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• More: Owner rankings, 17-32
Sitting among his peers in a ballroom at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla. this past spring, Patriots owner Robert Kraft rose to deliver an unscheduled speech, providing the NFL's annual meeting with an April Fools Day surprise.
This was no joke, however: Kraft, in a session that included owners and head coaches, cleared his throat and delivered an emotional mea culpa for the Spygate scandal that had given his franchise and the league at large seven months of bad publicity.
It was a noble thing to do, especially given the fact that Kraft was not the one to blame for the repeated videotaping of opponents' defensive signals. However, Pats coach Bill Belichick, the man responsible for the mess, hadn't felt compelled to make anything resembling a legitimate public apology, clinging to the dubious explanation (and one already dismissed by commissioner Roger Goodell) that he had merely misinterpreted the league's rules.
Kraft, unaware of the taping until the league began investigating the Patriots last September, was embarrassed by Belichick's behavior and had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the stain the scandal had left on what otherwise ranked as one of the sports world's model franchises. So, after some opening remarks by Goodell, he stood up and took one for the team.
"Look, our family loves this league," Kraft told the group. "There's nothing we would ever want to do to hurt it. I'm sorry if the actions of our team and the ensuing fallout have damaged this league, because it's something I want to be a part of my entire life, and I would never, ever want to do anything to tarnish it."
Kraft with Dungy before last year's AFC title game.
(US Presswire/ Brian Spurlock)
When Kraft stopped talking several minutes later, he received a robust ovation. Afterward, Belichick took his turn at an apology, and when the meeting adjourned it was as though wildflowers had bloomed in Siberia. Colts coach Tony Dungy was among those who sought out Kraft to offer his support, later telling reporters that the speech "was very, very sincere and heartfelt, and I appreciate what he had to say."
One reason the 67-year-old owner's words were so well-received is that, as much as they hate losing to him, Kraft's rivals know he is a team player who, since buying the Pats in 1994, has not only revitalized a moribund franchise but has helped the NFL achieve unprecedented growth, exposure and profitability. Along with his eldest son, team president Jonathan, Kraft has combined a shrewd acumen for maximizing revenues with a progressive approach to growing the league as a whole.
Two years ago, when ownership was divided by an imbalance in marketing proceeds between small- and large-market franchises, the Krafts took the lead in proposing a revenue-sharing plan that cost them money, and a new labor agreement was ratified. The irony is that if small-market owners ran their businesses as smartly as the Krafts run the Pats, the need for revenue sharing would be vastly reduced.
You'll have to read a bit further to see if the Krafts sit atop my NFL owner rankings for the third consecutive year, as we follow up Tuesday's unveiling of the bottom-feeders with the league's better half, in descending order of ranking.
To repeat the previously stated criteria: I'm partial toward owners who aggressively generate revenue, pour profits back into the product, view things from a wide, league-oriented perspective and refrain from complaining too loudly in public. Most of all, I try to answer one question: If you root for this team, is this the person (or people) you want in charge?
With that in mind, here's the list, and I look forward to your civil and measured feedback. In a couple of weeks – on Tuesday, Aug. 5 – we'll see just how insane some of you think I am. In the meantime, hold onto your wallets and enjoy the ride, which today begins in the heartland:
16. Kansas City Chiefs – Clark Hunt: I keep hearing that the man who succeeded his late father Lamar 19 months ago is a shrewd dude with star quality; then, perplexingly, I look up and see team president Carl Peterson in his luxury suite, seemingly as entrenched as ever. That could change after this season, given Hunt's comments after last year's 4-12 campaign that "I expect us to at least compete for a playoff spot" in '08. (The Chiefs' last postseason victory was in the '93 season, Peterson's fifth on the job.) Hunt pledged $125 million toward a $375 million Arrowhead Stadium renovation that should be completed by 2011, which may be one reason he has come off as a relatively cost-conscious boss to some of his more aggressive peers.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers – Dan Rooney/Rooney Family: First off, I sincerely like Rooney and revere him for the role he has played in shaping the NFL. He has been an impassioned fighter for the interests of small-market teams. He not only took the lead in advocating for minority coaches, but he also followed through by hiring 34-year-old Mike Tomlin, who struck a blow for the Rooney Rule by winning the AFC North as a rookie in '07. Yet for all of the good he has done, Rooney is in a precarious position right now – and the Steelers' chairman seems to be acting as if the league's rules don't apply to him.
For one thing, Rooney owns just 16 percent of the Steelers, while the NFL requires the primary owner to have at least a 30-percent share. In addition, the Rooney family runs race tracks in New York and Florida that now offer video slot machines and other forms of gambling that violate the league's requirements for owners. With four younger brothers who each own 16 percent of the franchise having retained an investment firm to weigh offers and billionaire Steelers fan Stanley Druckenmiller showing interest, Dan is in danger of no longer being The Man. It doesn't help that he fired one of the brothers who may control his fate, personnel guru Art Rooney II, 21 years ago. "I think the commissioner will try to figure out a way to let Dan remain in charge," one owner says. "It wouldn't bother me so much that he's breaking the rules, except that he's so self-righteous about everything else." With all of that said, Rooney's departure would not be a good thing for Pittsburgh or for the league.
14. Green Bay – Green Bay Packers Inc./Mark Murphy, Packers: It's no fun standing firm against a legend, but Murphy, who succeeded Bob Harlan as the publicly owned team's CEO in January, did just last week when he expressed support for general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy in their standoff with Brett Favre. A former All-Pro safety with the Redskins, Murphy is an unknown quantity in league circles, but overall regard for this franchise is extremely high. The Packers pulled off a resplendent renovation of Lambeau Field without groveling for public money and rank among the league's top revenue producers despite their minuscule market size. And even without Favre, the young and well-rounded Pack could be contenders for the next several years.
13. Seattle Seahawks – Paul Allen: It's not necessarily fair, but I always measure Allen against his massive potential – and the Microsoft co-founder inevitably comes up short. Reclusive and not particularly consumed by league business, Allen should be joining Kraft, Jones and Snyder in pushing the NFL to uncharted heights. Instead, he dips into his vast fortune to give the Seahawks every chance to succeed, hiring savvy executives like CEO Tod Leiweke and general manager Tim Ruskell and largely staying out of their way. Usually, that's a good thing, but I'm docking Allen points for allowing coach Mike Holmgren to serve out what amounts to a lame-duck season while designated successor Jim Mora works on his staff. It doesn't take someone as brilliant as Allen to realize that such an arrangement could become highly problematic, especially if Seattle struggles in the early part of the '08 campaign. Still, for the most part, Allen is first rate.
12. Baltimore Ravens – Steve Bisciotti: Until last Dec. 31, most league insiders viewed Bisciotti as a checked-out but capable owner who hired good people to run his franchise so that he could tend to more important pursuits, like playing tennis, working on his tan and going to Maryland hoops games. But Bisciotti tomahawked that stigma into submission when he fired coach Brian Billick, who had guided the team to a 13-3 record the previous season (and its only championship six years before that). "I believed that it was time for a change," Bisciotti said at the press conference announcing the firing. "It's a gut feeling. I have one job here, and that's to have a leader that I think gives us the best chance. We have been losing more than winning lately." Bisciotti's peers were like, Wow – look at the, uh, guts on Stevie. If nothing else, the subsequent hiring of no-nonsense John Harbaugh will be a culture shock for the Ravens and pampered veterans like middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Meanwhile, president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome continue to preside over one of the NFL's most effective front offices.
11. New York Giants – John Mara and Steve Tisch: It's tough to imagine these second-generation honchos getting off to a better start. Since their fathers, Wellington Mara and Robert Tisch, died three weeks apart in 2005, John (who oversees the franchise's day-to-day operations) and Steve (a Hollywood producer who has taken an active role in stadium planning) have acted boldly and decisively. Their biggest decisions – hiring Jerry Reese to replace the retired Ernie Accorsi as general manager, retaining the embattled Tom Coughlin as head coach, holding firm during star defensive end Michael Strahan's unofficial holdout last summer – all looked brilliant after the Giants pulled off their stunning Super Bowl XLII upset of the Patriots. Even more important, Mara joined Jets owner Woody Johnson in landing a stadium deal; the franchises will share the $1.6 billion facility being constructed across from Giants Stadium in New Jersey when it opens in 2010. Some owners question how good of a deal the stadium actually is – its projected cost is five-and-a-half times that of Gillette Stadium, which opened in Foxborough only eight years earlier – but the sponsorship dollars should come rolling in, with naming rights expected to fetch up to $1 billion. Though unpopular with the fans, Mara's decision to sell personal seat licenses will allow the team to spend aggressively in the pursuit of more championships. Mara has also been a refreshingly progressive thinker in league circles; one owner calls him "the most exciting thing about our league right now."
10. Philadelphia Eagles – Jeffrey Lurie: There's no disputing that Lurie, with the help of team president Joe Banner, runs a first-class organization that has enjoyed some impressive on-the-field success during his tenure. But some of the organization's recent moves have struck me as a bit bizarre. Coach Andy Reid, who last offseason had to take a leave of absence to tend to two of his sons's legal and substance-abuse problems, has had his power base expanded; a salary-cap specialist, Howie Roseman, was promoted to vice president of player personnel; and the franchise allowed the uncertain status of franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb to become a public relations problem. The team essentially bid against itself before signing former Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel to a six-year, $57-million contract in late February and blew any potential trade leverage by failing first to unload the player he'd be replacing, Lito Sheppard. Still, even in a down year, Lurie and Banner are better than most. They do a good job of bringing in money (thanks largely to a profitable stadium, Lincoln Financial Field) and spend enough to remain competitive.
9. Miami Dolphins – Wayne Huizenga and Stephen Ross: It's tough not to downgrade an owner who oversaw a 1-15 disaster in 2007, but at least Huizenga wasn't complacent in the face of misery. First he outbid Falcons owner Arthur Blank to hire Bill Parcells to run his front office; then he sold half of his interest in the team (for $550 million) to Ross, a real-estate developer whom Forbes ranked last fall as the 68th wealthiest person in the U.S. Ross, who'll have an opportunity to succeed Huizenga as the franchise's managing partner, is a lifelong Dolphins fan expected to share his 70-year-old co-owner's passion for building a winner. "I hate to lose Wayne," one owner says, "but I think the new guy will be a top operator who grows the pie and gets it."
8. Denver Broncos – Pat Bowlen: A proactive big spender who cares deeply about the on-field product, Bowlen has served on virtually every important NFL committee, displaying diligence and commitment in the process. Yet some of his fellow owners believe he has allowed coach Mike Shanahan, who won him a pair of Super Bowls (after three Ultimate Game disappointments) back in the '97 and '98 seasons, to "run roughshod for too long," as one Bowlen admirer put it. Shanahan's virtually unchecked power was affirmed in March when Bowlen fired general manager Ted Sundquist, siding with the coach in a power struggle. If Barack Obama's Democratic convention acceptance speech at the Broncos's state-of-the-art stadium in August is the most exciting thing to happen at Invesco Field between now and January, Bowlen may consider making a change he can believe in.
7. Houston Texans – Bob McNair: Since bringing football back to Houston at the start of the decade, McNair has done virtually everything right, with one glaring exception: The team still hasn't produced a winning record, though things are looking up on that front. That McNair has somehow managed to rank third in sponsorship money and, according to Forbes magazine last September, fourth in franchise value ($1.043 billion), is a testament to his business acumen. He's also an accomplished problem-solver on a league level, despite the bad rap he gets from many of his small-market peers, who wrongly believe the report he submitted as the chair of the league's economic committee two years ago (before the labor agreement was extended) was skewed toward his big-market brethren. Bottom line: The man wants to win desperately, and before too long he'll figure it out.
6. Indianapolis Colts – Jim Irsay: Considering that Irsay's father, Robert, was apparently one of the biggest jerks ever to own an NFL team, I don't want to say that the apple fell far from the tree – rather, it turned into a butterfly, caught a gust of wind and ended up in a lush garden on another planet. Not only is the younger Irsay good people, but he has also become a very good owner who has what virtually everyone in his position wants: A consistent contender only two years removed from a championship, a massive new facility (Lucas Oil Stadium, set to open next month) and smart people (president Bill Polian and Dungy) making his football decisions. Oh, and Peyton Manning. And now this: Thanks to his smooth and persistent lobbying efforts that lasted nearly two years, Irsay got his city a Super Bowl – the 2012 game will be played in Indy, where the Colts' owner is understandably an extremely popular man. He's also regarded as a positive force in league circles, someone sensitive to the concerns of old-school owners while understanding the sensibilities of some of their more forward-thinking counterparts.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Bryan, Joel and Ed Glazer: Like their father Malcolm, who has retreated to the sidelines after suffering a pair of strokes, the Glazer brothers have ensured that what was once the NFL's most miserable organization is now a major player. With a fabulous new training facility and a lucrative stadium situation, the Bucs have thrived in their own market and have made some inroads in the Orlando area as well. Five seasons removed from a Super Bowl title, the Glazers did celebrate a second consecutive Premier League championship – and a Champions League title – when Manchester United (of which Malcolm gained controlling interest in '05) pulled off the double this past May. Unlike so many other siblings in similar situations, the Glazers have consistently presented a united front – and have generated big bucks in the process. They've allowed coach Jon Gruden to go after virtually every quarterback imaginable (is Favre next?) and understand that spending and winning often go hand-in-hand.
4. Carolina Panthers – Jerry Richardson (Mark Richardson): A former player who brought pro football to Charlotte in the mid-90s, Richardson has become a caretaker of the game. He is, as one owner describes it, a consigliere to Goodell. "Whenever there are ugly, messy disputes behind-the-scenes, Jerry's one of the guys Roger uses to go settle it," the owner says. "He doesn't shoot his mouth off, he treats people with respect and everyone likes him." Richardson's status is illustrated by his recent appointment (along with Broncos owner Bowlen) as co-chair of the "CEC" (the NFL Management Council Executive Committee), meaning he'll play a huge role in the upcoming labor talks. Meanwhile, team president Mark Richardson, Jerry's second-eldest son, excels in running the Panthers' day-to-day operations and, as a member of the NFL Network committee, is also highly regarded in league circles. The best thing about the Richardsons? Unlike some of their peers who constantly whine about their market size, they simply work hard and aim high.
3. Washington Redskins – Daniel Snyder: When most fans hear Snyder's name, they blurt out words to describe him that might not be suitable for network television. Here's the first one that comes to my mind: Awesome. Snyder generates revenue like a money-printing machine (his team ranks first in the NFL, at a reported $312 million, and is also atop the league in sponsorship dollars), happily spends it to improve his franchise and makes his players – you know, the ones who destroy their bodies on Sundays for the pleasure of the masses – feel pampered and appreciated. He is the closest thing to former 49ers boss Eddie DeBartolo, and eventually he'll get the rings to prove it.
What went down Sunday at Redskins Park tells you all you need to know about Snyder's ownership style. While attending the Skins' first practice of training camp, Snyder and executive vice president Vinny Cerrato winced as veteran defensive Phillip Daniels went down with a knee injury. On their way to lunch in the cafeteria, they learned that Daniels had suffered a season-ending torn ACL. After sitting down with coach Jim Zorn and defensive coordinator Greg Blache, they began discussing their options. "I want to win," Snyder told the group. "Let's do what we have to do to win." Concluding that disgruntled Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor was by far the best player they'd have a chance to acquire, Snyder gave the go-ahead to make a trade. Before finishing his meal Cerrato was on the phone with Parcells, Miami's executive vice president of football operations, discussing a trade for the 2006 NFL defensive player of the year. By that evening the deal was done, with Washington giving up second- and sixth-round draft picks, and Snyder agreeing to shell out $16 million over two years, the remaining money on Taylor's contract. Because of Snyder's aggressive approach, the 'Skins were able to acquire Taylor before their NFC East rivals, the Giants, could work out a three-way trade with the Dolphins and Saints that would have sent Taylor to New Orleans for second- and fifth-round picks, followed by a swap of Taylor for tight end Jeremy Shockey.
Upon the trade's completion, Snyder sent his private jet to pick up Taylor's wife and children in the Dallas area; it then flew to South Florida to collect the newest Redskins player and transport him to training camp. That's the same jet that, last December, whisked quarterback Todd Collins up to Boston in time to join his wife (who'd been induced into emergency labor) before she gave birth to the couple's son. After Hurricane Katrina Snyder flew tight end Robert Royal to New Orleans to collect his family, who hopped aboard the jet and returned to Northern Virginia. And last December he chartered a 747 to fly the entire team to slain safety Sean Taylor's funeral in Miami. That move wasn't about winning; it was about doing the right thing. When Snyder finally hoists the Lombardi Trophy one of these years, it might be worth biting your tongue – at least in front of the kids.
2. Dallas Cowboys – Jerry Jones (Stephen Jones): Given what the Joneses are in the process of accomplishing in Texas – building the greatest stadium since the Roman Colosseum – it's difficult not ranking them No. 1. A fourth Super Bowl ring in two decades of ownership might put them over the top, and with all the talent they're hording on the Cowboys' current roster, they just may get one come February. Remember that when Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989, he was considered a reckless renegade who would destroy the NFL as we knew it. With help from some like-minded free-thinkers, he did – and his partners should get down on their knees and thank him for that.
Innovative and tenacious in his pursuit of uncharted revenue streams, Jones is obsessed with building a winner and isn't afraid to spend whatever it takes to do so. He'll even overspend to enhance his brand, with the $1.1 billion stadium in Arlington set to open a year from now (on which eldest son Stephen, the Cowboys' cool-headed executive vice president, served as the point man) as the most glaring example. Last month, during his keynote address at the National Association of College Athletic Directors (NACDA) Convention in Dallas, Jones said he could have built the new facility for $700 million. "The reason I'm spending ($1.1 billion) on that stadium in Arlington is because of perception," he told the crowd. "Only a fraction of football fans will ever set foot in it, but hundreds of millions will see it on television." Its impact, he said, extended to "how John Madden talks about it, and how Al Michaels talks about it, and let me assure you that after I've had some time with them, they'll know everything there is to know about it." Here's all I need to know: Among other brilliant touches, Cowboys players will emerge from the locker room and, before charging onto the field, will pass through a club section of low-riser seats filled by high-rollers. "The stadium's gorgeous," one NFL owner marveled. "Every player in the league will want to play there, to be a part of that, and the fans who buy in are going to feel like they're getting value." Jones also understands the marketing value of star power – and actively encourages quarterback Tony Romo to enjoy the fruits of off-the-field celebrity. "I love him – more from a quarterback perspective," Romo says. "For a quarterback, you're judged on winning and losing. And if you don't have a guy in charge who wants to win as badly as you do, you don't have a chance. Jerry gives you a chance."
1. New England Patriots – Robert Kraft (Jonathan Kraft): To appreciate what the Krafts have accomplished, it's important to remember how miserable the franchise was before Robert, a season-ticket-holder in the bad old days, purchased the team 14 years ago. Brief overview: The team usually sucked, the stadium sucked even more and the fans were suitably miserable. Since then – total transformation. The Pats, who had played in one Super Bowl (getting blown out by the '85 Bears) before Kraft took over, have been in five of the past 12, winning three championships. He had the guts and foresight to hire Belichick when the coach was considered toxic waste (one NFL official even called and told Kraft he'd regret it forever if he made the move); he lets Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli make the big personnel decisions; and he is revered by Tom Brady. In league circles, Kraft has been a trusted confidante of Goodell's whose forward-thinking approaches on numerous issues have served his partners well. The Krafts also got a state-of-the-art stadium built for $325 million (which now looks like a bargain) and are in the process of developing Patriot Place, a $350 million retail and entertainment complex near Gillette Stadium. That's right – there'll be something to do in Foxborough more than 12 times a year. In other words, they are miracle-workers.