The best kind of NFL owner is the kind who either 1.) melts into the scenery while allowing his football decision-makers to make all the right decisions, or 2.) steps out as the front man of a team --- and in some ways, of a city -- that is successful because, dammit, his biggest passion is winning.
Conversely, the worst kind of NFL owner is the one who either 1.) makes himself front and center but either doesn't make the right personnel decisions or hamstrings the people who are supposed to be doing so, or 2.) is the kind of front man who's loud, boisterous and, ultimately, unsuccessful.
We examine the first kind of owner -- the kind of owner you'd most want running your favorite team. This isn't necessarily the best front office in the league, because you can have a front office that has done well at times for an owner who often doesn't do right by his city. A guy like Cincinnati's Mike Brown comes to mind. Or, on the other hand, you can have an owner whose teams haven't been all that good lately but whose passion to win still can galvanize a fanbase. I'm talking about a guy who's a slightly more successful, slightly less obnoxious Jerry Jones.
If I were a fan, these are the kinds of owners I'd want in charge of my team.
10. Pat Bowlen: Since taking over for the Broncos in 1984, the team has had three eras of winning. With Dan Reeves as the coach, with Mike Shanahan as the coach (which led to two Super Bowl titles) and with John Fox as coach. Sure, the Broncos have had some misses (Josh McDaniels, anyone?), but Bowlen's willingness to pay Peyton Manning for some late-career magic certainly looks like a good move at this moment. But Bowlen also has become more invisible in the last few years. "I have short-term memory loss,” he told the Denver Post in 2009. "I know that some of the memories of the Super Bowl championships are fading." Still, with executive John Elway helping run the team, the Broncos are in good shape. Bowlen is one important reason for that.
9. Shad Khan: First off, Khan has the best mustache in the NFL, and that truly has to count for something. Right? Seriously, though, that's one helluva mustache. Aside from his facial hair, though, we don't really have much to go on with how Khan will run the team. He probably kept former general manager Gene Smith a year too long. But considering last season was Khan's first year in control, we can forgive that. And, obviously, we don't know how the Gus Bradley coaching hire will work out. Now, I'm not sure I agree with Khan's idea that the Jaguars can be an international favorite, and I'd be a little worried about the possibility of the Jaguars moving to London. But for a franchise that has averaged slightly more than five wins per season in the past five years, Khan provides something important: the hope that better days lie ahead.
8. Bob McNair: The people of Houston still don't like the idea of what Bud Adams did, taking the original AFL squad Oilers and moving them to Nashville after the city wouldn't help fund a new stadium to replace the Astrodome. That left Houston without an NFL team for six years until McNair was awarded the Texans squad that began play in 2002. Sure, it took the Texans eight years to field a team that produced a winning record (and two seasons after that before they made the postseason), but Houston has changed its fortunes in the past couple years. Really, the Texans have been a bit of a disappointment overall since the organization was established, but credit McNair with giving Houston back its NFL team.
7. John Mara: We enjoy long-lasting family ownership groups, and Mara is part of a pretty good one. His grandfather, Tim Mara, founded the Giants organization in the mid-1920s, and though John Mara didn't take over the team full-time until 2005, following the death of his father, Wellington Mara, New York has had a fantastic run since then, winning a pair of Super Bowls. One of Mara's best moves has been to resist the multiple temptations to fire coach Tom Coughlin. But best of all, Mara still corresponds with fans, as the NY Times wrote in 2012. He was one of the more outspoken owners during the lockout of 2011, but still, Giants fans can't argue with the success that Mara has helped continue since he became co-owner.
6. Arthur Blank: He probably would be higher on this list if he didn't recently pull the typical-NFL-owner move of threatening to move his team (to the suburbs) if he didn't get public funds for a new state-of-the-art downtown stadium to replace a dome that's only two decades old. It's the trend, but it always galls me when billionaire owners demand taxpayer money to help pay for the stadium that they want. But, other than that, you can't dispute that Blank has transformed the franchise since taking over in 2002. Though he missed with the coaching hires of Jim Mora Jr. and Bobby Petrino, Blank and company nailed it with Mike Smith. Now, the Falcons are one of the league's Super Bowl favorites heading into 2013, and that was hardly ever going to be the case if the Rankin Smith family was still running the franchise.
5. Packers fans: After the draft in New York, a couple of us hung out with some female Green Bay fans on the porch of their Manhattan apartment and, for a few minutes, they talked about their Green Bay fandom. Each owned one share of stock in the Green Bay organization, and though they (obviously) have no influence on the team's day-to-day decisions and, in effect, they simply own an expensive piece of paper with the Packers insignia, don't tell them that their ownership in the team is worthless. Because it certainly means something to them. Besides, the fact that the fans own the team always strikes me as such a cool thing.
4. Rooney family: You certainly can't argue with the team's track record with the Rooneys in charge. Which has been the entire life of the franchise, going from Art Rooney to Dan Rooney to Art Rooney II. The franchise is the epitome of NFL stability, utilizing only three head coaches since 1969 (not coincidentally, those three coaches have combined for six Super Bowl titles), and you might not find a better example of owners, general managers and coaches sticking to a long-term plan while maintaining an actual family environment. “Some owners treat you like a rental property,” defensive end Nick Eason told the NY Times in 2009. “They have some maintenance guy to take care of it. They just come by to check on it. They look, and they leave. Mr. [Dan] Rooney comes around. He always sticks his hand out to you. ‘Hey, Nick'-- and I'm like, 'He knows my name?'”
3. Steve Bisciotti: It almost seems like I'd have to place the owner of the reigning Super Bowl champs on the list, but that's not necessarily the case. However, Bisciotti makes it awfully easy to include him. Since he bought the team in 2004, the Ravens have suffered only two losing seasons and, in five of the past seven years, Baltimore has won at least 10 games. Bisciotti doesn't make himself a huge part of the story, but the decision to hire coach John Harbaugh in 2008 has worked out pretty well (firing Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick also couldn't have been an easy move). Luckily for Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome was already in his position when Art Modell sold the team to Bisciotti. According to Forbes, the team has doubled in worth since Bisciotti became owner, but he also understands how to raise morale. After all, this is the text message that he sent Harbaugh during the Broncos' double-overtime win against the Broncos last playoffs: "I've never texted you during a game. We are down 35-28. And I think it's the best game I've ever seen us [play] in the playoffs since 2000. Win or lose I am so proud of the team and proud of you.” Pretty awesome, huh?
2. Jim Irsay: Compared to his father, Bob, who was much maligned by many of the people who knew him, the 53-year-old Jim is an absolute godsend for Colts fans. Even without the shadow of his father, though, Jim Irsay is one of the most fun owners around. He plays around on Twitter, and he gives away free stuff to his followers. Plus, he hires the right kind of personnel -- general manager Ryan Grigson so far, coach Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell (for a time, anyway) -- and the organization's decision to draft Peyton Manning rather than Ryan Leaf in 1998 was obviously a huge difference-maker. But Irsay is an empathetic sort, and the sendoff given to Manning by Irsay and the Colts was representative of the NFL that we'd like to see more often. Not to mention how the team handled Chuck Pagano's cancer scare last season. Irsay is fun, and his team has been successful since he took over in 1997. What's not to love?
1. Robert Kraft: He made the best move of his career in 2000, when he forgave Bill Belichick's past transgressions (his reign as Browns coach, his tight relationship with Bill Parcells) and hired him to lead New England. Thirteen years later, the Patriots have been consistently the best team in the league. Yes, Kraft has had to navigate some rocky moments with Belichick in charge (the Spy-gate controversy that was a complete embarrassment, the fact the team has won only three of its last seven postseason games and hasn't touched the Lombardi Trophy since the 2004 season), but even the most ardent pro-union fan had to be touched by this moment after the lockout of 2011 was over (that photo was taken soon after Kraft's beloved wife had died). Even if you hate all other owners, it's awfully difficult for anybody to dislike Kraft.