In a surreal scene broadcast across the NFL universe last September, Al Davis busted out a relic of a bygone era to try to convince people he hadn't lost it. While conducting a long, rambling news conference to announce the firing of Lane Kiffin, the Raiders' general managing partner used his trusty, possibly rusty, overhead projector to display an admonishing letter he'd written to the second-year coach.
Watching at home, a scout for a rival (and far more professional) organization experienced a euphoric rush of fulfillment. "I love it," the scout wrote via text message. "The old man's back with a vengeance. He's cleaning up the mess and taking back his team!"
For a few minutes, I began to view the spectacle from that perspective, and I wondered whether it was, in fact, an admirable show of force from a Hall of Famer and football legend. Could it be that Davis, like Gene Autry and Steven Tyler before him, was back in the saddle again?
Then it hit me: Davis wasn't reclaiming his mojo by excising a coach who'd failed to fulfill his vision. Rather, he was doing what he so often has for the past two decades: Fixating on a petty, personal battle with a self-generated enemy at the expense of the Raiders' overall organizational health.
Explaining to the world in excruciating detail why he was getting rid of Kiffin, the young coach the owner had identified just 20 months earlier as a shining star who would "lead us back" to greatness, was bizarre enough: Davis is the boss, and he can hire and fire coaches for whatever reason he chooses. What Davis was really doing was attempting to justify why he planned to stiff Kiffin out of the balance of his contract, essentially treating the news conference like a glorified appearance on "Judge Judy."
If you were a lawyer, reporter or daytime TV aficionado, this was great fun. But if you were a Raiders fan suffering through an NFL-record sixth consecutive season with 11 defeats or more, Davis' gotcha act was yet another sad reminder that he cares more about preserving his unquestioned power than he does winning on Sundays.
Look at it this way: Davis, by his own admission, knew at the end of the '07 season he'd made a mistake in hiring Kiffin. So what did he do? Instead of making a change that could theoretically improve his franchise's fortunes, Davis spent nine months writing warning letters and building up a file on Kiffin to increase his chances of winning an inevitable grievance.
Meanwhile, the Raiders lost three of their first four games in '08 and Davis, after finally doing the deed, motioned down the hallway at the team's training facility and gave Kiffin's old job to Tom Cable, an assistant who'd never been an NFL coordinator.
(And how's that working out so far? Why, just smashingly.)
The paranoid, mistrustful, contentious culture that permeates the organization all comes back to Davis, who paradoxically prefers to surround himself with sycophants and habitually avoids confrontation when employees (such as previous coach Art Shell and former personnel man Mike Lombardi) openly feud. It's a brutal combination, and Davis, 80, is becoming further removed from mainstream managerial functionality with each passing year.
Remarkably, Davis has never occupied the bottom spot of my annual owner rankings – until now. As he predictably avoids addressing a reported assault by his head coach and enables a starting quarterback viewed by many teammates as immature (Davis, at the infamous news conference, cited Kiffin's lack of faith in JaMarcus Russell(notes) as a reason for withholding the coach's future pay), the man in the white sweatsuit is now looking up at 31 of his peers.
As with my inaugural rankings in 2006 and the ones that followed two years ago, this list 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.
You know, like ditching the overhead projector and going with a PowerPoint presentation when it's time to fire the next coach.32. Oakland Raiders – Al Davis: Not only is Davis doing a lousy job of presiding over his franchise, but his money-management skills are failing as well. After quietly selling 20 percent of the team to a trio of hedge-fund managers in the fall of '07, Davis received a much-needed cash infusion of approximately $150 million – and proceeded to spend it on some of the most dubious acquisitions (Javon Walker(notes), DeAngelo Hall(notes)) of the decade. Think hard: Since the Raiders were blown out in Super Bowl XXXVII by the Bucs (and then-coach Jon Gruden, whom Davis dealt to Tampa Bay after failing to offer him a market-value contract extension), has he or Matt Millen been worse at running a team? It's a tough call, and that's scary. Now, sources say, Davis once again has cash-flow issues. In a July interview with team play-by-play announcer Greg Papa of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, Davis said he was scaling back on grandiose birthday-party plans because he didn't want to flaunt his good fortune in a bad economy. "What a joke that was," says another owner. "He has no money – he's trying to sell another 10 percent of his team to raise working capital. That's what that was about." 31. Cincinnati Bengals – Mike Brown It's hard to put Brown's philosophy in its proper context, but here's a loaded attempt: He's the 21st century's answer to a Communist Party bigwig in the Soviet Union's heyday – gaming a system steeped in shared revenues for his own benefit while setting new standards among his peers for brazen laziness. Says one owner: "Anything that's going to force him to do any extra work, he speaks out against it." In recent months, Brown voiced opposition to the league's moves to allow teams to cut sponsorship deals with state lotteries and hard-liquor providers and to sell advertising decals on practice jerseys. When Saints owner Tom Benson asked for a waiver on club-seat revenues to help fund improvements at the Superdome – part of an admirable transformation that has pushed him away from his usual spot at or near the bottom of these rankings – Brown was the lone Grinch in the meeting room. "It's a great American story, Tom Benson defying the skeptics and keeping the Saints in New Orleans, and [expletive] Mike Brown speaks out against it," the same owner says. "Meanwhile, the guy has the best stadium deal ever. It was completely built for him and he has no operating expenses. He probably makes more money than any of us." Nonetheless, Brown repeatedly advocates for additional handouts from his larger-market peers via revenue-sharing and spends as little of it as he can get away with on employees. Sometimes it pays off – I guess. After months of low-balling sixth overall draft pick Andre Smith(notes), the big tackle caved and took a below-market deal at the tail end of training camp. Then again, Smith suffered a stress fracture in his foot two days after reporting. Perhaps the football gods have a sense of humor. 30. Chicago Bears – Virginia McCaskey (Michael McCaskey, Ted Phillips): From a business perspective, no franchise in sports underachieves like this one. The Bears have a storied history, the NFL's second-largest market all to themselves and, for the first time in forever, a saleable franchise quarterback in Jay Cutler(notes). The brand should be booming; sponsorship revenues should be raining down upon Halas Hall like M.J.'s fadeway jumpers in the mid-'90s. "They could take that thing and run it to the moon," one owner says. "But they get less for what they've got than any team in our league." The Bears also react cautiously to league-level proposals for increasing revenue. On a positive note, Michael McCaskey, as chair of the NFL's Super Bowl committee, does a thorough and comprehensive job of reciting the rules before bids are considered. I can't imagine where his peers would be without him. 29. Detroit Lions – William Clay Ford (Bill Ford Jr.): Coming off the first 0-16 regular season in NFL history, the Fords understandably have less goodwill among their fan base than anyone in the league. It's almost as if they want to be ridiculed. After finally ending the disastrous Millen era after seven-plus years last September, the elder Ford waited just three months before deciding to promote the deposed president's two lieutenants: Tom Lewand (the new president) and Martin Mayhew (now the general manager). Or, as one owner put it, "Millen's two puppets are running the show – that's a real confidence-builder." After an encouraging start – brainy Jim Schwartz was hired to replace Rod Marinelli as coach – the Lions mishandled their draft, prematurely declaring their intention to pick quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) No. 1 overall. That blew their negotiating leverage, and the Lions ultimately signed Stafford to a deal considered overly generous in league circles. Nice work – but not surprising in the least. 28. Cleveland Browns – Randy Lerner: Checked out much of the time while tending to his true passion, English Premier League side Aston Villa, Lerner is even more of a liability when he gets involved. After firing general manager Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel following the '08 season, Lerner should have aggressively pursued Patriots VP Scott Pioli to take over football operations. Instead he went hard after Eric Mangini, coming off a failed stint as the Jets' coach, rushing to take him off the market when there were no other suitors. Why Mangini? Sources say Lerner, who fashions himself an intellect, was won over by Mangini's sophisticated conversational style and passion for various pursuits outside of football. One thing I'm guessing they didn't discuss: Mangini's plans to bully the team's rookies into taking a "voluntary" bus trip to and from Hartford, Conn. – 10 hours each way – to work at his football camp. Lerner also repeated the mistake he made when he hired Crennel – choosing a coach before hiring a GM (in this case, George Kokinis). As with the Raiders' devoted fan base, the passionate Browns backers deserve much, much better. 27. St. Louis Rams – Chip Rosenbloom/Lucia Rodriguez: In a better economy, I suspect Georgia Frontiere's children would already have unloaded the struggling franchise, which would not be a bad thing. Right now, Rosenbloom and Rodriguez have limitations in terms of capital and commitment, and the team is essentially treading water in an unfavorable stadium situation. The hope is that highly regarded minority owner Stan Kroenke will exercise his option to purchase the rest of the team, but since Kroenke owns both the NBA's Denver Nuggets and NHL's Colorado Avalanche, the league would have to waive its rules against cross-ownership in competing NFL cities. Some owners would be enthusiastic about giving Kroenke the exemption, but I'm fairly certain that Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, who has the most to lose, would not be one of them. Then again, as we'll discuss Thursday, Bowlen has bigger problems. 26. Arizona Cardinals – Bill Bidwill (Michael Bidwill): As big a fan as I am of Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and some of the team's front-office employees, I still shudder to think that such a cheap, short-sighted ownership group was rewarded with an NFC title in January. Think about it: If ever a franchise owed its near-championship to one man, it was Arizona to Kurt Warner(notes). The formerly discarded quarterback elevated a middling team to uncharted heights throughout the playoffs, and re-signing him to a fair-market deal should have been as eventful as an extra point. Not when the Bidwills are in charge: Though Warner made it clear he wanted to stay with the Cardinals rather than test free agency, he ultimately got on a plane to the Bay Area and was wined and dined by the rival 49ers who, if nothing else, got the satisfaction of leveraging a rival and picking its quarterback's brain before Arizona finally gave him a legitimate offer. I used to be pumped up about Michael Bidwill's aggressive mentality and potential to reshape the franchise after taking over day-to-day operations from his flailing father, but my enthusiasm is waning. As one owner says, "Mike Bidwill is not as impressive as I thought he was three years ago. He's got some goober in him." 25. Jacksonville Jaguars – Wayne Weaver: Last year, I decreed that the man I like to call Whine Weaver was the league's worst owner. Now he can't even crack the bottom seven. What a comeback! What happened? Basically, Weaver stopped whining, stopped clandestinely trying to sell the franchise and started becoming a team player in league circles. "You notice how many people get religion in prison?" one owner asks. "That's what it's like with Wayne – he got to a bad place, and now he's trying." In addition to making an honest effort to improve the Jags' situation in a struggling market, Weaver, as chair of the league's business ventures committee, played a significant role in the deals for state-lottery, hard-liquor and practice-jersey sponsorships. In fact, because all of those deals were innovative and generated lots of revenue, I'd probably rank Weaver even higher – if I were able to forgive him for being, in my opinion, such a bald-faced liar. From early '07 up until about a year ago, when Weaver insisted he wasn't trying to sell the Jags, it's a good thing he wasn't hooked up to a Polygraph – at least according to two owners familiar with the franchise's status. "It's no secret he wanted to cash out," says one. "He put a prospectus out and had people kicking tires." One source says that within the last 24 months an NBA owner had a deal in place to buy the Jags that ended up falling through because of cross-ownership complications with the league and that an East Coast businessman also came close to purchasing the team before backing out of negotiations. 24. Buffalo Bills – Ralph Wilson: Speaking of comeback stories, Wilson, now 90, has largely stopped complaining about his small-market struggles since the NFL awarded him a sweet deal to play eight games over the next five seasons in Toronto, guaranteeing the franchise $78 million. Delving deeper into the massive Canadian market may be the only way for the Bills to survive in the Rust Belt, which has been hit hard by the recession, and I give Wilson credit for trying to make it work. Besides, he just got inducted into the Hall of Fame, so this is probably a good time to cut the man a break. 23. San Francisco 49ers – Denise DeBartolo York/John York (Jed York): For the first time in a long while, I have a decent feeling about this once fabulous franchise. Much of that stems from the fact that John York has largely joined his wife, Denise, in the background and allowed his son, Jed, to take charge of the franchise's day-to-day operations. With an underrated general manager in Scot McCloughan and an intriguing rookie coach in Mike Singletary, the Niners could be on the verge of a competitive revival. Off the field, the stadium situation remains a disaster, and I'm not overly confident that a potential deal with Santa Clara will produce the new home the Yorks have been trumpeting. I also hear that Jed, 28, is fond of speaking out in NFL meetings without really saying much, if only to make others aware of his presence. But given that Jed speaks regularly with his uncle Eddie DeBartolo, the man whose awesome ownership reign produced the greatest run of sustained excellence in modern NFL history (including five Super Bowl championships in 14 years), I'm willing to believe good things are on the immediate horizon. Then again, perhaps this is partly a function of the exceptionally low standards set by his dad. As one owner says, "Jed's unborn child is already a better owner than his old man." Ouch. 22. New Orleans Saints – Tom Benson: Ten NFL owners are worse than Benson? Am I really writing this? Absolutely! Against all odds, the slick car salesman is making a sincere and significant effort to stay in New Orleans, despite the inherent economic challenges. Benson, who clearly had a wandering eye even before Hurricane Katrina hit, responded to the disaster by recasting his legacy. "It's hard for me to say this, because I've seen him say and do so many stupid things, but Tom Benson has been terrific," says one longtime critic among his peers. "When everyone assumed he'd use Katrina as an excuse to line his pockets, maybe he viewed it as an opportunity to prove people wrong." Last week Louisiana lawmakers approved a deal with Benson that will keep the team in New Orleans through at least 2025 and initiate improvements to the Superdome which, blessedly, should put New Orleans back in the Super Bowl rotation. If that happens, I might actually get up and do the Benson Boogie. Despite all of this, Benson can't completely escape his reputation. Last November the owner, as per custom, left some vehicles in the parking lot at the team's training facility with the hope of selling them to employees. Apparently as a means of expressing their belief that Benson's asking price didn't constitute much of a discount, more than one player reportedly decorated the vehicles in grotesque fashion. Far be it from me to dump on the guy after hearing about that. 21. Tennessee Titans – Bud Adams: While not the most dynamic owner, Adams does a good job of bringing in revenue in a relatively small market and doesn't sweat his peers when it comes to aggressively pursuing new revenue streams. What bothers me about him is that, while blessed with a fantastic coach in Jeff Fisher, Adams seems to take him for granted. Instead of getting Fisher the best possible roster, the Titans habitually part with players because of finances. The salary-cap management has been dubious for years, with defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes) the latest stud to depart for a richer deal elsewhere. Don't worry, though, Titans fans – Fisher, once again, will make it work with what he's got. 20. New York Jets – Woody Johnson: I'm not quite sure why Johnson doesn't rank a bit higher, given that the team recently moved into a plush new facility in New Jersey and cut a lucrative stadium deal with the Giants. I just get the feeling that he's in a bit over his head. Give Johnson points for a bold plan to auction off personal seat licenses at the new stadium; take points away, however, for overpricing the minimum bids and putting too much volume on the market, resulting in disappointing revenues. Speaking of disappointments, Johnson, after firing coach Eric Mangini, left the country while general manager Mike Tannenbaum searched for a successor, reportedly causing former Steelers boss Bill Cowher to reject the team's overture. Smoooooooth. And while I'm rooting for Rex Ryan, the guy the Jets ultimately hired, because smack-talking coaches are good for columnists and reporters, there are a lot of NFL owners who think Johnson is a weak leader for not muzzling his most visible employee. 19. San Diego Chargers – Alex Spanos (Dean Spanos): It's easy to highlight the negative aspects of Dean Spanos' stewardship, most glaringly the franchise's inability to get any traction on a much-needed new stadium. On the other hand, the personable Spanos isn't getting much help from San Diego's politicians, and he's been remarkably restrained when it comes to pushing north toward the unoccupied L.A. and Orange County treasure troves. Some owners now believe Spanos may pull off something I previously thought was impossible – a move to Anaheim, which could theoretically allow the franchise to retain the Chargers' current fan base while co-opting a share of the country's second-largest market. In the meantime, when evaluating Spanos, keep an eye on LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) this season. It was Spanos who essentially overruled general manager A.J. Smith and spearheaded the restructured contract that kept the beloved but aging halfback with the franchise for at least another year, a savvy marketing move that may or may not pay off on the football field. 18. Minnesota Vikings – Zygi Wilf: The optimist in me wants to give Wilf credit for chutzpah – after being spurned on several occasions, the owner continued to pursue a certain flip-flopping future Hall of Famer and gave the Vikings, who already have the league's top running back in Adrian Peterson, a marquee quarterback. In that sense Wilf should be commended for green-lighting the acquisition of Brett Favre(notes); with Brad Childress likely coaching for his job, the owner sent a clear signal that he'll provide every available resource to help his employees succeed. On the other hand, the Favre signing could be a disaster that impacts the Vikings beyond this season. Further, Wilf's behavior on the league level is troubling to many of his peers. He's considered a chronic complainer who, burdened with a lousy stadium situation, looks to shameless revenue-sharing as a form of salvation. "I don't know how he gets out of the house without thinking lightning's going to strike," one owner says of Wilf. "He'll turn his back on income if it'll cut his revenue share." 17. Miami Dolphins – Stephen Ross: If I could hang in one team's owners box on a Sunday afternoon, there's no doubt I'd choose the one at Land Shark Stadium. That way, I could mingle with all the celebrities to whom Ross has sold a small slice of the pie (or cut partnership deals) since taking over, including recording artists Jimmy Buffett, Gloria and Emilio Estefan and Marc Anthony, and tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. (OK, let's be honest. I'd rather bag the game, sneak off with Buffett, Venus and Serena and hop a plane to Key West.) Beyond bringing in celebrities, Ross has the potential to be a top-notch owner, but he hasn't made much of an impact on the football side. That's because Wayne Huizenga, from whom Ross completed his purchase of the team last January, wooed Bill Parcells a year earlier with a sweet deal that, upon the sale, allowed the Tuna to walk away as team president at any time while collecting the balance of his contract. Given that Parcells helped spur one of the great turnarounds in NFL history last season, Ross is understandably scared to do anything that might provoke his departure. For example, when Ross first took over the team he floated the idea of bringing a longtime confidante, former Chiefs president Carl Peterson, into the fold. Peterson, Ross assured Parcells, would be involved only on the business side and would have nothing to do with the team's football operations. Parcells, according to a source familiar with the conversation, basically told Ross, The second that guy walks in the building, I'm gone. I seldom agree with Parcells, but in this case I'd have applauded him for his divine wisdom. Then I'd have asked Buffett if he appreciated this lyric-altered ode to John Daly and reached for another Land Shark Lager. But I digress.
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- Lane Kiffin