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,
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
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.