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'09 owner rankings, 1-16; Kraft-y payoff

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

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More: Owner rankings, 17-32

Nearly two years ago, when the Patriots became embroiled in the NFL's most salacious 21st century scandal, owner Robert Kraft was not a happy man. Blindsided by charges that coach Bill Belichick had violated NFL rules by secretly videotaping the hand signals of opposing coaches, and ultimately docked $250,000 and a first-round draft pick by commissioner Roger Goodell, Kraft ended up offering a heartfelt apology for an offense he did not commit.

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Kraft (left) is accustomed to being No. 1 on and off the field.
(Greg M. Cooper/US Presswire)

Over the past several months, Kraft really made it up to his fellow owners. As chair of the NFL's broadcast committee, he teamed with Goodell to pull off a completely legitimate power move that, in terms of gaining a competitive advantage, makes Spygate look like the equivalent of a schoolyard nose tackle inching the football a few inches backward before the snap.

In negotiating two-year extensions with FOX, CBS and NBC through the 2013 season – and with NFL Sunday Ticket provider DirecTV through 2014 – Kraft and Goodell successfully manipulated the deals to give the league a serious edge in its impending labor fight with the NFLPA.

According to terms of the extensions, if there's no new collective bargaining agreement after the 2010 season and the owners, as expected, lock out the players, the lucrative weekly checks from the networks that are the league's lifeblood will still keep streaming in as scheduled throughout what would have been the 2011 campaign.

This wouldn't be money for nothing; for each week without football, the networks would receive a credit toward a free week in a future season. But the ability to sustain a large share of their usual cash flow will be an enormous benefit for the owners as they try to get the players – who'll presumably have a much lower percentage of their normal income flowing in – to blink first in the standoff.

When the NFL's other owners think of Kraft, the first two words that come to mind will be "war chest." And it's another reason why, for the fourth consecutive year, you'll find Kraft's name at the top (or, after last year's format switch, the bottom) of my annual owner rankings.

How did I come up with this list? I'll repeat my explanation from Wednesday's column, when I detailed the league's lower achievers: As with my inaugural rankings in 2006 and the ones that followed two years ago, the order is subjective. With input from people in high-level league and ownership circles, I attempt to answer a basic question: If you were a fan of this team, how would you feel about having this person in charge of the franchise?

I'm also influenced by the impact these respective owners have upon the NFL as an entity, and I give high marks to those who get the most out of their brand and spend a significant share of the revenues they accrue attempting to enhance the product.

Now here's a look at the NFL's better half, beginning with a normally impressive owner coming off one of the most depressing years imaginable:

16. Denver Broncos – Pat Bowlen: After years of relative stability and smart, league-friendly stewardship, Bowlen had what seemed to be the owner's equivalent of a midlife crisis this past winter after the Broncos blew a playoff berth with a late-season collapse. First Bowlen fired longtime coach Mike Shanahan and replaced him with then-32-year-old Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Bowlen then allowed McDaniels to hire another neophyte, Brian Xanders, as his handpicked general manager. To say the newbies had a rough start was an understatement. In April McDaniels tried to trade 26-year-old franchise quarterback Jay Cutler(notes), lost the player's trust and acted as though damage control was beneath him, creating an untenable situation that finally prompted Bowlen to deal Cutler to the Bears. After Cutler successfully pushed his way out of town by alienating the owner, star wideout Brandon Marshall(notes) attempted to do the same and was miffed when the strategy didn't work. He's currently under suspension for conduct detrimental to the team. Talk about a Rocky Mountain Low. Through it all Bowlen has been wishy-washy and weak, admitting during the Cutler saga that he's been having short-term memory lapses. (That might also explain why Marshall's agent, in June, said Bowlen had told the receiver in a one-on-one meeting he'd deal him while McDaniels insisted the Broncos had no such plans.) Bottom line: I'm worried about Bowlen. He's only 65, but he appears awfully confused about the direction of his team. Oh, and here's the capper to a horrid offseason: When Bowlen fired Shanahan, his coach and de facto GM, he wasn't aware that a league rule required him to post a deposit for the balance of the outgoing employee's contract. "So he had to give the league $21 million in cash," one owner says. "Surprise." Ouch, babe. 15. Kansas City Chiefs – Clark Hunt: The Broncos' AFC West rivals enjoyed a much more upbeat offseason, largely because the man in charge was bold and decisive. After forcing the resignation of longtime team president Carl Peterson last December – finally – Hunt reacted the way the Browns' Randy Lerner (as we detailed in Wednesday's column) should have: He went out and got the best executive on the market, Scott Pioli, and trusted the longtime Pats vice president to make the coaching change that resulted in the hiring of former Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The business-savvy Hunt has plenty of other things going for him as well, including a refurbished Arrowhead Stadium and, according to one of his peers, "the best-looking wife in the NFL. I'd trade my starting quarterback for her. That immediately shoots him to the top of the list." For the record, the owner in question was joking about trading his quarterback for Tavia Hunt, a former Miss Kansas and second runner-up at the 1993 Miss USA pageant. At least, I think he was. 14. Atlanta Falcons – Arthur Blank: As skeptical as I was early in '08 when Blank, after being rebuffed by Bill Parcells, named former Patriots scouting director Thomas Dimitroff his new general manager after interviewing him via video conference, the man knew what he was doing. Dimitroff, the '08 NFL executive of the year, was a home-run hire (or, if you prefer, a hole-in-one) who has helped the franchise move past the Michael Vick(notes) nightmare. Blank, too, has learned from his mistakes; while he's still player friendly, you won't see the owner pushing one of his employees around the Georgia Dome in a wheelchair anytime soon, as he once did for Vick. Speaking of the Dome, Blank needs to upgrade his stadium situation and is trying to do so without the whining or browbeating you get from some of his peers. "I think he'll get it done," says one owner. "He's got a culture down there that will make it work economically, because that's the way it's been done in the SEC. If he pulls it off, he could really end up with a terrific situation in that market." 13. Seattle Seahawks – Paul Allen: I tend to downgrade Allen based on his enormous potential, and this year is no exception. Yet other than the fact that he's essentially invisible on a league level, the Microsoft co-founder is close to perfect. He does a good job of creating revenue, has pockets deeper than Puget Sound and is willing to spend in the pursuit of excellence. He hires good people, most notably team president Tod Leiweke, and gets the hell out of the way. He recently constructed perhaps the NFL's finest training facility, which abuts Lake Washington and thus allows the 'Hawks to woo free agents like wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) by flying them in on a seaplane. I thought the organization's decision to let Mike Holmgren coach a final season in '08 with anointed successor Jimmy Mora on the staff was a dubious one, but things should be much smoother now that the transition is complete. For one thing, there will be less tension now that the coach and general manager (Tim Ruskell) don't detest one another. 12. Green Bay Packers – Green Bay Packers Inc. (Mark Murphy): The league's only publicly owned franchise seems to be in terrific hands under the leadership of Murphy, who took over as CEO in January of '08. Let's see, has anything eventful happened in Titletown since then? Only a drawn-out melodrama that led to the trading of legendary quarterback Brett Favre(notes). It was a sticky situation that looks more and more like it was handled appropriately by the Packers. (I know, I know – let's see how Aaron Rodgers(notes) plays this season.) Murphy, a former All-Pro safety with the Redskins and Green Bay's 10th chief executive, "is as good as any they've had," according to one of his peers. "He's sharp, loves the game and is very willing to spend time on any NFL matter." Despite occupying the smallest market of any major U.S. professional sports franchise, the Packers don't whine and do a great job of generating revenue, thanks largely to a smart renovation of Lambeau Field. As Murphy grows into his role he has a chance to move very high on this list. 11. Philadelphia Eagles – Jeffrey Lurie: Though I'm not always as sold on his team's potential as some of my more fervent readers, it's hard for me to criticize much about the way the Eagles are run. They're not the world's biggest spenders, but they have a player-valuation system that works for them and they stick to it. Lurie isn't an overly involved owner these days, and I'm told he doesn't have a particularly good working relationship with Goodell. However, he delegates responsibility to highly capable team president Joe Banner, clearly cares about winning and isn't afraid to take risks. I'm not sure how the Michael Vick signing will play out, and I don't believe for a second that Donovan McNabb(notes) is happy about it, but give Lurie credit for having the guts to sign off on such a controversial move. 10. Baltimore Ravens – Steve Bisciotti: As tempting as it is to downgrade Bisciotti, one of the world's most enthusiastic Maryland hoops fans, because his Terrapins eliminated my Golden Bears in last spring's NCAA tournament (we're gunning for revenge at California Memorial Stadium this Saturday), the man is doing a tremendous job. After replacing coach Brian Billick with a decidedly non-glitzy successor, John Harbaugh, Bisciotti watched his reenergized team reach the AFC championship game last season. He has a good track record of hiring impressive front-office executives, including team president Dick Cass, and he's doing what he can to compete for revenues in a challenging environment. With the nearby Redskins sucking up sponsorship dollars, Bisciotti isn't dealing from strength but, says one admiring owner of another team, "he's got all the right stuff. You can see his perspective – he's sitting right there next to Washington – and he wants to make it a free-for-all where they take [all the revenues generated] within a 150-to-200-mile radius and split it." I can't see Bisciotti pulling that off, but he has definitely turned the Ravens into legitimate players, on and off the field. 9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Bryan, Joel and Ed Glazer: I think the Glazers are very good owners, but sometimes they make me mad … like when they tried to woo Bill Parcells as a replacement for Tony Dungy while the classy coach was still employed … or when they disrespected Marvin Lewis and decided not to hire him as coach after a press conference announcing his arrival was already in the works … or, most recently, when they stopped spending the money necessary to field a competitive team. I could be wrong; perhaps newly hired coach Raheem Morris is the next Mike Tomlin (his good friend, and a fellow former Bucs defensive backs coach), and he'll lead the Bucs to immediate success despite the team replacing offensive coordinators Thursday morning and having enough salary-cap space to fund throwback Creamsicle Trent Dilfer(notes) jerseys for every male in China. It's more likely that this year's team will struggle, and I don't think the Glazers are all that stressed about it, which explains their lower-than-usual ranking. What they're doing – minimizing spending in preparation for a possible lockout – makes sense, but it's not comforting for the paying customer. And while on one hand I give the Glazers credit for having the guts to get rid of a coach, Jon Gruden, for whom they traded so much to acquire and will inevitably associate with the franchise's finest hour, they seemed weirdly naïve in the process. Moved by the sentiment expressed by players like receiver Michael Clayton(notes), who publicly called Gruden a "turncoat" who would "tell you one thing and then do something else," the Glazers seemed to be the last people clued in to their coach's reputation in league circles. Ultimately, however, I think they'll get back on top of the situation and start going after it again, spending aggressively enough to give Morris a chance to succeed – and, if he can't, pursuing a big-name replacement. 8. Washington Redskins – Dan Snyder: Despite his dubious image as a meddlesome hothead, Snyder is a great owner in many ways: He's an exceptional businessman who has creatively and aggressively maximized revenues. According to the recently released Forbes rankings, the Redskins generate the most revenue at $345 million – $43 million more than the runner-up. (They generate a significant amount of that via luxury-suite revenue, another category in which they rank first.) When he's not figuring out new ways to rake in dough, Snyder spends the bulk of his remaining energy trying to figure out how to build a winner. For those important reasons I am always predisposed to defend him, and I remain convinced that he'll hoist a Lombardi Trophy before too long. That said, there's a difference between desperately trying to win and knowing how to manage effectively toward that end, and Snyder doesn't seem to be learning as quickly from his past mistakes as I thought he might. He's still susceptible to becoming smitten with the hot free agent, as evidenced by the team's signing of Albert Haynesworth(notes) to a monster deal at the start of free agency. Again, trying to assemble the most talented team possible is an admirable quality, but recent history has shown us that throwing huge contracts at big names isn't usually the most effective approach. More troubling is Snyder's penchant for getting overly chummy with some of his players, which enables an owner's pet like Clinton Portis(notes) to act (perhaps somewhat justifiably, from his perspective) like he's beyond his coach's reproach. I think Snyder will have to grow to achieve the smashing success he ravenously craves. The good news for Redskins fans is that he's smart and gutsy enough to do it. 7. Indianapolis Colts – Jimmy Irsay: You've got to hand it to Irsay, who has played a significant role in his franchise's decade-long run of sustained success following Peyton Manning's(notes) arrival. It was Irsay who pushed hard to hire Tony Dungy after the Bucs fired him, and now, in the wake of the coach's retirement and his promotion of Jim Caldwell, he feels he has another winner in place. Despite some obvious limitations in market size, Irsay has gotten the most out of his situation in Indy, cutting a stadium deal so sweet that, this past spring, the city's Capital Improvement Board asked him to renegotiate the Lucas Oil Stadium lease. (Irsay told city officials to go pound black gold, which was his prerogative.) If I'm going to ding him for anything, it's that he should have been more careful with his comments after the complicated "retirements" by longtime offensive assistants Tom Moore and Howard Mudd (reportedly because they were concerned about changes in the league's pension program) caused much anxiety within the organization, and especially to its most important employee, Manning. In an effort to offer public reassurances that the two coaches would return in similar capacities, albeit with altered titles that allowed them to protect their ability to receive lump-sum pension benefits, Irsay essentially announced to the world that the two men would be gaming the system. Theoretically, that could have piqued the interest of the feds who administer it, but the new arrangement seems to have avoided scrutiny. No muss, no fuss. 6. Houston Texans – Bob McNair: Did I just rank a man whose team has never reached the playoffs in the top 20 percent of his profession? Yep, and I don't feel remotely bad about it, because McNair does everything the right way, is in it for the long haul and will surely taste on-the-field success one of these years. (To see if I think 2009 is that year, tune in to The Gameface on Friday.) There's nothing I don't like about McNair's approach – he's good at making money, he spends it willingly, he's not overly meddlesome and he always takes the league's overall interests to heart. Even on the rare occasions when I'm critical, as with the franchise's decision to draft Mario Williams(notes) rather than hometown hero Vince Young(notes) with the No. 1 overall in 2006, the man ends up looking correct in the end. Trust me, McNair's a winner – it just hasn't happened yet. 5. New York Giants – John Mara/Steve Tisch: This has been a top-notch team from the start, with both men honoring the legacies of their late fathers (Wellington Mara and Robert Tisch) while bringing a much-needed dose of modern business sensibility. Not only did the Giants make a smart deal for a new stadium near their current home, but the owners also made a point of doing right by their fellow tenants. "He could've been a jerk to the Jets and cut his own deal," one owner says of Mara. "Instead, he opened his arms. He said, 'I understand you've had the short end of the stick [at Giants Stadium] for a long time; let's do this together.' " Mara and Tisch have demonstrated the league-level loyalty for which their fathers were renowned while pulling off complex business deals far beyond what the old regime could have conjured. In June the team announced a 15-year naming-rights agreement with Timex for the team's new practice facility which, according to a source, is worth nearly $2.5 million annually. The Giants also entered into branded lottery partnerships with the states of New York and Connecticut, and you can bet there are similarly savvy business moves that will follow. Oh, and Mara and Tisch were rewarded with a Super Bowl victory two seasons ago after smartly sticking with embattled coach Tom Coughlin and promoting Jerry Reese to replace the retired Ernie Accorsi as general manager. 4. Pittsburgh Steelers – Dan Rooney/Art Rooney II: A lot of Steelers fans are going to be disappointed that I finally ranked the Rooneys so high, if only because it deprives them of an annual opportunity to send emails ripping me a new one. Then again, many of them will still be livid that three other ownership groups are ahead of the new U.S. ambassador to Ireland and the son who succeeded him as the team's CEO. I didn't merely move up the Rooneys because they recently captured their sixth Super Bowl championship, and second in four years. I'm also impressed with the way they solved a tricky ownership situation – albeit via a solution aided by Goodell's willingness to bend NFL rules in the name of continuity – and avoided a forced sale that would have been a bad thing for anyone who loves football and cares about tradition. They've also shown an increased willingness to pump up the business and to be proactive in terms of re-signing key players to fair-market deals. "I think they realize that in the next labor deal there's probably going to [be] less revenue-sharing, and they're trying to get more aggressive," one owner says. "They're getting into concert promoting at their stadium and real-estate development in the surrounding areas, and in general Art's a very smart guy." Adds another owner: "They've really stepped up their financial commitment there, and I'm very impressed with the way they worked through their ownership situation. Pittsburgh's in great hands." 3. Carolina Panthers – Jerry Richardson: Until a couple of days ago, this was going to be a feel-good tribute to a small-market owner who survived a serious health scare and resumed his place among the NFL's elite owners. Then came Tuesday's shocking announcement that Richardson's two sons, Mark and Jon, had resigned from their high-level posts, and now comes the story behind it: According to a source familiar with the situation, team president Mark Richardson, a member of the NFL's competition committee, and older brother Jon, who headed up Bank America Stadium, had clashed in recent years – partly over business-related issues, and partly over Jon's resentment that his younger sibling had a higher-profile position. As their father's health declined last year, ultimately resulting in Jerry Richardson's heart-transplant operation last Super Sunday, Mark and Jon escalated their battle for control. When Jerry recovered and reclaimed his role as the franchise's prime mover and shaker, he saw that some of the team's minority owners were uncomfortable with the situation and warned his sons to start getting along, or else. Richardson backed up his threat Tuesday; rather than choosing one son over the other, he got rid of both of them, announcing Mark's replacement as team president (Danny Morrison) the following day. Gulp. This will make for a reasonably awkward Thanksgiving dinner, don't you think? Beyond that, it will cause the league's other owners to feel far less secure about the Panthers' succession plan. Whereas Mark was a highly regarded heir apparent, no one in league circles knows anything about Morrison, who had been serving as TCU's athletic director, or what might happen after Jerry is no longer running the team (both sons retain ownership interest). My first reaction after all of this drama was to drop Richardson in the rankings, but the more I thought about the situation, the more I could see his perspective. Richardson, while the controlling partner, is part of an ownership group. Though I'm sure he didn't relish the thought of firing his sons, doing so sent a message to his partners that he's putting the business ahead of his personal interests. It's all very Tony Soprano, and a part of me absolutely digs it. If Morrison turns out to be an unsuitable replacement, Jerry will get dinged in next year's rankings, but for now I'm leaving him in the No. 3 slot. As the chair of the NFL's Management Council Executive Committee, he'll play a pivotal role in the crucial labor showdown that will play out over the next 18 months (or, quite possibly, into a lockout-interrupted 2011 season). I don't know how the NFLPA will react to his presence across the table, but after what just went down in Charlotte, I have to admit I'm kind of scared of the guy. 2. Dallas CowboysJerry Jones (Stephen Jones): Think that uproar over the height of the massive video screens at Cowboys Stadium and their potential for deflecting punts is stressing out Jones? Hold on while I let out a Texas-sized guffaw. It doesn't take a marketing genius (a term that happens to apply to Jerry and his eldest son, Stephen, the team's executive vice president and stadium point man) to realize that any criticism about the facility's construction plan are more than offset by the abundant publicity resulting from the controversy. After building the most impressive sports facility on the continent, the Joneses deserve to have a little fun in the sun – depending upon whether the roof is open or closed. Lampoon Jerry Jones all you want, and try to write off his three Super Bowl championships as the product of Jimmy Johnson's greatness, and you'll drown in a sea of cliché and superficiality. These are the facts about Jones: Over the past two decades no owner has been bolder (beginning with the out-of-the-blue hiring of Johnson in 1989); no owner has done more to move the league from its de facto communism of the pre-salary-cap era to the more entrepreneurial present; nobody has been as willing to put his wealth, reputation and vision on the line in the pursuit of winning. That doesn't mean Jones will always do things the way you (or I) insist he should. I'd love to see him hire a Dimitroff-type executive and trust him to run the personnel operation, and I wish he hadn't have bit on the Roy Williams trade. But if I were a Cowboys fan, I'd get down on my knees and thank the football gods for sending Jerry and his family to North Texas, and none of you will ever convince me otherwise. Among his many recent accomplishments: Jones, as chairman of the NFL Network, joined forces with Goodell to settle a long-running dispute with Comcast after successfully demonstrating that customers would cancel their cable service if denied access to the channel. Said one rival owner: "You've got to give it up for Jerry. The stadium's spectacular. Four words: Big vision, big testicles." 1. New England Patriots – Robert Kraft (Jonathan Kraft): I realize that this is getting kind of boring, what with Kraft and Jones continuing their chokehold on the top two spots in my rankings, but there's no reason to put them anywhere else. Kraft runs the league's smoothest operation, and if ever there was a testament to the health of the Patriots' organization, it was the way New England persevered during a 2008 season that began with a brutal injury to the NFL's best player. Many teams would have crumbled; the Pats, using a quarterback (Matt Cassel(notes)) who many analysts believed would be cut during training camp and who hadn't started a game since high school, regrouped to finish 11-5, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker despite defeating the eventual NFC champions by 40 points in December. Bill Belichick, the coach Kraft hired against the advice of virtually everyone (including an unsolicited party from the league office), obviously had a lot to do with that, but so did the foundation and stability created by Robert and his eldest son Jonathan, the franchise's president and player-valuation whiz. On a league level the Krafts are deserved powerbrokers and staunch allies of Goodell, whose three-year stint as commissioner has been tremendously successful. Two years from now, if a lockout comes to pass, the people in charge of 31 franchises will be highly appreciative of their collaborative efforts.

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