert Kraft, Patriots; 2. Jerry Jones, Cowboys.

Kraft and Jones have many similarities. Each has parlayed controversial coaching hires into three Super Bowl rings. Both men have smart, forward-thinking eldest sons who play major roles in running the team and wield influence within the NFL -- Patriots president Jonathan Kraft was instrumental in forging the revenue-pool compromise that led to labor peace last March, and Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones has spearheaded the team's drive toward a new stadium. And best of all, both owners care deeply about two things: Making money and winning, not necessarily in that order.

A long-suffering season-ticket holder before he bought the team, Kraft still cares deeply about the fan experience, and he and his son have created a successful business model that allows the Patriots to thrive without over-spending on marquee free agents. Jones, upon entering the league in 1989, became an entrepreneurial upstart in a league of sluggish old-liners enjoying the fruits of de facto communism. His successful efforts to increase the Cowboys' revenue have been exemplary and often emulated, and he has been willing to pour a significant portion of his profits back into the franchise in search of on-field excellence.

Next in Line

3. Dan Snyder, Redskins; 4. Wayne Huizenga, Dolphins; 5. Jeffrey Lurie, Eagles; 6. Jerry Richardson, Panthers; 7. Bob McNair, Texans; 8. Malcolm, Bryan, Joel and Ed Glazer, Buccaneers; 9. Pat Bowlen, Broncos.

I can't believe I'm ranking Snyder this high, and a lot of people I know around the league are going to brutalize me for doing so, but right now Dan is The Man in two big ways: He has turned the franchise he loves into a money-making machine, and his willingness to spend that money in pursuit of victory is second to none. Plus, since his hiring of Joe Gibbs as coach, he has begun to learn to get out of the way on the football side.

Huizenga is a shrewd businessman and big spender who deserves a title in something other than baseball one of these years.

Lurie hires good people -- particularly team president Joe Banner -- and, though I don't always agree with it, sticks to a system when it comes to player-valuation.

Richardson runs his smaller-market team like it's one of the big boys, and as a former player he understands the game on every level. He wants to win, badly, and has been doing so as of late.

McNair has deep pockets and a horseman's flair for high-stakes gambles. His moves haven't paid off yet, but he is hell-bent on bringing Houston a winner.

Many Brits would like to do to the Glazers what former Manchester United star David Beckham does to soccer balls, and Malcolm and his sons have done some truly annoying things on U.S. soil, like their embarrassing, last-second spurning of Marvin Lewis four years ago. But overall, they've turned a dead NFL market into a flourishing enterprise, with a solid stadium situation (pirate ship and all), one of the league's highest-revenue operations and a habitually competitive team.

Bowlen has his quirks, and he gets hammered in Denver for his undying allegiance to Mike Shanahan, but it's tough to argue with success: Shanahan has won two Super Bowls and continues to field a competitive team, the Broncos play in a sparkling new stadium, and executive VP Joe Ellis does a good job on the business side.


Keeping it Real

10. Dan Rooney, Steelers; 11. Bob Harlan/John Jones/Green Bay Packers Inc.; 12. Lamar Hunt, Chiefs.

Some might argue that Rooney isn't progressive enough, and the Steelers have certainly sacrificed talent over the years because of the bottom line. But you will never hear a discouraging word about Rooney from me. And right now the best of the old-guard owners is the man of the hour. Among the many things for which he deserves credit: Getting a new stadium built without ever having to threaten to move, and keeping ticket prices affordable in the process.

The Packers' ownership situation -- the club has been a publicly owned, non-profit corporation since 1923 -- is a testament to collective unselfishness and civic commitment. Harlan, an exemplary CEO, will step down next year, with current president Jones as his successor. Coming off a resplendent stadium renovation in the league's only small market, the franchise is cruising, even as the team rebuilds and bids farewell to an icon.

Hunt works hard to generate revenue in a less-attractive market and spends money on players. He also has the self-confidence to give his most powerful employee, Carl Peterson, three high-level titles (president, general manager, CEO), though this owner's last league title came more than 3 1/2 decades ago.

Rock n' Roll Fantasy

13. Jimmy Irsay, Colts.

A lot of people think Irsay is a flake, but if so, he's my kind of flake -- a guy who quotes Dylan lyrics and dresses on game day like he's backstage at the Stones. Given that his late father, by most accounts, was sort of a nightmare, I give Irsay props for falling far from the tree. He also got a stadium deal done in Indy and, though I'd rather eat Field Turf than hang out with Bill Polian (and I'm sure the feeling is mutual), hired a sharp team president and deferred to him on football decisions.

Show us you mean Business

14. Steve Bisciotti, Ravens; 15. Arthur Blank, Falcons; 16. Woody Johnson, Jets; 17. Paul Allen, Seahawks; 18. John Mara and Jonathan Tisch, Giants.

As much as I enjoyed the perverse theatre of Bisciotti's emasculation of Brian Billick, doing your coach like that in public might not be the smartest business move. That said, Bisciotti is a marked improvement over predecessor Art Modell, who mixed small-minded passivity on the league front with petty greed on the team level. Like everyone in this group, Bisciotti is capable of being great.

Blank's an engaging guy, and he looks like he might have been a character in Boogie Nights, so I'm inclined to throw him some love. But for all of his talk about turning the Falcons into a model franchise, he has yet to fulfill that vision -- and the Atlanta market, which could be one of the league's most lucrative, remains relatively untapped.

Johnson, who inherited the bulk of his fortune, hasn't wowed anyone with his business acumen. On a positive note, he does seem to want to win and is willing to spend to do so. That said, he got played by Peterson in the Herm Edwards negotiations and ultimately let his emotions (over what he perceived as Edwards's lack of loyalty) get in the way of his best business interests.

Bill Gates, Allen's fellow Microsoft co-founder, has given millions to charitable causes -- while Allen has contributed similar amounts to the bank account of coach Mike Holmgren, who parlayed his first playoff victories in eight seasons into yet another lucrative extension this past offseason. To Allen's credit, he finally got rid of prickly team president Bob Whitsitt (of Jail Blazers fame) after the 2004 season and brought in a strong GM in Tim Ruskell. But Allen, despite his obvious ability to write checks, remains a distant figure who has failed to realize his enormous managerial potential.

The Giants' owners haven't really gone after it in the past, instead running a noble but old-school operation that left a lot of potential on the table. But the next generation has a chance to step it up, and Mara in particular has impressed many of his peers with a desire to invigorate his franchise and an understanding that the league has changed since the days when his late father, Wellington, rose to prominence.

Out to Lunch

19. Alex Spanos, Chargers; 20. Zygi Wilf; Vikings; 21. Randy Lerner; Browns; 22. William Clay and Bill Ford, Lions; 23. Georgia Frontiere, Rams; 24. Wayne Weaver, Jaguars.

Spanos seems far more passionate about the Republican Party (his family ranks among the GOP's leading contributors) than winning football games, and his not-so-subtle attempts to creep into the L.A./Orange County market will likely be rebuffed by his more progressive peers. He's currently sitting back and tolerating a feud between his media-repelling GM, A.J. Smith, and coach Marty Schottenheimer, which doesn't bode well for Chargers fans.

Wilf, like a certain high-profile leader with a plummeting approval rating, talks a big game -- he threatened during a locker room rant to cut the players responsible for the Vikings' infamous "Love Boat" party last fall -- but hasn't bothered to deliver. His first big front-office hire, former Chargers scouting director Fran Foley, blew up after three months.

Lerner is intelligent and willing to spend, but it's questionable how much he cares about winning, as evidenced by his decision not to live in Cleveland. The franchise has been through constant front-office turmoil, with last winter's feud between newly hired general manager Phil Savage and then-president John Collins the most blatant example.

If Bill Ford approached his NFL stewardship with the same degree of sincerity he displayed in those folksy TV ads a couple of years back, the Lions might be humming as a franchise, rather than sputtering into the garage.

Frontiere, despite maintaining a plush, three-bedroom suite at the team's training facility, is basically an absentee owner these days, leaving team president John Shaw to run the show. Smart, personable and savvy, Shaw's indecisiveness helped foster a dysfunctional atmosphere at Rams Park, but he appears to have been reenergized since the demise of then-coach Mike Martz.

Weaver, rather than giving thanks for his good fortune -- he landed an expansion franchise in overmatched Jacksonville, then charmed his fellow owners into giving him a Super Bowl (the worst locale in history, by far), and thousands of extra tickets to boot, to help fund stadium improvements -- instead spends his time griping. He acts like it's a surprise that generating revenue in Jacksonville is a difficult task; his name should be Whine Weaver.


In Dreamland

25. Al Davis, Raiders.

Raiders chief executive Amy Trask says her boss, who turns 77 on the Fourth of July, "is as vital and vibrant as ever." Unfortunately, his franchise is in ICU, with dubious talent and a miserable stadium situation made worse over the years by lawsuits, Davis's aversion to marketing (because, after all, they're the Raiders, and everybody loves them) and an initial miscalculation of a once-rabid fan base's collective fervor. The good news is that Davis cares about nothing besides the Raiders; the myth, however, is that he wants to win at all costs. That fallacy was exposed when Marcus Allen mysteriously disappeared on third downs and in goal-line situations in the early '90s, and it suffered another blow when Davis decided not to try to extend Jon Gruden's contract after the coach led the team to the AFC Championship game in his third season.

Lagging Behind

26. Bud Adams, Titans; 27. Ralph Wilson, Bills; 28. Denise DeBartolo and John York, 49ers; 29. Michael McCaskey, Bears.

Adams is so obsessed with one-upping Houston, the town from which he moved the franchise a decade ago, that he essentially mandated the drafting of native son Vince Young with the third overall pick. However that works out in the long run, Adams is likely to blow it after this season by getting rid of Jeff Fisher, one of the best coaches in the business.

Wilson, perhaps the league's least progressive owner, whines so much he makes Weaver look like Jimmy Stewart at the end of It's a Wonderful Life. Even after big-market owners like Kraft and Snyder, in a quest for labor peace, embraced a compromise that would transfer some of their revenues into Wilson's coffers, Wilson threw a public tantrum and voted against the proposal.

We have devoted plenty of Open Mike real estate to the Yorks' failings, from John's condescending managerial approach to the couple's unwillingness to spend the money it takes to compete for a championship, so we'll keep this short: To borrow from Jeff Spicoli... No stars, no stadium, no dice.

McCaskey, who once did so miserably as a manager that his mother banished him to lawn duty, has the distinction of serving as chairman of the board of what one owner called "the most undermanaged outfit in the league."

Think about it: All that tradition, the nation's No. 3 media market, and the Bears are still living off a Saturday Night Live sketch and a lone Super Bowl title from more than two decades ago.

The Killer Bs

30. Mike Brown, Bengals; 31. Bill Bidwill, Cardinals; 32. Tom Benson, Saints.

The Bengals like to claim that their image as a chintzy operation is outdated, and it's true that Brown's hiring of Marvin Lewis -- and the accompanying decision to give the new coach more power than his predecessors -- ushered in a new era of competitive viability in Cincy. But the numbers don't lie: From the start of free agency in 1994 through 2005, the Bengals, out of the 28 franchises who've existed that long (excluding the Jaguars, Panthers, reformed Browns and Texans), rank 27th in actual cash spending with $747 million paid out -- ahead of only the Cardinals at $735 million. "And that," says the league source who gave me the numbers, "is like being ahead of a dead relative." Brown was also the one who recently questioned the salary of Paul Tagliabue, complaining in a league meeting that the outgoing commissioner makes too much money and that no one had checked with Brown before signing off on Tags' deal.

Bidwill, like Brown, is hoping that his recent decision to hire a good coach with increased power (Denny Green) will lead to on-field satisfaction, and he should be commended for signing off on the sizeable deal that landed halfback Edgerrin James via free agency. But again, we defer to the body of work. Oddly enough Bidwill, who after moving the franchise from St. Louis in the mid-80s immediately alienated his new fan base by charging the league's highest ticket prices, went the other way upon the construction of the team's soon-to-be-opened stadium: He offered some season-ticket packages for as low as $100, or $10 a game. "Then he brags about selling out the stadium," one owner scoffs. "Talk about undervaluing your product." Adds a former NFL owner: "He should give away hot dogs, too."

Last and least is Benson, the car salesman who both mismanages his franchise and doesn't appear all that stressed about adding to the misery of a suffering region. Before Tagliabue stepped in and decreed that the Saints would return to New Orleans -- at least for now -- Benson seemed content to remain in San Antonio, where he coincidentally has a home, while casting a wistful eye toward the L.A. market. So for the time being Benson will be bringing his ridiculous 'Boogie' back to the Superdome and hoping that karma doesn't actually exist.
Good find AP....where do you find all this stuff?? :)
Angry Pope said:
I usually get it from Sandman :D
Uh...I thought you and Sandman were the same person? :eek:
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