When fans try to pinpoint the reasons behind a team’s success or failure, they most often look to players or coaches. The New England Patriots have been dominant for nearly two decades because of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs have soared to the top of the league because of Sean McVay’s play-calling brilliance and Patrick Mahomes’ phenomenal play. Conversely, a team like the Raiders has struggled for so long because they’ve lacked star power both on the field and on the sideline (yes, even Jon Gruden).
That’s the conventional wisdom. People who believe these things are not wrong, of course. Having talented players and a good coach is probably the best predictor of success for an NFL team. But people generally fail to consider an incredibly important aspect of a team that has huge ramifications the field: a team’s organizational structure, particularly at the ownership level.
Whether it’s an individual, a group, or the public, who owns a team matters a lot. Good owners – those who know their limits and surround themselves with good football minds – can take a struggling team and turn it around. Bad owners – those who let their egos get in the way or who can’t properly manage a diverse organization – can take promising teams and drive them into the ground. Decisions flow downwards, not just within football teams but organizations in general, so many of the problems that fans identify on the field really emanate from the top.
Over the last decade, three teams – the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers – have underperformed their potential in large part because their owners (or ownership structures) have stood in the way of success rather than bringing it about.
The Browns have been so bad for so long that nearly all football fans outside of Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati root for them week in, week out. Every year has felt like a perpetual rebuild, and it finally seems like there’s light at the end of the tunnel with Baker Mayfield & Co. in charge. It didn’t need to take this long, however. When owner Jimmy Haslam took over in 2012, he could have brought stability to a franchise that desperately needed it. Bad hires at the head coach position like Rob Chudzinski and Hue Jackson have set the team back. Despite having a top pick in the draft every year, the Browns have mostly whiffed. The team’s failures certainly aren’t all Haslam’s fault, but he hasn’t put the organization in a position to succeed. It seems like the Browns are finally inching closer to being competitive, but this in spite of Haslam’s leadership, not because of it.
The Cowboys suffer a similar fate. Jerry Jones is the perfect example of what can happen when an owner lets his ego get in the way. Rather than hiring a general manager, Jones runs football operations himself, despite being wholly unqualified to do so. He sees himself – not franchise quarterback Dak Prescott or star running back Ezekiel Elliot – as the face of the franchise. And because of him, the Cowboys have dramatically underperformed for years. Jason Garrett should’ve been replaced long ago, but Jones likes him and has kept him around. Players don’t want to come to Dallas in free agency because Jones is notoriously difficult to work for. The team, so close to becoming a serious contender at several points in recent history, has never quite made it over the hump. And as long as Jerry Jones remains owner, the Cowboys probably never will.
Green Bay, unlike the other two teams, has the opposite problem. The team is owned by the public, but shareholders have insignificant voting power, so nobody is really in charge. It is not quite clear who president Mark Murphy reports to, and he may as well have a lifetime appointment because there’s nobody to say otherwise. This organization has made decision-making incredibly difficult; it took far too long to move on from general manager Ted Thompson, just as it has taken far too long to get rid of the incompetent Mike McCarthy. Green Bay doesn’t lack talent. But the organization has no leadership from the top, and the changes the team needs to progress to the next level simply haven’t occurred as a result. Sure, the team has been able to avoid navigating egotistical ownership. But sometimes, having no owner presents just as many problems.
Head coaches can be replaced. Star players can be signed in free agency. But a football team literally belongs to its owner, and when an owner is the main thing holding a team back, overcoming that hurdle can be downright possible. Jimmy Haslam isn’t giving up anytime soon, and Jerry Jones shows no signs of doing so either. Green Bay will likely never be sold to an individual or ownership group. Does this mean that these teams won’t have success? Surely not. But it makes reaching the next level that much harder.
Contact Andrew Ziperski at ajzip ‘at’ stanford.edu.