Saints, Cards offer hope to forlorn franchises

MIAMI – With his wife on one arm and NFL security on the other, Tom Benson finally arrived at Super Bowl media day Tuesday. His team, the New Orleans Saints, had never reached the big game in their 43 years of existence, the final 25 under the ownership of Benson.

Benson hoists the NFC championship trophy after the Saints beat the Vikes.
(David J. Phillip/AP Photo)

This ends one of the longest droughts in league history, a flurry of success after decades of debacles. Coupled with last year’s appearance by the long-suffering Arizona Cardinals, it drops the number of franchises to never appear in a Super Bowl to four.

All that’s left on the outside looking in are the Detroit Lions, the Cleveland Browns and two relatively recent expansion clubs: the Jacksonville Jaguars (1995) and the Houston Texans (2002).

The sight of Benson, wearing a big smile over the fortunes of a team whose fans used to wear bags over their heads, is a sign of hope for the frustrated four. If the Saints – and the Cardinals – can shake off decades of horrific memories and make it happen, anyone can. Right?

“It’s good people,” Benson said. “Good people are the key. My granddaughter [co-owner and executive vice president] Rita Benson-LeBlanc, the coach [Sean Payton], [quarterback] Drew Brees(notes) – all these people have been with us since 2006 or before.”

Benson is 83 now and looked overwhelmed at the frenzy of media day for Super Bowl XLIV against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Like Arizona’s Bill Bidwill the year before, the NFL wasn’t interested in keeping the owner in front of the cameras for long. Benson kept saying how he’d always been committed to New Orleans, even though his statements and actions post-Hurricane Katrina put that in much dispute. And he didn’t want to answer why he didn’t think of the “good people” a bit earlier in his ownership. Or discuss reports that his head coach had to fork over $250,000 of his own money to help lure defensive coordinator Gregg Williams because Benson was so cheap.

“We put this thing together with a plan in mind,” Benson said of his Saints team. “We were going to make it in New Orleans.”

Whatever. This is a week of celebration for Benson, a time when the missteps of the past get forgiven in the excitement of the moment. The question for the remaining four Super Bowl-less franchises is whether there is anything to be gleaned from the success of the Saints and Cardinals.

Former Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was lampooned when he once declared that organizations, not players, win championships. He was mostly correct, though. Just getting good players isn’t enough in competitions this intense. Franchises are successful for a reason, and it’s even more pronounced in the NFL than the NBA.

“It starts with character and it has to truly be about team,” Benson-LeBlanc said. “I know everyone says it, but whether it’s marketing people or how you call the plays, you have to make sure no one is concerned about who is getting the credit.”

Perhaps most important about the above sentence was who said it. The Saints haven’t technically changed ownership, but the franchise is increasingly being run by the 33-year-old Benson-LeBlanc.

Similarly, the Cardinals are still Bidwill’s property, but the 78-year-old isn’t as involved as his 45-year-old son Michael.

While both of the decedents are fiercely protective of their grandfather and father, respectively, the truth is both were able to change the mood around the organization. Michael Bidwill spearhead the construction of University of Phoenix Stadium that allowed the team to shed its cheap “Dollar Bill Bidwill” history and give fans and players a comfortable home.

Benson-LeBlanc was able to create stability, and with her warm personality and willingness to do public relations work was able to deflect some of the fans’ anger at her grandfather for considering a move to San Antonio. With those things, the organizations’ personalities changed. Perhaps most importantly, football decisions were left to football people.

So there’s a road map for the final four teams without a Super Bowl appearance, although their frustrations are completely different.

The Texans have never even made the playoffs, although they came close in this, their eighth season. They are easily the closest to making it to the big game.

The Jaguars have twice reached the AFC championship game, but just finished a 7-9 season. More troubling, the future of the franchise is up in the air. The Jacksonville market, one of the NFL’s smallest, has struggled to support the team in tough economic times. Shoestring budgets don’t do well in the NFL.

Owner Wayne Weaver suggested earlier this season the team should draft Florida quarterback Tim Tebow to help with ticket sales, a decision that speaks of misplaced priorities. You have to let the front office draft based on winning, not money. A sale and relocation to Los Angeles isn’t out of the question.

The Browns don’t just have a tortured history; they have a disjointed one. The team joined the NFL in 1950 and has had periods of success – consecutive AFC title game appearances in the 1980s – that have ended in emotionally crushing defeats.

Nothing was worse than when then-owner Art Modell moved the franchise after the 1995 season to Baltimore (and won the Super Bowl there in 2001). The NFL awarded Cleveland a new franchise. The team began play in 1999, was called the Browns and had its team history and records restored. Regardless, at this point it’s essentially an expansion team. This past season, they went just 5-11.

Back in November, Browns owner Randy Lerner declared that the franchise needed a “serious, credible leader.” Within a month he’d put together a strong front office led by former Super Bowl winning coach Mike Holmgren as president.

If nothing else, the Browns look like they have a plan.

Then there are the Lions. After the success of the Saints and Cardinals the past two seasons, the Lions are undoubtedly the worst franchise in NFL history. Forget a Super Bowl, the team has just one playoff win since 1957. The Lions were fatefully purchased by William Clay Ford (Henry’s grandson) on the day John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963. It’s been downhill ever since.

The franchise is comically bad – its best player, Barry Sanders, essentially retired before the ’99 season rather than continue playing for such a loser. The 2000s were a lost decade when Ford was duped into hiring television commentator Matt Millen to run the club (into the FieldTurf). Millen was so unenthused by the job, he never moved to Detroit from his home in Pennsylvania. And Ford allowed it.

Maybe there’s no hope for Ford’s Lions.
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

Two seasons ago, the Lions became the first team to go 0-16. This year the team “improved” to 2-14.

Lions fans wish they could be the Browns.

While their rookie head coach Jim Schwartz has shown promise, Ford has never made a declaration like Lerner, has never cleared out the front office of Millen descendants and has never even bothered contacting turnaround specialists such as Bill Parcells or Holmgren when they become available.

The only hope Lions fans have rests in the presence of Ford’s son, William Clay “Bill” Ford, Jr., the 52-year-old vice chairman of the team. It was his public criticism of Millen that finally caused his father to pull the plug on that experiment three games into the ’08 season. Ford Sr. is 84, and like with the Cardinals and Saints, him handing over full control to his son might be the only thing that can shake the franchise.

Right now, if you were betting on which will be the last franchise to reach a Super Bowl, Detroit would be the favorite.

“You’ve got to keep plugging at it,” said Benson-LeBlanc as way of advice for the forlorn franchises the Saints have left behind. “If you get everyone doing it, from the top of the organization to the bottom, success can happen.”

The sight of Tom Benson at Super Bowl media day is proof of that.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Feb 3, 2010