Tier V. Toeing the line.
20. Woody Johnson, Jets
A baby-lotion heir, Johnson has helmed the Jets since 2000. Of the franchise’s 12 playoff victories, half have come on his watch. That’s good. What’s bad is that the unending sound and fury that’s marked Johnson’s reign. There was the ill-fated dalliance with Brett Favre. There was the 13 insufferable months of Tim Tebow. There’s everything coach Rex Ryan has ever said. The buck stops at Johnson, and his Jets have been as much soap opera as football team. The good news is, Johnson seems to have gotten the message. Tebow’s been waived, Ryan muzzled. A new no-nonsense general manager in John Idzik has restored order to what was a crumbling and incoherent roster. Johnson’s Jets are once again in position to win. Now he just needs to keep the chaos at bay.
21. Jerry Jones, Cowboys
If the sole criteria for this list were printing money, Jones would be without equal. The Cowboys were already America’s Team when Jones came aboard in 1989, but it was under ‘ol Jer that they became a worldwide behemoth worth north of $2 billion. Valley Ranch is practically a mint, while Jones has turned the Cowboys into an iconic American brand on par with Coca Cola and Chevrolet. If only he could get out of his own way on the football side of things. It’s not just Jones’ flair for making money that sets him apart from the other men on this list, but his insistence on serving as his own general manager. Truth be told, Jones has been a better GM than given credit for. Widely perceived as a disaster, Jones have nevertheless overseen nine .500 or better campaigns over the past 11 seasons. The problem is, .500 seasons aren’t the benchmark in Dallas — championships are. And Jones is getting worse, growing more incoherent on draft weekend while habitually overpaying his own players. If Jones were the general manager of any other team, he would have been fired long ago. But since he won’t fire himself, he’s dooming the league’s preeminent franchise to T-shirt sale championships instead of football ones.
22. Stan Kroenke, Rams
It would be incorrect to call Kroenke an NFL owner. He is a sports magnate, a man who amasses professional sports franchises the way you or I might collect Buffalo Nickels. Flaunting the NFL’s cross-ownership rules, Kroenke is the de facto owner of the Colorado Avalanche, Denver Nuggets and Colorado Rapids. If that weren’t enough, he became majority owner of the Premier League’s Arsenal F.C. in 2011. Nicknamed “Silent Stan” by his Arsenal “supporters,” the only thing Kroenke is more famous for than hoarding sports teams is his refusal to comment on them. In St. Louis, this has led to great anxiety about the Rams’ future in Missouri. A billionaire many, many times over, Kroenke is (rightfully) dissatisfied with the state of the 19-year-old Edward Jones Dome, but has no plans to fund upgrades or a new stadium himself. Instead, he appears to have his eye on skipping town, which he could theoretically do after the 2014 season. Some in St. Louis believe it’s far too early to worry about relocation. Others say it’s time to panic. All the while, Kroenke says nothing. This may make him a shrewd businessman, but also the archetype of the modern owner who cares not about wins, losses or — God forbid — fans, but only the bottom line. It’s a business, as they say, and no one epitomizes that more than Stan Kroenke.
23. Zygi Wilf, Vikings
As a football man, Wilf is perfectly ordinary. The Vikings have been a .500 team during his reign, and come within a hairbrained Brett Favre interception of a Super Bowl appearance. As a business man? Let’s just say “systematically cheating” his partners is Wilf’s game. He’s been ordered to pay $84.5 million in damages for over two decades of fraud. But it’s not just business partners Wilf is comfortable cheating. There’s also the people of Minnesota, who are paying for roughly $500 million of Wilf’s $976 million new stadium. Wilf, as you may have guessed, is a billionaire. Shady business dealings and leveraging his fans hardly makes Wilf unique amongst NFL owners, but the seeming comfort with which he does so is. Of course, none of this will matter to the diehards if he brings home a championship. And though Wilf has proven to be a man with a dubious moral compass, he seems to know his way around a football team. He’ll never be mistaken for an asset, but he won’t stand in the way of his team’s ability to win.
24. The Ford Family, Lions
William Clay Ford Sr. — who died in March and left the team to his widow, Martha Firestone Ford — was an eminently decent man. He was not afraid to spend money, and rarely interfered. The problem? He may have been too decent for his team’s good. The NFL can be a league of knee-jerk, hair-trigger firings. Many worthy men have been let go too soon. Matt Millen was not one of those men. Alas, he was allowed to destroy the Lions for not one, not two, but eight years. And not just any eight years, but eight of the worst years the NFL has ever seen. Millen’s tenure culminated with literally the worst year the NFL has ever seen, the Lions’ 0-16 2008. That, in a nutshell, was Ford’s reign as owner, 53 years where the Lions won one playoff game and finished 123 games under .500. The nice guy finished last.
25. Mike Brown, Bengals
Although the Bengals have reached the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, “winning” is something Brown has only recently decided is worth doing. In his 23 years at the top, the Bengals have gone 145-222-1 (.395), winning zero playoff games. This, after the Bengals made two Super Bowl appearances in the ‘80s. A cheapskate of the highest order, Brown doesn’t employ a general manager, leaving himself as the team’s de facto roster manager. This arrangement has worked out inexplicably well in the past half decade, but is not a viable long-term model. The Bengals remain amongst the league’s lowest-spending teams, letting premium talent walk in free agency while refusing to replace it with anything other than veteran spare parts. Brown is the son of a football genius, one of the true pioneers of the game. That’s why it’s such a shame the only thing he’s willing to pioneer is more ways to save money.
26. Bill Bidwill, Cardinals
Bidwill’s move to the desert wasn’t just literal, but figurative. A team that didn’t win much in St. Louis never won in Arizona, producing one winning season and playoff victory in its first 20 years out west. It was only after the Cardinals moved into University of Phoenix Stadium and acquired Kurt Warner that Bidwill decided winning might be more fun than losing. No longer as cheap as the reputation he’ll die with, Bidwill has himself a perfectly-fine football team. That doesn’t make up for the 45 years' worth of football crimes that came before, however.
Tier VI. For sale/in transition.
27. The Bills, For Sale
The Bills didn’t just lose their owner and founder when Ralph Wilson died on March 25, but one of the men who shaped the NFL as we know it today. Wilson may have never won the big one, but he’s one of the reasons the NFL is now the big one of American sports. It’s in this irreplaceable void that you’ll find major questions about the Bills’ future in Buffalo. The Bills play in one of the league’s smallest markets and oldest stadiums. In theory, their lease keeps them in Buffalo through at least 2020, but the vagaries of NFL language appear to leave open the possibility of a move to Toronto. Here’s to hoping the Bills not only find a worthy replacement for Wilson, but one committed to keeping them on the shores of Lake Erie.
28. The Titans, Tommy Smith
Bud Adams had more franchise moves than Super Bowl titles. That’s generally not a good thing if you own a team for over 50 years, but Adams had his club in position for championships multiple times. It just never sealed the deal, despite coming as close as one yard in 1999-2000. Adams could be patient (Jeff Fisher), but also rash (Vince Young, his ill-fated courtship of Peyton Manning). He was a complicated man, one who stole football from his hometown and gave it to another. To younger fans, he’ll be most remembered for an unfortunate double bird. Little is known about Adams’ replacement, son-in-law Tommy Smith, though we do know that, like Adams, he’ll run the team from afar. It’s a brave new world for a franchise that’s only ever known one man at the top, but Smith seems poised to chart a sensible course.
Tier VII. Trending the wrong way.
29. Stephen Ross, Dolphins
Ross means well, he really does. But meaning well doesn’t get you very far in a pool with 31 other sharks. Having struck out on every coach he actually wanted, Ross has decided to remain blindly loyal to his consolation prize, Joe Philbin. It’s a strategy that netted him two years of Mike Sherman calling plays, and the most embarrassing locker-room scandal in recent memory. Three steps slow on every move he makes, Ross will undoubtedly prove three years too slow on firing Philbin. It’s why he couldn’t give his general manager job away last winter, and why the Dolphins haven’t made up any ground on the Patriots in Ross’ six years at the helm. Ross is a nice guy, but as William Ford showed you, they usually finish last in the cutthroat business of NFL football.
30. Mark Davis, Raiders
Mark Davis is not his father. This is both good and bad. Good because Al — visionary though he was — was no longer fit to oversee the day-to-day operations of an NFL football team when he died in October 2011. Always impatient, Al had grown paranoid, and prone to disastrous personnel decisions. A brilliant executive the first 35 years of his career, Al was a dismal one for the final 10. It should be a relief to Raiders fans everywhere that Mark is not this man. The problem is that, where his father wore every football hat known to man, Mark appears to know less about the game than some of his fans. For the most-important decision of his tenure — who would replace Al as general manager — Mark interviewed one man. That man, Reggie McKenzie, has proven woefully overmatched, stunning colleagues with his decisions and perplexing everyone else. But instead of trading in his family’s trademark impatience, Mark has become the rare Davis to be too patient, throwing away another season as McKenzie throws things at the wall in the hope something sticks. Davis was never supposed to be his father, but he wasn’t supposed to be as bad as him, either.
Tier VIII. Alone at the bottom.
31. Jimmy Haslam, Browns
Haslam was gifted with a unique opportunity when he purchased the Browns in 2012: Deliverance. Outside of the Chicago Cubs, the Browns are the most-tortured fanbase in American sports. Haslam could have been the savior, the man who erased Tim Couch, Art Modell and “The Drive." He could have been a new lease on life for a Dawg Pound that’s sick and tired of the jokes and the losses. Instead, he’s become subject of a federal investigation, and employed as many head coaches in 18 months as the Steelers have in 45 years. Haslam isn’t just more of the same in Cleveland, he’s everything that’s wrong with the modern owner. Haslam is an arrogant, rash, amoral man who believes the law doesn’t apply to him. Someone who will cut as many corners as necessary to ensure he gets as many dollars as possible. Someone who — allegedly, of course — spent years ripping off the exact kind of people who make up the bedrock NFL fandom, a bedrock that is gradually being priced out of attending games. Maybe Haslam will beat his federal rap. He is, after all, a billionaire with more lawyers at his disposal than the average man will ever meet. But Haslam will never beat back the impulses that have made him a(n alleged) criminal and clueless owner, for that would require two things he could only dream of: Humility and empathy. Even if he eventually wins, Jimmy Haslam is not a winner.
32. Daniel Snyder, Redskins
Every NFL team has a Wikipedia page. They are quite long, and partitioned by era. Say “1992-2007: The Brett Favre era” for the Packers, or “1979–1988: Fouts and Air Coryell” for the Chargers. For the Redskins, the Snyder years get a drab “Daniel Snyder ownership (1999–present).” Anyone, fan or otherwise, who’s followed Snyder’s reign of error and terror knows that doesn’t do it justice. The Snyder era would be more accurately termed as “The Insult Years: 1999-present.” Aside from losing, insult has been the one recurring theme of Snyder’s ownership. He insults his fans’ intelligence by embarking on misguided rebuild after misguided rebuild. He insults their pocketbooks by making them pay for things like parking even when they walk to the stadium. He insults Native Americans by refusing to change his team’s offensive and antiquated nickname. He insults us all by pretending his ownership is about anything than his own ego gratification. In 15 years on the job, Snyder hasn’t built a football team, but an edifice to ignorance. A study in how little regard an owner must pay his fans in sports’ gilded age. A hollowed-out shell of what used to be one of the NFL’s proudest franchises. Snyder has never won a thing, but we know at least one win is coming. That’s because the day Snyder finally sells his team will go down as the biggest victory in Redskins history.