As general manager of the Cleveland Kings, I was intent on doing three things to kick-start my franchise: name an African-American with head-coaching experience as my coach, emphasize defense and special teams in acquiring personnel and win a coin flip with Los Angeles Z's general manager Paul Zimmerman for the first pick in the 1997 draft. My boss, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, is the perfect NFL owner. He wants nothing to do with the football side, and he gave me a blank check and asked for only one thing in return: Get to the Super Bowl by year four or you're fired. Yes, Mr. Gates. Thank you, Mr. Gates. And did I mention what a nice haircut you have, Mr. Gates?
I selected Stanford's Tyrone Willingham to be my coach because his organizational and motivational skills remind me of those of the Carolina Panthers' Dom Capers and because I believe a respected black coach can be an asset in recruiting free agents. Look at the track record of Ray Rhodes, who despite having little bonus money at his disposal in his first two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, attracted big-name free agents like Irving Fryar, Troy Vincent and Ricky Watters.
In determining how to fill my roster, I thought again of Carolina. The Panthers were criticized for signing seemingly over-the-hill defensive players and overspending on specialists, but that approach got Carolina to within one victory of the Super Bowl in only its second year of existence.
As for the coin flip, I called heads, and I'll be damned if my two-headed Tagliabue silver dollar didn't come up that way. The Kings had the first pick in the draft--we deserved it after having been subjected to Zim's cigar smoke while conducting business in the football library of his northern New Jersey home--and that's how the building of this team began.
February 17, 1997
Willingham, offensive coordinator Phil Simms (lured from NBC with some of Mr. Gates's money) and I took the Microsoft jet to New Orleans. Over nouvelle Cajun cuisine in the French Quarter, we courted Tennessee junior quarterback Peyton Manning and his parents, Archie and Olivia. But the Mannings were well aware that they held all the cards. "As you know," Archie began, "Peyton has a year of college eligibility left. He loves Tennessee, loves college ball. He'd make a lot more money coming out next year, when the new network TV contract pumps more money into the salary cap. And Cleveland? Come on. By Halloween the weather there will kill the passing game."
"But, Archie," I replied, "we'll turn Cleveland into Peyton's place. We're going to build him a great offensive line and.... "
At that time I noticed Simms and Peyton had drifted over to a blackboard on which the nightly specials had been written. Simms erased them and now was diagramming plays, with Peyton listening attentively. They talked strategy for 20 minutes. Only after the appetizers had arrived at the table did they return.
"Mom, Dad," Peyton said before diving into his seafood gumbo, "I'm sold. I want to go to Cleveland."
"Waiter!" I hollered. "Three bottles of Dom Perignon!"
Manning will cost Mr. Gates $22 million over the next seven years. But his cap value in 1997 will be only $2.1 million, and with my quarterback situation settled conceivably for at least the next decade, I'm already ahead of at least 25 other NFL teams. When I returned to New Jersey, Dr. Z and I went about the business of building our teams. I was crushed over losing Chad Brown, the best all-around linebacker in the five-year history of unfettered free agency, who signed with the Z's. But I recalled the words of Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Tom Donohoe, who going into last season had survived the loss of 15 starters to free agency over four years. "Don't panic if you don't sign a guy," he told me. "Remember, 22 guys start. Losing one guy won't kill you."
I dropped out of the bidding for Brown at $3.25 million a year, and I am the better for it. Our defensive coordinator, former Carolina linebackers coach Kevin Steele, will use the 3-4, so I knew we had to have a talented set of linebackers. Our starting quartet will crush people, and they'll do it for a combined cap figure of $4.55 million in 1997. What a bargain!
You might not have heard of Mike Jones, which is one reason that I only had to pay him $1.4 million. But I'm betting he'll be our defensive MVP. Jones, a six-year veteran of the Oakland Raiders and a converted college running back, is only 6'1" and 230, but he plays outside linebacker like a kamikaze special-teamer. I brought in reliable Vinson Smith (Chicago Bears) to be the defensive signal-caller at strongside inside linebacker, and Micheal Barrow (Houston Oilers) will man the other inside spot. I'm counting on Barrow for at least 10 sacks, and even at a modest 236 pounds he will provide a physical presence (remember the hit he put on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young last October in the Astrodome?). My other outside backer, Jim Schwantz, is always around the ball. The Cowboys wanted to keep him, but they're so tight against the cap that they couldn't afford another $750,000 salary.
Add our starting down linemen to the mix, and I believe the Kings' front seven is the best in the AFC. My two ends, Michael Bankston (Arizona Cardinals) and Robert Porcher (Detroit Lions), are good against the run, but they can also go get the quarterback. Everyone thought nosetackle Gilbert Brown would re-sign with the Green Bay Packers, but when Brett Favre broke the bank with a contract extension that included a $12 million signing bonus, the Pack suddenly found it couldn't fit Brown under its cap. I used more of Mr. Gates's money to get the services of Brown, who at 360-plus pounds is the biggest and niftiest run-stopper since the Fridge. The Dawg Pound will love this guy, but it won't be throwing dog bones at him. Maybe doughnuts.
Taking yet another page from the Panthers, who hired a wise owl in linebacker Sam Mills to inspire their defense, we outbid the Steelers for cornerback Rod Woodson. Having lost maybe a half step after knee surgery two years ago, Woodson is determined to prove he isn't washed up, and I'm confident he'll regain his standing as the cover corner every team longs for. In fact, he has to be good because the rest of my secondary is shaky. The X factor is seventh-round draft pick Dexter Coakley, a hard-hitting linebacker from Appalachian State who will play strong safety as a pro.
Now for the special teams. While at Penn State, my rookie kicker, Brett Conway, made a 52-yard field goal. My punter, Chris Mohr, killed an AFC-high 27 punts inside the 20 for the Buffalo Bills last season. We also have five of the top-10 special-teamers in the game: Schwantz, Steve Tasker (Bills), Darrick Brownlow (Washington Redskins), Bob Christian (Panthers) and Ed Sutter (Baltimore Ravens). We stole Scott O'Brien, the best young special teams coach in the business, from the Ravens. Hey, turnabout is fair play.
On offense I landed four guys who are key to making sure Manning doesn't have to carry too much of the load early on. He'll hand the ball off to the best free-agent back south of Jerome Bettis, former Cincinnati Bengals rusher Garrison Hearst, and he'll throw it to Tony Martin (San Diego Chargers), now a $3 million-a-year wideout. Martin pushes himself, as Jerry Rice does, through a grueling off-season training regimen, and we'll make sure our young players see that work ethic. Finally, Manning will have two top-notch bodyguards--left tackle Paul Gruber, late of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Steve Everitt (Ravens), the second-best center in the game, behind the Steelers' Dermontti Dawson. The offensive dark horse is tight end Chris Gedney (Bears), a complete package whose four NFL seasons have been shortened by freak injuries. His former coach, Dave Wannstedt, thinks Gedney might be the equal of Packers Pro Bowl player Mark Chmura--if he can stay on the field for 16 games.
To light the fuses of the greatest football fans in America (who, by the way, were so excited about having a team two years earlier than the NFL promised that they decided to drop the Browns nickname and rename the franchise after me), we signed a former Cleveland favorite, 32-year-old linebacker Pepper Johnson, who played last season for the Detroit Lions. And we traded a 1998 fourth-round draft choice to the Ravens for another local hero, Earnest Byner, 34, because I'm a sentimental sap. Byner, of course, lost the Fumble during the 1987 AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos, keeping the Browns from reaching what would have been their only Super Bowl. After we announced the Byner deal, Willingham told me, "We're going to give Earnest the ball on our first play of the season. The crowd'll go nuts."
Yeah, that opener will be something. While our new stadium is being built in downtown Cleveland, we'll play at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. The league called the other day to tell me the Kings will kick off the Monday-night season on Sept. 1 at the horseshoe, against Los Angeles. Kings versus Z's. Peyton Manning versus fellow rookie Pat Barnes of Cal.
I like my chances.
Players are listed by position and in the order in which they
appear on the team's depth chart. Asterisks denote projected
starters. Experience denotes the player's number of years in the
league, including the 1997 season.
Former Team 1997
Player Pos. or School Exp. Cap Value
PEYTON MANNING* QB Tennessee R $2.1 million
WARREN MOON QB Vikings 14 $800,000
DANNY WUERFFEL QB Florida R $140,000
GARRISON HEARST* RB Bengals 5 $1.5 million
CALVIN BRANCH RB Colorado State R $170,500
COREY WALKER RB Arkansas State R $145,000
EARNEST BYNER RB Ravens 14 $600,000
AARON CRAVER* FB Broncos 6 $550,000
BOB CHRISTIAN FB Panthers 5 $300,000
ITULA MILI* TE BYU R $305,000
CHRIS GEDNEY TE Bears 5 $400,000
JIMMIE JOHNSON TE Eagles 9 $300,000
TONY MARTIN* WR Chargers 8 $3 million
STEVE TASKER* WR Bills 13 $700,000
MARK SEAY WR Eagles 4 $350,000
FLIPPER ANDERSON WR Redskins 9 $300,000
KEVIN LOCKETT WR Kansas State R $230,000
PAUL GRUBER* T Buccaneers 10 $2.5 million
TARIK GLENN* T California R $670,000
HARRY SWAYNE T Chargers 11 $450,000
JEROME DANIELS T Northeastern R $232,500
BEN COLEMAN* G Jaguars 5 $600,000
DAN NEIL* G Texas R $545,000
JOE WOLF G Cardinals 9 $400,000
STEVE EVERITT* C Ravens 5 $3 million
JEFF DELLENBACH C Packers 13 $350,000
Former Team 1997
Player Pos. or School Exp. Cap Value
ROBERT PORCHER* E Lions 6 $2.5 million
MICHAEL BANKSTON*E Cardinals 6 $1.7 million
DAMION COOPER E Central State R $318,000
DAVID RICHIE E Washington R $135,000
GILBERT BROWN* NT Packers 5 $2.5 million
KEITH TRAYLOR NT Chiefs 6 $1.3 million
KEITH RUCKER NT Eagles 6 $275,000
MIKE JONES* OLB Raiders 7 $1.4 million
JIM SCHWANTZ* OLB Cowboys 4 $750,000
DARRYL TALLEY OLB Vikings 15 $300,000
MICHEAL BARROW* ILB Oilers 5 $2 million
VINSON SMITH* ILB Bears 9 $400,000
PEPPER JOHNSON ILB Lions 12 $400,000
DARRICK BROWNLOW ILB Redskins 7 $300,000
ED SUTTER ILB Ravens 5 $275,000
ROD WOODSON* CB Steelers 10 $2.1 million
DAVE THOMAS* CB Jaguars 5 $450,000
OTIS SMITH CB Patriots 7 $350,000
D.J. JOHNSON CB Cardinals 9 $275,000
TY HOWARD CB Ohio State R $135,000
SEAN LUMPKIN* FS Saints 6 $400,000
TIM HAUCK FS Broncos 8 $300,000
RAYMOND AUSTIN FS Tennessee R $135,000
DEXTER COAKLEY* SS Appalachian State R $135,000
MATT DARBY SS Cardinals 6 $450,000