An NFL owner must be comfortable with contradiction. In what other industry is a CEO’s most important job staying out of the way? For an owner, nothing is more essential than knowing what you don’t know. Usually, this is football. This means billions are staked on the expertise and whims of others. Unless, of course, you decide you do know football. Occasionally, this works (pre-2000s Al Davis). Almost always, it doesn’t.
This is why it can be rather difficult to discern what makes a good owner and what makes a bad one. Their reputations are largely shaped by other people. No one knows how the Robert Kraft era of Patriots football would have turned out had Bill Belichick not taken a sixth-round flier on Tom Brady. So we judge this group of 32 billionaires based on the crumbs they throw our way. Do their hires pan out? Are they patient? How much do they meddle? Do they milk their fans for every last cent? Are they literally criminals?
It is with that acknowledgement of the gray area that we try to cut through it.
Tier I. Of the best of the best, these are the very best.
1. Robert Kraft, Patriots
Is Kraft the league’s best owner or its luckiest? After all, his visionary head coach is a Browns retread, while his franchise player was a sixth-round draft pick. In an exercise as imperfect as ranking 32 billionaires behind the curtain, it’s not terribly difficult to conflate luck for skill. The truth is that we don’t know. Maybe Kraft is just a run-of-the-mill owner who happened to bungle into two era-defining talents. But whether it was luck, skill or black magic, find Brady and Belichick he did, and no one has won more than Kraft’s Patriots since the 20th century became the 21st. A franchise that was an also-ran — a franchise Kraft almost moved to Hartford — is now one of the league’s best, and it’s hard to imagine Kraft isn’t a big reason why.
2. Jeffrey Lurie, Eagles
You know the Philly-fan stereotype. These are battery whippin’, Santa Claus booin’ hooligans. Win, or else. The truth is far less sinister, of course. Yes, Philly fans have had their share of regrettable incidents, but name a major American city without regrettable fan incidents, and you’re naming a major American city that doesn’t exist. Philly phanatics are not the boogeymen years of confirmation bias have made them out to be. All that being said, Philly is a tough place to play. One of America’s oldest and most populous cities, it has won just two world titles since Ronald Reagan was first elected president, neither of which came from the Eagles. These are proud people hungering for trophies. It is in this climate that Lurie has displayed remarkable patience, sticking with Andy Reid through thick and thin, and sticking with his most recent coaching search until he got the man he wanted. That man, Chip Kelly, could easily prove to be the league’s next Belichick. Lurie may not have a Super Bowl to show for his patience and home-run hires, but playing under the microscope of the fishbowl NFC East, he does have seven division titles in the past 13 seasons. Even in a knee-jerk environment like the NFL, good things come to those who wait. Sooner or later, Lurie will get his title, and it will be deserved.
3. Pat Bowlen, Broncos
Bowlen has owned the Broncos for 30 years — and overseen just five losing seasons. Denver is 289-189-1 under Bowlen’s guidance, and has gone to six Super Bowls. Inheriting John Elway certainly helped, but then again, so did hiring him to be general manager. A passionate man who nevertheless avoids unnecessary tinkering, Bowlen is willing to cut checks. Like the ones that lured Elway into the front office, and Peyton Manning under center. Loyal when you’ve earned it (Mike Shanahan) and decisive when you haven’t (Josh McDaniels), Bowlen provides the kind of level-headed management all owners should aspire toward.
4. The Rooney Family, Steelers
For as long as there’s been Steelers football, there’s been a Rooney at the helm. For as long as there’s been a Rooney at the helm, there’s been winning. Owners of a record six Super Bowl titles, the Steelers have also been the employers of astonishingly few head coaches — just three since 1969. Think about that. Three. When the Steelers’ third-most recent coach (Chuck Noll) was hired, we had yet to land on the moon. Richard Nixon was three years away from re-election. Division-rival Cleveland, meanwhile, has had three head coaches since 2012. Every team, even the Steelers, has rough patches. The difference is that, the Rooneys have the patience to see them through. The Steelers will eventually escape their current stretch of uninspiring football by doing what they’ve always done: Staying the course they set decades ago.
5. John Mara/Steve Tisch, Giants
Tom Coughlin’s Giants may be known for their ups and downs, but as a franchise, the G-Men have had only nine losing seasons since 1984. No other team has won a Super Bowl in each of the past four decades. At the top are the Maras, one of the NFL’s first families. A familial dispute led to the Tischs acquiring half the club in 1991, but only the masthead changed, not the winning. Surprisingly workmanlike for a team in the city that never sleeps, the Giants experience the occasional valley, but another peak is always just around the bend.
6. Packers Fans (CEO Mark Murphy)
Despite its tax-exempt status, the NFL practically defines “big business.” If there’s a buck to be made or a loophole to exploit, the NFL will find it. That’s why it’s so surprising that The Shield boasts the only fan-owned team in major North American sports. Even more surprising is that it’s one of the league’s most successful franchises, winning 13 championships since its inception, including four in the Super Bowl-era. So passionate they’re willing to be seen in public with these on their heads, the Packers’ fan owners gobble up stock to help the team — even when it’s worthless. By the fans, for the fans, the Packers have model ownership.
7. Paul Allen, Seahawks
It wouldn’t be accurate to say a lot has changed for the Seahawks since being purchased by Allen in 1997. That’s because everything’s changed, from the stadium to the conference to the perception. Long one of the NFL’s most listless franchises, the defending-champion Seahawks now roll up near-perfect home records in one of the league’s most intimidating stadiums. Seven of the Seahawks’ eight division titles have come on Allen’s watch, as have both conference championships. A team that was once mocked is now feared. Rarely has an ownership change fostered such a complete transformation.
Tier II. Among the best, but perhaps not as tenured or successful as Tier I.
8. Steve Bisciotti, Ravens
Bisciotti acquired his majority share of the Ravens in 2004. Since, he’s won a Super Bowl, employed only two head coaches and overseen a team that’s won 59.4 percent of its games. The Steelers may be Baltimore’s bitter rival, but Bisciotti’s best move as owner was adopting Pittsburgh’s model. Bisciotti has done the Rooneys one better, however, by entrusting his faith in a general manager who’s not afraid to make tough decisions. While the Steelers face an uncertain future with an aging and over-leveraged roster, the Ravens have a unit that isn’t burdened by the glories — and signing bonuses — of yesteryear. Bisciotti may do little more than set the tone, but he’s set the right one. More often than not, that’s all a good owner needs to do.
9. Arthur Blank, Falcons
Blank’s transformation of the Falcons hasn’t been quite as stark as Allen’s remaking of the Seahawks, but it comes close. When Blank purchased the Falcons in 2002, he was taking the reins of a team that had never had back-to-back winning seasons. That’s quite a feat for a club that had been playing football since 1966. Of course, in the intervening 12 years there’s been some typical Falcons heartbreak. Failures as a No. 1 seed. Last year’s tumble to the bottom of the league. The whole Michael Vick thing. Bobby Petrino. But Blank has instilled two qualities that were only a dream before his arrival: Credibility, and an expectation of winning. They should remain for the entirety of his reign.
10. The McCaskey Family, Bears
When George Halas died in 1983, the Bears lost not only their owner and founder, but one of the greatest men the league had ever known. Halas was the proverbial “impossible act to follow.” You could argue that the Bears haven’t lived up to their tradition since Halas’ passing, but that would be to ignore: Two Super Bowl appearances, 10 division titles and, ohh, just the greatest season in the history of professional football. There’s no question that the Bears have often come up short of expectations since Halas’ death, particularly over the past 20 years. But so is life in a 32-team league with a salary cap. The Bears will be back, but then again, they never really went away.
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