In the past six months, the NFL has lost three giants — Bud Adams, William Clay Ford and, on Tuesday, Ralph Wilson — in franchise ownership.
Prior to that, the Kansas City Chiefs' Lamar Hunt and the Oakland Raiders' Al Davis, two men whose names should appear in the first paragraph of the history of the league, died in the previous decade.
The current group of NFL owners have been a big part of the league's success, with many of them helping navigate through the difficult lockout in the summer of 2011 and carry on with sports' most successful endeavor. These are the salad days of football.
And yet there's a legacy missing.
Yes, there are still members of the old guard who continue to represent the league after decades of service. Bill Bidwill became the sole owner of the Cardinals franchise in 1972, but the Bidwill family has controlled it back to the Chicago days, in 1932. The Rooney family has owned the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1933. Virginia McCaskey inherited the Chicago Bears in 1983 following the death of her father, George Halas, in 1983. Mike Brown and Jim Irsay inherited the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, respectively, and are vital links to the league's past.
Pat Bowlen (Denver Broncos) and Alex Spanos (San Diego Chargers) are going on their 30th years owning their respective franchises, and the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones just celebrated his 25th year of ownership and has rebuilt an empire with his franchise.
But it's clear we are in a new era of NFL ownership.
Bidwill has ceded daily control to his two sons. The Steelers have changed their ownership structure in recent years, and Dan Rooney, 81, is not as involved as he once was. McCaskey is seldom seen publicly these days. Bowlen and Spanos have been out of the spotlight in recent years. Irsay's recent legal troubles cast some question on his daily involvement with the Colts while he seeks help.
Jones, the Patriots' Robert Kraft, the Giants' John Mara, the Eagles' Jeffrey Lurie, the Falcons' Arthur Blank, the Ravens' Steve Bisciotti and a handful of owners who took control in the 1990s and 2000s have stepped up as NFL linchpins among the owners.
But there must be more influential new blood added, too. Not just another member of the Billionaire Boys Club hoping to cash in.
The timing of Wilson's death — during the NFL owners meetings — allowed his fellow compatriots to pay the proper respect en masse. This was a man, too, who often swam upstream. He was not afraid to fight for his small-market team's rights and go toe to toe with bigger and more influential owners. Wilson was one of two NFL owners to vote against the 2006 CBA because he "didn't understand it." And that was not because of a lack of intelligence — his keen sense, knowing it was a deal the owners later would regret signing, foreshadowed the lockout five years later.
The league needs its mavericks just as it needs its company men, so to speak, but there's no question that there is a leadership question, symbolic or not. Will Jed York, Clark Hunt, Bisciotti and the other younger club owners be ready to fill the void? If not, there could be too few balancing forces to combat Jones and Daniel Snyder, who are viewed with some suspicion by fans at large.
The past few new owners approved by the membership have not put their best feet forward in their first few years in control of their respective clubs. The Miami Dolphins' Stephen Ross has been saddled with losing and ugliness. The Cleveland Browns' Jimmy Haslam has had both as well, and he has a possible indictment hanging over his head with the Flying J mess. Although the Jaguars' Shad Khan is roundly respected, his team has been mired in losing in recent years, too.
The Bills have no clear successor to Wilson. Adams' estate currently owns the Titans. The Panthers' Jerry Richardson, 77, has endured health probems and has no clear successor lined up, having fired both of his sons a few years back. Neither do the New Orleans Saints for when Tom Benson passes away, with Rita Benson Le Blanc perhaps not the automatic successor many assume her to be. Mark Davis appears to be rudderless in Oakland. The Chargers and Rams have pressing stadium issues and are relocation candidates.
The NFL could be entering a period of serious ownership change over the next several years, and it's clear the league already is in the midst of a transition period with several giants falling in recent seasons.
Here is a list of the current NFL franchise owners and the year they took over control of their respective teams:
Year taken over
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers, Inc.*
Virginia (Halas) McCaskey
San Diego Chargers
New Orleans Saints
awarded franchise in 1993 (inaugural season was 1995)
New England Patriots
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
awarded franchise 1999 (inaugural season 2002)
New York Jets
New York Giants
John Mara and Steve Tisch
Kansas City Chiefs
San Francisco 49ers
St. Louis Rams
Mark Davis and Carol Davis
Estate of Bud Adams
* The Packers have no primary owner but instead are run by a board of directors, led by president Mark Murphy
** Dan Rooney took over control of the Steelers when his father, Art Rooney, died. Dan and Art II own a majority share of the team of approximately 30 percent of the franchise after the Steelers ownership was restructured in 2009.
*** The Colts' day-to-day operations are currently being overseen by Carlie Irsay-Gordon, Jim Irsay's daughter, while Irsay undergoes treatment following his arrest.
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