As the current offensive line coach of the Dallas Cowboys and former head coach of the Oakland Raiders the last time they went to the Super Bowl, Bill Callahan knows that to be great for the long run in the NFL, the intertwining relationship between the quarterback, head coach and team owner must be strong.
"It all starts with the owner," said Callahan, who took a moment to chat while at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. "He creates and cultivates the environment for success. They allow the coach to lay out the plan, to develop the quarterback, who is the most important player in the process, and then to put together a supporting cast. … When you have all three, you have something incredibly special."
This year's Super Bowl defines that concept. In New England, the trio of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft have a chance to become arguably the greatest combination in league history. On the other side, the group of Eli Manning, Tom Coughlin and co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch could move into that rarefied status.
While fans tend to think about great trios in football as player combinations such as Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin or Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig, the reality is that enduring greatness in football is defined more by the structure of the organization. If you want to be great for an extended period, it's not just about players.
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"The ability of your franchise to be truly great is based on that," said John Wooten, who is head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance and has been involved with the league as a player, coach or executive since 1959. "You can be good if you have one or two of them, but if you want to be great for a long time, you need all three to be in place."
The Patriots' run – they're going for their fourth title since the 2001 season – has been defined by their big three. Last week, before the AFC championship game against Baltimore, Kraft talked about how he considered Belichick the greatest coach of all time (he has repeatedly said the same about Brady at quarterback), citing Belichick's success in the salary cap era as evidence. "I think a lot of great coaches had difficulty understanding how to balance the economics of the game and the budgets," Kraft said. "His product knowledge is so great."
But getting to this point wasn't easy. When Kraft was mulling whether to hire Belichick in 2000, he had people telling him not to do it, that Belichick's style was too abrasive.
"The key to life, whether it's the partner you pick in life or the business you run, is that you try to see things that other people can't see," Kraft said. "This league is set up to have everyone go 8-8, in terms of the scheduling if you do well, how you draft, the schedule they give you, everything. They want parity. The best thing is for every team to go 8-8 and every city feels they're still in it. How do you differentiate?
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The conversation covers (among other things): Tom Brady's recent big-game struggles, his overall greatness and his fierce motivation to win a fourth Super Bowl; Bill Belichick, the NFL's last anarchist; how Tom Coughlin has taken on his team's personality, not vice versa; and whether or not Eli Manning is considered "elite," there is no questioning his toughness and heart anymore.
"Everyone in the organization you hope can see things that other people can't see and are willing to take risks. You have to be bold in any business and do things that you take a lot of criticism for but you believe are the right things. Any business we're in, we think long- [term]. We're willing to take the bumps and bruises if we're putting ourselves in the best position."
Of course, Belichick had the good fortune to draft Brady in the sixth round in 2000, developed him and then saw everything come together on the field. Even then, keeping the balance isn't easy, particularly if the owner doesn't understand his place. Or as Wooten recalled former NFL owner Dan Reeves (not the coach) once saying, "Coaches coach and scouts scout."
"It's really important that the owner understand his role. He's there to make the big decisions and then let his people do the job. If he gets too involved, you have a problem," Wooten said. Stories of owners sending in plays or demanding that certain players get the ball are replete in NFL history.
Some of those big decisions have been more costly than ever.
"The challenges have always existed for owners to develop revenue sources," Redskins general manager Bruce Allen said. "So there have always been challenges. It's just different now. No one would have thought 40 years ago that Jerry Jones not only would have this beautiful, perfect stadium, but would also have to write a check for it."
When Belichick was the coach of the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s, former owner Art Modell had a habit of questioning what was going on. It was a predictable pattern. Whatever criticism of the team was printed on a given day in the local newspaper would become the basis for Modell's questions of Belichick that day.
By contrast, Kraft, who has also become one of the league's most influential owners, asks questions with the goal of understanding how the game works. Shortly after he bought the Patriots in 1994, Kraft found out that former NFL writer Don Pierson had covered great Bears owner and coach George Halas, one of the forefathers of the NFL. He called Pierson to ask about Halas, not in a social way, but more to understand how and why Halas did things.
Perhaps that's why Kraft is in the process of making that history.
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The following collections of quarterbacks, coaches and owners have combined to create many of the most dominant teams in NFL history. Here's a capsule look at what they have done:
1) Joe Montana-Bill Walsh-Eddie DeBartolo – While this group was together for only three of San Francisco's five Super Bowl titles, these three men laid the groundwork not only for those championships but for seismic changes in the NFL. Walsh drew up the West Coast offense and Montana executed it to perfection. As for DeBartolo, he not only hired Walsh, but his single-minded, competitive spirit (even at the risk of losing money) helped raise the stakes among his fellow owners, even if they don't like to admit it.
2) Tom Brady-Bill Belichick-Robert Kraft – This trio has a chance to match the four titles that Pittsburgh won in the 1970s (more on that Steelers group next). The big difference is that New England has done this in the era of the salary cap and free agency, when teams didn't have the power to hold players ad infinitum. Beyond the field, Kraft deserves great credit for his business savvy, which includes work on the television contracts, the CBA and the building of the Patriots' state-of-the-art stadium, which was largely financed privately.
3) Terry Bradshaw-Chuck Noll-Art Rooney – The Steelers are largely known for the "Steel Curtain" defense of the 1970s, but they wouldn't have won those titles without the strong arm of Bradshaw, the strong patience of Noll in dealing with Bradshaw and the hands-off approach of Rooney, whose family is perhaps the most influential ever in the NFL.
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4) Otto Graham-Paul Brown-Mickey McBride – Cleveland's record of seven titles in 10 years with Graham is stunning by itself, even if the All-American Football Conference and the NFL (which the Browns joined in 1950) were still largely in the infant stage. Graham was one of the great early passers and Brown changed professional football with one development after another (the shuttle system for calling plays and greater organization of practice). While McBride was more of a showman and didn't hold on to the team, give him credit for making 1946 a landmark year. In that first season of the Browns' existence, he hired Brown and signed Graham, Dante Lavelli, Bill Willis and Lou "The Toe" Groza. Talk about changing the game.
5) Roger Staubach-Tom Landry-Clint Murchison – Like with Brown, Landry did amazing things in organizing and modernizing the game, such as the "flex defense" and scouting techniques. Landry also turned Staubach into a great all-around player rather than just the great all-around athlete he was when he entered the league. While Murchison is largely a forgotten character, he was also the ultimate hands-off owner. When he got on the team plane, some players didn't even know who he was.
6) Bob Griese-Don Shula-Joe Robbie – The Dolphins went from expansion team in 1966 to the first former AFL team that could truly be called a dynasty after the 1970 merger. The Dolphins were the first team to go to three consecutive Super Bowls, winning two. While the run-first style of offense didn't highlight Griese, he was still considered the brain of the offense. Shula went on to win more games than anyone in the sport's history and Robbie went on to build the first privately funded stadium in the league, complete with this new thing called "luxury boxes."
7) Johnny Unitas-Weeb Ewbank-Carroll Rosenbloom – The Baltimore Colts helped bring the NFL into the national consciousness in the late 1950s with back-to-back titles, including the win in what is known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played." Unitas is an almost mythical figure, the John Wayne of quarterbacks with his combination of toughness and passing skills. Ewbank was one of the first coaches to understand the ins and outs of creating teamwork with his self-deprecating style. As for Rosenbloom, he was a cold, calculating businessman who eventually traded his franchise for the Los Angeles Rams in one of the great business gambits in NFL history.
8) John Elway-Mike Shanahan-Pat Bowlen – While Elway had led the Broncos to three Super Bowls early in his career, it was the offensive genius of Shanahan that put him over the top and allowed the team to win back-to-back titles in the late 1990s. As for Bowlen, he was once one of the sharpest minds in the NFL before declining health robbed him of his faculties. He also did the work to build a new stadium in Denver.
9) Sid Luckman-George Halas-George Halas – In 1939, Halas made Luckman the No. 2 overall pick. He then made Luckman the highest-paid player in the NFL with a $5,000 annual contract. Give Halas a lot of credit for the foresight to spend money. Luckman became the father of the forward pass as Halas hired Clark Shaughnessy to install this thing known as the "T formation." For the NFL, that evolutionary step was akin to our species learning how to talk. The duo (Halas founded the Bears and his family still owns it) went on to win four NFL titles.
10. Troy Aikman-Jimmy Johnson-Jerry Jones – In 1989, Jones was mocked by the NFL establishment for not only buying the Cowboys for a record price, but then hiring a college coach to run his team. And, by the way, they took a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick. Fans should dream about that type of combination coming to their city. Sadly, the collision of egos between Jones, who wanted more control of day-to-day operations, and Johnson destroyed the trio after the first two of three titles in the 1990s.
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- Bill Belichick
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- Joe Montana