One of the interesting things to me about how sports are understood in America is that people get their information about them mostly through media members who don’t really know what they’re talking about. The average sportswriter knows (privately) that their knowledge isn’t what a lot of people think it is, so they rely on insiders to the sport they cover to give them information. That means that what they say is clouded by the agendas of the information sources.
One enduring belief among sportswriters and sports fans is that owners should just stay out of the affairs of their teams. They should just trust the “football guys” and limit their involvement to hiring and firing those people periodically. This belief exists because those football guys moan and groan about “meddlesome” owners to their media friends, and then every time an owner says something about a football matter, the media people reflexively frame those comments as being detrimental to team success, because what does the owner know about football anyway?
The idea that an owner of a business worth an average of $1 billion should just shut up and sign checks, and leave the management of that business to hired help is pretty absurd. The owner may not be able to judge ankle flexion in a cornerback prospect as well as some scout who specializes in doing so, but he can learn enough football, as a generalist, to participate in the decision making of a business he owns.
I look at what the Navy does, and I think it has to work the same way in the NFL. You have enlisted people, who join up to do a specific job throughout their Naval career, and to become specialists (and eventually experts, if they stick around) in that very specific role. An IT guy in the Navy just does IT work. As they advance in rank, they supervise people doing IT work, and if they become a Chief, they get paid to drink coffee and do nothing. (There’s actually not really a civilian equivalent to a Navy Chief Petty Officer, much to the dismay of many who retire from that rank.)
The Navy IT person from our example learns all the details of his job, and focuses on those details daily. He or she becomes a proficient operator, and their ability to handle their specific tasks becomes a part of making the whole ship successful. Many specialists work in their specialties, and it comes together to form an effective enlisted crew.
A football scout is like a Navy IT person to me; they’re hired to do the same role, day after day, year after year, and they operate within a silo. They’re the experts on the specifics of their job, and they fill a vital, but narrow role within the organization. Coaches are the same way – you come from a specific background with a narrow scope, and while you build up additional knowledge from there, at the end of the day, you only typically go as far as being a head coach.
A Navy officer is not a specialist, but rather is raised intentionally as a generalist. The average officer goes to either the Naval Academy, or comes through an ROTC program, and then goes to surface ship school for nine months. They get assigned to a ship as a Division Officer, with their first tour being in a non-essential area, like Communications Officer.
The Communications Officer is in charge of the whole division of IT people, and s/he learns the key issues of that division, but very little of the detail. Their next tour is in a more important role, like Main Propulsion Assistant or Navigator.
Then they go carry somebody’s briefcase in the Pentagon for two years, and come back and do two shipboard tours as Department Heads, let’s say as Weapons Officer and the Chief Engineer. They've been in every department on a typical surface ship, and they have a good feel for the whole operation. At that point, if they’re good, it’s another shore duty assignment, and then back to the fleet as an Executive Officer (#2 in command), and eventually, as Commanding Officer.
Through that entire career progression, the officer learns the key issues at a high level, across all areas of the ship, and puts it all together into seeing the big picture, and being able to make decisions for the whole ship. The IT Chief is an expert in his area, but isn’t ever going to make a single decision outside that area.
Some NFL owners don’t come up like Navy officers. They buy a team, and move into it as successful businesspeople, and they start learning the specifics of the business they bought. I think of a guy like Shad Khan, who bought the Jaguars last year. He has a lot to learn, and it’s probably appropriate for him to defer to the football people for a while, as he gets up to speed.
Robert Kraft and Pat Bowlen were once businessmen who bought NFL teams, and had to learn the business. Now, they’re people who know football as generalists, and can effectively lead their organizations. That’s the path that Khan is on, but it takes some time.
There are others, though, whose families have owned teams for a long time, who learn the business from the time they’re young. I think of all of the Rooneys and Maras, who learned over the years, and ascended to run the organization themselves. I also think of guys like Stephen Jones, Jonathan Kraft, Jed York, and John Spanos.
York is already far better at running the 49ers than his parents ever were. I strongly suspect that that’s going to be the case for Spanos too, after listening to him talk to Pat Kirwan and Tim Ryan on Sirius Tuesday. He’s still young, but he’s been raised to be a football generalist, having worked on salary cap matters early on, and then moving to scouting. He said he was on the road, visiting 2-4 colleges per week, throughout the college season for several years, and he even talked about ankle flexion. I was really impressed with what I head from him, and so were Tim and Pat.
I think it’s easy to believe that a person with the benefit of a name or a family connection doesn’t deserve success, but to me, if a guy is going to pay his dues, and put in the time like any other college scout, he’s earning whatever success he has. John Spanos is never going to be the GM of the Chargers, but he’s setting himself up to be a good owner someday, through the knowledge and experience he’s gaining now. That’s the same path Jed York took, and I expect that Stephen Jones and Jonathan Kraft will be good owners too, whenever their fathers either croak or retire from running the day-to-day operations of their teams.
Regardless of how knowledge is gained, owners should feel free to participate in the management of their teams. Suggesting otherwise is akin to saying that enlisted guys should be given command of US Navy ships; it’s patently absurd. Who is a guy like Mike Florio to call Woody Johnson a “meddler?” He founded a crappy gossip website, and got lucky that NBC bought it.
I do think that Johnson should probably shut up, and not talk to the media about team matters, because it keeps the media hacks at bay, but behind closed doors, he should be involved in the decision whether to keep or trade Darrelle Revis. The dude is a cornerback who wants to be paid like a quarterback, and that has major cash and cap implications. That’s the kind of high-level decision that an owner MUST be involved with, in a functional organization. If he’s not, he’s letting guys from the silo make decisions that probably go beyond their ability to see the larger picture.
The owner doesn’t necessarily need to decide who’s going to be the team’s sixth-round pick, but he should be part of the discussion of any team matter he wants. In what other business would an owner allow middle managers to ostracize him from the decision-making process, and dictate the destiny of his assets? It doesn’t happen, and it can’t happen.
With the way the media portrays owners, you’d think that the best ones are the ones who are hands-off, relative to football matters, and the worst ones are the “meddlers.” Reality is actually the opposite of that. The most successful franchises are the ones who have owners who are very involved, even if it happens out of the view of cameras, and out of earshot of reporters.
In the last 15 years, the only team that has won Super Bowls with what I’d call hands-off ownership has been the St. Louis Rams, which was owned at the time by Georgia Frontiere. I would call Tampa Bay (Malcolm Glazer) and New Orleans (Tom Benson) borderline. Denver, Baltimore, New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, the Giants, and Green Bay have had engaged owners, or presidents, in the case of the Packers.
Disengaged owners tend to preside over bad programs, which go through cycles of extended futility, and recycling of the football people. I think of the Arizona Cardinals under the Bidwill family, the Detroit Lions under William Clay Ford, and the Cleveland Browns under the Lerner family (especially Randy), as examples. Because the owners can’t or won’t engage, and preside over successful programs, they’re constantly trying to hire outsiders to fill their leadership void.
Quality ownership is the single most important factor to sustained program success in the NFL, and that goes way, way beyond the size of the checkbook. The best owners beat parity, and always have. So don’t let some clown like Florio or Peter King tell you that owners should stay out of football matters. Not all engaged owners are good owners, but all good owners are engaged owners.