Another week, another stop on the “Many NFL owners have no idea what they’re doing” train.
It’s amazing, really. So many owners are so successful at running businesses, yet they don’t have the first clue about running a football team.
This week’s installment comes from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who made billions in real estate. When it comes to his football team, he can’t rub buffalo nickels together.
If you’re scoring at home, after Bill Parcells (who was hired by the team’s previous owner, Wayne Huizenga) stepped down as vice president of football operations because he wasn’t comfortable with the “neophyte owner,” Ross kept Jeff Ireland as general manager despite widespread fan protests and helped to hire Joe Philbin as head coach in 2012. After the debacle of the bullying scandal, but not as a direct result, Ireland was fired, and Dennis Hickey was hired as general manager in some sort of weird power-sharing structure with Philbin and executive Dawn Aponte. When that led to a second straight 8–8 season where the Dolphins choked away another playoff berth, former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum was hired as executive vice president of football operations to oversee everyone.
So, basically, Philbin was working for and with his third general manager in as many seasons, since everyone knows Tannenbaum is calling the shots.
Yeah, sure, the Dolphins’ 1–3 start and Philbin’s in-season firing really couldn’t be seen coming a mile away.
You could say the same thing about the Browns, where coach Mike Pettine was hired by Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi. That duo was fired by owner Jimmy Haslem and replaced by current general manager Ray Farmer shortly thereafter. Time’s ticking there as well.
When are these owners going to learn?
Basically, the Idiot’s Guide to NFL Ownership goes like this. You have one of two choices, although neither is a sure-fire winner:
Choice No. 1 is to hire a strong head coach who oversees everything, including the selection of a person to oversee the personnel department. Teams with this approach: the Patriots, Seahawks, Chiefs, Buccaneers, Rams, Saints and Eagles.
Both options have their successes and failures, but those are the only viable options for a franchise. When there aren’t clear lines drawn and there’s blurriness about who really makes the final call, the chances for success dramatically diminish. You can’t do anything piecemeal or you have competing factions and people who didn’t want to work for each other in the first place.
Still, there is hope, even for the most clueless of owners.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft has long acknowledged the mistakes he made early in his ownership career. Kraft sided with personnel director Bobby Grier instead of coaches Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll. When that ended in disaster, Kraft decided to give total autonomy to Bill Belichick, and the rest is history.
But with Kraft, who is smart and knows how to consult with the right people, you figured he would get his act together at some point. Other owners, not so much. Outside of Washington, there isn’t a better example of a clueless NFL owner than Woody Johnson of the Jets (see: Tim Tebow, trade for).
Johnson had the strange partnership of Tannenbaum and coaches Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan. Tannenbaum was the general manager, so he handled personnel but smartly followed the lead of his coach. Not only did that ensure that Tannenbaum did the right thing by giving the coach what he needed to do his job, it kept most of the blame off Tannenbaum.
And then, Johnson completely mangled things. He fired Tannenbaum after the ’12 season, but kept Ryan as coach instead of making a clean break. That’s not a bad decision if you bring in a personnel man who has a history with the coach, but Johnson instead hired John Idzik, who had no ties to Ryan, as general manager. It predictably ended with a subpar 2013 season and a disastrous 4–12 record in ’14.
But ’15 brought new hope for the Jets. After parting ways with both Ryan and Idzik, Johnson first hired a general manager, Mike Maccagnan, to oversee the 53-man roster. He helped make the decision to bring in Todd Bowles as coach, and he is charged with deciding who plays. While it’s not optimal that both Maccagnan and Bowles will report to Johnson (he could end up right back where he was with Tannenbaum and Ryan), at least both knew what they were getting in for when they came aboard.
With everyone within the Jets organization actually rowing in the same direction, the former poster children for dysfunction are off to a 3–1 start. Amazing how that works out, isn’t it?
And if Johnson can look smart and capable, that means there’s hope for guys like Ross, Haslem, Jed York and Shad Khan. Washington owner Daniel Snyder is a whole different category (tyrant division?) since it’s hard to envision a time when he doesn’t have his hands in everything, although the hiring of GM Scot McCloughan was promising.
It’s just sad to see these owners go through these trial-and-error periods that play with countless employees and their families, all because some members of the billionaire boys club need on-the-job training to tell them that running a football team isn’t like having a fantasy team, and that they actually need someone well-versed in the game to do it for them.
Ross is learning that first-hand once again. Will he heed the lessons anytime soon? Time will tell, while a fanbase continues to toil.