Part 1: Owners 17-32
When Jerry Jones considers the most surreal moments of his two-plus-decades as the Dallas Cowboys' owner, an eminently eventful reign that has included three Super Bowl triumphs and a steady parade of larger-than-life characters, he inevitably flashes back to opening night at Cowboys Stadium.
Fifteen months ago, as he prepared to welcome 60,000 fans for a concert featuring country stars George Strait and Reba McEntire at the $1.1 billion palace that is the envy of his peers, Jones spent the hours before the show schmoozing with sponsors and making the rounds to ensure that all was running smoothly. At one point Jones encountered an ashen-faced club employee who, while conducting a stadium walkthrough, had exited a luxury suite and descended a seemingly deserted stairwell, only to encounter a male and female spectator engaged in an amorous act.
When Jones was told of the copulating couple, all he could do was laugh. "I guess they wanted to say they were first," he would later remark. "Sometimes I am convinced that everybody's nuts but me, and I am the only sane sumbitch on the planet."
With all due respect to those wild and crazy concertgoers, there are times when it's really enjoyable to be first, and I'm pretty sure that Jones, after four consecutive close seconds, will be more fulfilled by my fifth annual NFL owner rankings even more than he was in Years 1, 2, 3 and 4.
"It is a big deal, candidly," Jones replied. "This is something that's well-thought-out and kind of unique, and it makes you take stock of what you're trying to do and what you could be doing better. I'll tell you this: One of these days I'd like to be No. 1."
That day is upon us – Jones shares the honor with Patriots counterpart Robert Kraft, who has done nothing to surrender his perennial perch at the top. And they'll both be happy to learn that this is one tie which won't be decided by a field goal on the opening possession of overtime.
In assessing the better half of the people who preside over the NFL's 32 franchises, I had little hesitation in putting Jones and Kraft together at the top. Each man has every attribute I look for in an owner, and their foresight and leadership could prove pivotal following the 2010 season, as a potentially messy labor showdown with the NFL Players Association commences.
Why am I so high on owners like Jones and Kraft? To repeat the criteria I stated in Part 1 of the rankings, I'm looking at the way the people in charge of the purse-strings operate on a leaguewide level, as well as how they run their respective franchises. I'm partial toward owners who are proactive in their pursuit of revenue and who aggressively spend money in an effort to enhance their on-field product. I like winners – not the accidental kind, but the bosses whose relentless pursuit of excellence translates to sustained success – and I despise whiners.
Most of all, I try to ask myself a single overriding question: If you were a fan of this team, how would you feel about this person running the show?
And if I were a Pats or Cowboys fan, to borrow from comedian Larry David, I'd feel pretty pretty good (though perhaps not quite as good as that couple on the Cowboys Stadium stairwell).
16. San Francisco 49ers – Denise DeBartolo York/John York (Jed York): This is the first time the Yorks have been anywhere near the top half of my rankings, and that's largely based on my conviction that Jed York, Denise and John's 29-year-old son, has helped restore some of the luster to this once unmatched franchise. It's not just that Jed speaks regularly with his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, who would have owned the No. 1 spot (along with his five Super Bowl rings) had these rankings existed during his tenure. The younger York is also starting to get things done, on and off the field. Jed worked tirelessly for years to set the stage for Santa Clara voters to approve a stadium on last June's ballot, and if he can be similarly successful in securing the necessary financing, the Niners will have a slammin' future in the heart of the Silicon Valley. In the meantime, the team has shown promise under coach Mike Singletary and seems poised to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season. I'd be tempted to rate the Yorks even higher if they were more engaged on a league level; Jed's current preoccupation with stadium matters, however, is understandable. He also gets high marks from a fellow owner for the way he handled top draft pick Michael Crabtree's(notes) seemingly exorbitant contract demands last summer, hanging tough until the standoff dragged into October and the wideout accepted a more reasonable deal. "I think Crabtree's agents thought they were going to run over him 'cause he's a kid," an AFC owner says. "But he didn't cave, and he helped expose to the league what a joke it is when these rookies and their agents try to hold a team hostage. Good for him."
15. Kansas City Chiefs – Clark Hunt: Like his late father, Lamar, Clark runs his team with integrity and is considered a team player in league circles. Unlike Lamar, however, Clark prefers to delegate power and keep his distance, letting general manager Scott Pioli attempt to transform the team's football operations department and talent-deficient roster. One of Hunt's peers describes him as "an absentee owner. They were fifth in marketing at one point under Lamar; you won't see that again." To his credit Clark spearheaded the renovation of Arrowhead Stadium, which was unveiled to the public in all its splendor earlier this summer. Pioli, meanwhile, has yet to realize the on-the-field success Hunt sought when he snagged Bill Belichick's longtime right-hand man from the Patriots, but the new GM has brought order to a front-office environment infamous for shady side deals (such as trading tickets for car leases) at all levels of the organization.
14. San Diego Chargers – Alex Spanos (Dean Spanos): A few years ago, if you'd told me Dean Spanos could pull off a move to Los Angeles without being pressured by his peers to sell the team, I'd have accused you of having eaten some bad fish tacos. But it's true: Of the teams theoretically in play for L.A. (Vikings, Jaguars, Raiders if Al Davis were no longer in the picture), the Chargers have moved to the top of an increasingly short list, partly because Spanos has come into his own as an owner – and also because his sincere efforts to make a stadium work in the San Diego area have been met with civic indifference. "Without a stadium he realizes they can't compete [financially], and he has legitimately tried to get one built," the aforementioned AFC owner says of Spanos. "His dream is to go to L.A., and it may happen." That could mean a move up the freeway to Orange County, which might allow the Chargers to retain some of their fan base, or it could lead the team to the new stadium in the City of Industry being conceived by developer Ed Roski. In the meantime, give Spanos points for fielding a consistently competitive team fueled by brusque but brainy general manager A.J. Smith. As the labor showdown with the NFL Players Association looms, Smith and Spanos are also in lockstep on driving a hard bargain in player-contract negotiations, an approach that may cost the Chargers the services of a pair of Pro Bowl performers – wideout Vincent Jackson(notes) and left tackle Marcus McNeill(notes) – for part or all of 2010. Says the AFC owner: "Dean believes the system needs to be fixed and he's putting his actions where his mouth is." It's a resolve of which politicians and voters around the San Diego area should take note in the near future.
13. Minnesota Vikings – Zygi Wilf: I was really torn about what to do with Wilf, whose team came scarily close to reaching the Super Bowl last season after his bold gamble on Brett Favre paid off beyond anyone's reasonable expectations. On one hand, I know he's regarded by numerous peers as someone who games the revenue-sharing system to ensure that he receives handouts – and who knew exactly what he was getting into when he bought the stadium-challenged franchise from Red McCombs. (I know from a source close to Jones that he's livid over the $100,000 fine he received last September for saying that revenue sharing "is on its way out" while doing a media interview intended to support Wilf's push for a new stadium, thus violating the league's gag order on labor issues. Wilf, the source said, had asked Jones to make the comments as a favor; afterward, when Jones suggested that Wilf should pay the fine, the source says the Vikes' owner basically told him to go ice fish on a thinly frozen pond.) Yet I love Wilf's go-for-broke attitude in terms of loading up for another potential title run this season, one designed to coincide with a stadium push at season's end. "Give the guy credit for going after it," one prominent agent says. "I'd put him at No. 1 – seriously." Still, there's something troubling about the way Wilf has allowed one player [Favre] to control his franchise, and Year 2 of the experiment could turn very ugly. I also find it troubling that a renowned real-estate developer has come up so empty in his quest for a stadium to replace the decrepit Metrodome, though I know Minnesota's political landscape presents some unique challenges. Bottom line: Wilf could be whining a lot more about his lousy stadium situation and blatantly threatening (and quietly angling) to move to L.A., but instead he seems to be directing his energies toward putting the best possible team on the field in the short-term.
12. New York Jets – Woody Johnson: This was another tough call, because for as much promise Johnson's franchise displayed during last January's impressive playoff run and in the months that followed, I can see the potential for disaster looming. With a trash-talking head coach (Rex Ryan) proclaiming that the Jets are the NFL's team to beat, a high-profile holdout by his best player (star cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes)) that may or may not end happily and a splashy new facility that Ryan brazenly dubbed "Jets Stadium" as a dig at the team's rival co-tenants, Johnson could see all that bravado backfire in a big way. Then again, as a journalist I applaud him for creating an open, entertaining atmosphere where, as one rival owner scoffs, "It's like Chad Ochocinco(notes) is the head coach" – and where film crews have been present to document it for "Hard Knocks" viewers all summer long. And really, why not put it all out there? Johnson has ample reason to be proud: He built his team a state-of-the-art training facility, joined the Giants in getting a $1.6 billion stadium constructed and put the pedal to the metal in pursuit of a championship. Despite a rough year in which he lost a daughter, Johnson has displayed a deep commitment to running a high-octane operation and fielding a team that is capable of backing up Ryan's boasts.
11. Philadelphia Eagles – Jeffrey Lurie: If cool, stable, no-frills leadership is what you prefer, Lurie is a hell of a role model. A self-sufficient, non-meddlesome owner, Lurie has a strong, well-respected team president in Joe Banner and a similarly stable head-coaching situation. Lurie may not be as engaged on a league level as some of his peers would prefer, but he's a valued partner and positive force in the Philadelphia community whose organization has been consistently successful during Andy Reid's decade-long coaching tenure.
10. Houston Texans – Bob McNair: I'm putting McNair a bit lower on the list than I usually do, through no apparent fault of his own. He's still a heavily invested, thoroughly engaged boss running his franchise the right way and putting the league's larger interests ahead of his individual concerns. He desperately wants to win, and he does everything he can to create an environment that will accomplish that goal. There's just one problem: McNair's efforts still haven't paid off. The Texans have been around for eight years and have yet to make the playoffs; last season Houston rallied to finish 9-7 for the franchise's first winning season. I remain convinced that McNair's team will soon be succeeding on a consistent basis, but I'd like to see some results already – and Texans fans know precisely how I feel.
9. Green Bay Packers – Green Bay Packers Inc. (Mark Murphy): To every small-market owner who complains about his competitive disadvantage and advocates a system with increased revenue-sharing, the publicly owned Packers can be cited as a compelling counterargument. As one owner puts it, "Why should a team in Minnesota, Detroit or Cleveland get a revenue-sharing check when the Green Bay Packers don't need it?" Having already completed a fantastic renovation of historic Lambeau Field, the Packers are pushing forward, eyeballing the stadium's south end zone as the next area to be upgraded and making plans to install new video boards and a state-of-the-art sound system. Further, the franchise is taking a page from the Patriots (and the Krafts) and working toward the placement of retail shops (along with a sports complex and health-and-wellness center) in the stadium's surrounding area. The man largely responsible for such visionary ideas is CEO Murphy, a former Redskins Pro Bowl safety and collegiate athletic director (Colgate, Northwestern) who has been on the job since December of 2007. Murphy has also served on the league's management council and has become a valuable voice on labor issues, due partly to his unique perspective. He was the Redskins' player representative and played a visible role in the 1982 strike that shortened the season by seven games. With a lockout looming, I'm hoping that experience will lead Murphy to serve as a voice of reason as tensions escalate between the players and owners.
8. Washington Redskins – Daniel Snyder: Former Redskins running back John Riggins, the refreshingly candid Hall of Famer who once told the first female Supreme Court justice in U.S. history to "loosen up, Sandy baby", went on Showtime's "Inside the NFL" last November and took his criticism of Snyder to a new level, calling him "a bad guy" and a person whose "heart is dark." And after a bit of soul-searching, Snyder, in homage to the novel that inspired "Apocalypse Now," cut a marketing deal featuring T-shirts and coffee cups of his face transposed upon this iconic Marlon Brando character's profile. OK, so I made up that part about the T-shirts and coffee cups – for all I know Snyder reacted by drinking his own blood and throwing rocks at kittens. What I do know is that around that time, Snyder publicly apologized to Redskins fans for the team's lousy start, saying he was "disappointed and embarrassed" by the franchise's performance. Rip Snyder all you want, for anything from his ruthless pursuit of customer revenue (charging ticket-holders extra money for swift stadium entry, suing fans who defaulted on club-seat agreements) to his leadership flaws (cultivating close relationships with players like Clinton Portis(notes) and Albert Haynesworth(notes) which might compel them to behave as though they're above the head coach's authority), but if you question his deep, gnawing desire to win, I think you're crazier than Colonel Kurtz. Snyder demonstrated this again after the season when he hired two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Shanahan and accomplished general manager Bruce Allen and, as he did during Joe Gibbs'(notes) second tenure with the team, gave them the authority to do things their way. This is when Snyder is at his best, and I believe that when he finally tastes the sustained success he's been so desperately craving, he'll understand that squelching some of his hyper-involved instincts was a pivotal step in his evolution as an owner. Winning cures many ills, and if Shanahan coaches the 'Skins to their first championship since the 1991 season, Snyder and Riggins will kiss, make up and end up co-hosting a television show. OK, that's probably not going to happen, either. But I so wish it would.
7. Baltimore Ravens – Steve Bisciotti: It has to drive Snyder insane that, for all his desperation to win, his counterpart up the parkway has managed to create one of the 21st century's more successful franchises while maintaining a killer tan and seemingly enjoying life. Bisciotti's secret: Employing really smart people (president Dick Cass, general manager Ozzie Newsome) and empowering them to run a directed, philosophically consistent operation. Rather than getting bogged down by the Redskins' obvious advantages in history, branding and marketing might, the Ravens have carved out a niche in the area that allows them to compete at the highest level. And while Bisciotti may engage in a healthy share of leisurely pursuits, don't make the mistake of thinking he's checked out. He sets an organizational tone in terms of taking on players with troubled pasts ("I'm ready to take chances on people," he explained in a press conference after the '09 season and backed it up by signing Donte' Stallworth(notes)) and personally challenged his young players, including quarterback Joe Flacco(notes), to take their games to another level after last January's playoff defeat to the Colts. Says the AFC owner: "They're down there in Baltimore quietly collecting talent, and they're much better at it on a consistent basis than Snyder – and trust me, they take great pride in that."
6. Indianapolis Colts – Jimmy Irsay I always have positive things to say about Irsay, and not just because I'm hoping he'll let me hang out with one of his rock-star friends (in case he's reading: meeting Stephen Stills wouldn't suck). He has a terrific stadium in a supportive city and presides over a team that, since 1999, has won more games (128) than any other franchise. While I'm fond of tweaking draconian team president Bill Polian for his, you know, Polian-ness, I can't pretend that Irsay's most important employee isn't great at what he does, as was longtime coach Tony Dungy, an Irsay-motivated hire back in 2002 (successor Jim Caldwell hasn't been so bad, either). If I have one, small criticism of Irsay's performance over the past year, it's that after Peyton Manning(notes) won his record fourth MVP award and led the Colts to a second Super Bowl in four seasons, the owner got a bit too caught up in the emotion of the moment. At media day, Irsay told reporters that Manning, whose contract expires after this season, would get a new deal and that "we know [he's] going to be the highest-paid player in the league." It was an innocuous comment, except that: a.) It handed Manning's agent, Tom Condon, even more leverage than he already had; b.) It didn't allow for the fact that Manning might not perform at his highest level on Super Sunday, thus slightly reducing said leverage; c.) the league's uncertain labor landscape makes such a deal problematic, a reality which largely explains why Manning and the team still haven't negotiated an extension; and d.) in the absence of a new deal, the NFLPA can now potentially cite the lack of Irsay's words coming to fruition as supposed evidence that owners have conspired to keep costs down in the uncapped year. On the other hand, when all is said and done, I believe Irsay will find a way to pay Manning, and the quarterback will be the NFL's highest-paid player, and Polian will keep finding really good players to put around him.
Giants owners Steve Tisch (center) and John Mara (right) with Jets owner Woody Johnson.
(Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
5. New York Giants – John Mara/Steve Tisch: Shortly after the Giants completed a collapse that turned a promising 5-0 start into an 8-8 campaign, the team's president and co-owner Mara got more heated last January than Tom Coughlin in a hotel lobby full of players wearing white socks and sneakers. Saying that the team's record "felt more like 2-14 to me," Mara warned that "the status quo is not acceptable on any level" and that "I'm unhappy at everybody." Coming from a highly respected owner not known for being overly rash, and only two seasons removed from a Super Bowl championship, it all sounded a bit ominous – and, if I were a fan, it would be the exact tone I'd want the boss to project. The great thing about Mara is that he's not an unchecked autocrat – he's part of a killer combination with chairman Tisch, who can rightfully boast that he's the only man on the planet to own an Academy Award (albeit for producing "Forrest Gump," the most overrated offering in the history of cinema) and a Super Bowl ring. Tisch brings an entrepreneurial flair and artistic sensibility to the dynamic duo; Mara is more of an old-school executive, albeit with a refreshingly updated approach to franchise stewardship. They may not be making as much noise as the Jets – and though they partnered with Johnson on the stadium deal, you know they'd both love to give the dude a wedgie right about now – but they're going after it, too. They're also positive forces on a league level who don't let their big-market status obscure their sense of what's best for everyone.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers – Dan Rooney (Art Rooney II) Few owners had a less enjoyable offseason than the Rooneys, whose two-time Super Bowl-winning franchise quarterback provoked a near fan rebellion after being accused of sexual assault for the second time in a year. With his father serving as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland – every time I type that, I marvel at how cool that is – this was Art Rooney's problem to deal with, and he did a masterful job of walking the fine line between understandable indignity over Ben Roethlisberger's(notes) behavior and making an overly rash decision about a man who ultimately wouldn't be charged with a crime. I was somewhat amazed that Rooney didn't go out of his way to rule out the possibility of trading Big Ben – if nothing else, he effectively conveyed the gravity of the situation to his highest-paid employee. "I think he'd have been willing to trade him," an AFC owner says. "He was smart. When he saw that it wasn't just the fan base that was up in arms, that they were disgusted in the locker room, he spoke out aggressively. Players liked that." Rooney also traded trouble-prone wideout Santonio Holmes(notes) to the Jets only 14 months removed from an MVP performance in Super Bowl XLIII, further driving home the point that off-the-field misbehavior can and will (sometimes) have consequences in Pittsburgh. Most important, in the wake of a disappointing 9-7 season, Rooney struck a tone for stability by signing coach Mike Tomlin to a three-year contract extension. Given that Rooney didn't want to hire Tomlin in the first place – my sources at the time told me that Dan Rooney overruled his son, who preferred Russ Grimm – this was especially impressive, an acknowledgment that the franchise hit another home run in that all-important department. On a league level, the Rooneys are fair but forceful small-market advocates who help forge compromises between competing factions. They also serve as a model in so many ways, from their approach to player acquisition to the way they nourish and protect their brand. And after acquiring a larger stake in the team to comply with NFL ownership rules, Dan and Art are even more invested in the Steelers' revenue-producing potential, which has coincided with a more aggressive approach on such matters.
3. Carolina Panthers – Jerry Richardson A year ago, just before I unveiled these rankings, Richardson rocked my world by firing his sons, a clear sign of two things: He's firmly back in the saddle after a heart transplant that saved his life, and he takes his role as the managing partner of an ownership group very, very seriously. At the NFL owner meetings in Orlando last March Richardson, the management council's point man on the labor front, made an even more emphatic statement, opening a session on the first day with a fiery speech that had some of his peers ready to run through a wall. Recalls one witness, "Jerry said, 'We signed a [expletive] deal last time, and we're going to stick together and take back our league and [expletive] do something about it.' He was practically yelling. It was amazing, and it set an incredible tone." It helped that Richardson had as much credibility as anybody in the room. He's a former player who has thrived in a small-market setting without whining about its challenges and has consistently stuck up for the interests and concerns of others. He's also one of commissioner Roger Goodell's closest allies and is the emblem of integrity and professionalism. For what it's worth I think Richardson likely had a potential lockout in mind when he resisted the temptation to fire coach John Fox after last season and throw tons of money at former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who lives in North Carolina. With Fox's contract set to expire after the current campaign, this thing could go a lot of different ways, but I have little doubt that after the labor war ends and a new CBA is forged, Richardson will continue to push aggressively for a championship. And for what it's worth Danny Morrison, the former TCU athletic director who Richardson hired as team president after relieving his son Mark of those duties, has gotten positive reviews in league circles.
1. (tie) New England Patriots – Robert Kraft (Jonathan Kraft) Of all the ill-advised things that NFL players have blurted out during contract disputes, the contention by Patriots guard Logan Mankins(notes) to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss that Kraft is a duplicitous owner who treats people poorly was one of the most regrettable. For one thing, Mankins is a little unclear on the concept. Even if Kraft had promised Mankins his contract would be reworked after the '09 season – and Robert's son Jonathan, the team president, told NECN's Tom Curran earlier this week that Mankins "seriously misspoke" when he made that statement – it wouldn't have ensured that the Patriots (who reportedly offered him a deal worth more than $7 million per season) would pay him at the rate of his choosing. It's called a negotiation, which is something Kraft has done well during his 16-year run as the Patriots' owner, though it remains to be seen whether he'll successfully navigate his way through a tricky back-and-forth with franchise quarterback Tom Brady(notes) to secure a long-term extension in the days before the team's regular season opener next Sunday. (I'd say there's a 50-50 chance.) With an optimal organizational structure that allows Jonathan to make shrewd business decisions and unparalleled coach Bill Belichick to preside over football operations, the Pats are poised to remain an elite team for the foreseeable future, and if they ever slip you can bet that ownership will make proactive moves toward restoring the franchise to excellence. For now much of Kraft's business acumen and firm but realistic approach to problem-solving will be devoted to the labor front, where he'll play a highly influential role in trying to hammer out a new deal that keeps the NFL prosperous and popular.
1. (tie) Dallas Cowboys – Jerry Jones (Stephen Jones): Jones isn't just a charming powerbroker in real life; he also plays one on TV. When Jones told Ari Gold he was out as the head of L.A.'s proposed NFL venture on a recent "Entourage" episode, as part of a season-long series of cameos, how many viewers were hoping he'd go on an impromptu riff like the one featured in this far less-polished production? (Warning: Explicit language alert.) Jones' team had a strong season in 2009, and his offseason was even more impressive. Think about it: Before the owners elected to opt out of the current CBA in '08 and the threat of an uncapped year was broached, there was always the assumption that Jones, Snyder and other free-spending owners would go an unchecked rampage this offseason. When the uncapped year finally came to fruition, however, Jones went against the type and did virtually nothing in free agency, a development all the more remarkable given the obvious allure of going all out to get to the Super Bowl he'll host next February in his unequaled stadium. Says one owner who admires Jones, "I think a lot of small-market teams feared what he would do in an uncapped year, but he sees the bigger picture and understands the importance of not doing crazy things, and he's a businessman first." Not that Jones is backing off on his ultra-competitive instincts. He simply thinks the team he has is good enough to win it all and has learned some hard lessons about being overly seduced by splashy acquisitions. "We're still going to be the team that spends the most money, but we're at a point in the cycle where we didn't need to do a lot," Jones says. "Football's different now than it was when I first got in. I'm convinced you can't buy it. If you've got a quarterback you think can get you there, then you can go all out to put the surrounding cast around him and spend more money than you otherwise would. But you can't buy a championship in this league." Of course, you can err on the side of spending aggressively, and it helps when you are No. 1 in revenue (which the Cowboys are, thanks largely to Jones' entrepreneurial savvy and the impressive business instincts of his eldest son, Stephen, the team's general manager who played a major role in getting the stadium built) and totally committed to the cause, two of Jones' obvious attributes. He's also compassionate, as evidenced by his recent settlement with two Cowboys employees who sustained severe injuries in the 2009 collapse of the indoor practice bubble at the team's training facility. Frank Branson, the attorney for scout Rich Behm and special teams coach Joe DeCamillis, noted that "the Cowboys have been supportive of Rich and Joe from Day 1," and both men still work for the organization. One other thing I love about Jones: You can bet he'll put on the greatest, most grandiose Super Bowl that has ever been staged, and I look forward to a week's worth of appreciating his showmanship. "This is the earliest possible you could ever host a Super Bowl," Jones says. "You have to wait until you've played there two full seasons, and our stadium opened just before last season started. We literally haven't even taken the newness off the stadium – there may be people living in there, and I haven't found 'em yet. So this Super Bowl is just like a grand opening." Well, hopefully not just like a grand opening, at least as far as the stairwells are concerned.