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January 11, 2011

Stephen Ross’s Slippery Slope

Until about a week ago, Stephen Ross was not really on the radar as an NFL owner. He was most noted for striving to create a Hollywood buzz around the Dolphins in selling minority ownership stakes to celebrities Marc Anthony, Gloria Estefan, Fergie, Jimmy Buffett, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams. However, in retaining Bill Parcells as vice president (read: dictator), Ross delegated control of football operations to a vested professional, a practice that is highly advisable for NFL owners.

Last week, though, Stephen Ross made national headlines in his pursuit of Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh, who attended Ross’s alma mater University of Michigan, had emerged this season as a hot NFL head coaching candidate and, although there has been a long line of college head coaches who have epically failed in the NFL since Jimmy Johnson won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys, Ross certainly could not be faulted in trying to make Harbaugh the new head coach of the Dolphins. However, there was one caveat: the Dolphins had not fired Tony Sparano before wooing his replacement. Sparano was tactlessly left to awkwardly twist in the wind for several days as news emerged that Harbaugh had received an urgent pitch from the Dolphins before ultimately choosing a lesser offer from the 49ers.

Later, Ross claimed never to have made an offer to Harbaugh. The formal offer that Harbaugh did not receive, however, was almost certainly a formality predicated on the Dolphins’ following the Rooney Rule (side note: how fun of a circus would THAT have been if Harbaugh had decided to take the job, Ross fired Sparano, and then the Dolphins scrambled to conduct a farcical Rooney Rule interview). Ross went on to say, “[T]he reason I didn’t tell [coach Tony Sparano about the Harbaugh meeting], and this is probably the first time I ever interviewed [a head coaching candidate] and I’m not really familiar with going through this process, but I never thought it would be national news…We walked into the meeting in Southern California, everybody was asking me about how was your meeting with [Jim] Harbaugh.  They knew every step I’d taken over that last 24 hours.”

For someone who has amassed a net worth of $4.5 billion through savvy real estate investments, this is either an incredibly naive and stupid thing to have said or a blatant lie (which would also be incredibly stupid and naive). He didn’t realize that the pursuit of the hot college head coaching candidate would be national news? REALLY? Does he realize that during the day when it isn’t cloudy that the sky is blue? Did he have previous knowledge that water is wet? Although he admitted to mishandling the situation, he managed to make himself look even worse by deferring accountability and feigning ignorance.

Ultimately, the Dolphins made reparations with Sparano by signing him to a two-year extension through 2013 and giving him an “expanded role” for personnel decisions. It is extremely odd that Sparano was judged to be expendable in favor of a man with no NFL head coaching experience and, one week later, discerned to be worthy of being paid for the next three seasons. If quantified by the dollars and years left on the contract of the inevitable buyout after next season, this definitely seems like a recipe for success.

Despite this “expanded role” role in personnel decisions that Sparano is being so generously granted, Ross has already begun interloping in the Dolphins’ gameplans and overall strategy for the 2011 season. Ross has already told Sparano that he wants to see a more aggressive offense: “Our players are training in [warm] weather. Let’s take advantage of it.  Let’s go with a hurry-up offense.  Let’s wear them down.   You know?  We’ve never done that.  You know?  This isn’t the north, where you just want to take it four yards and a cloud of dust.”

Ross continued, “So I think I look for a different brand, seeing the Dolphins how fans want to see it, and how we win, going downfield, in the days of Dan Marino, the days we all want to go back to.” There are several issues that Dolphins fans should be taking with Ross’s comments. First of all, they publicly undermine the authority of the team’s newly extended head coach whose authority was publicly undermined just last week. Secondly, Chad Henne, Tyler Thigpen, and The Guy Who Used To Be Chad Pennington are the quarterbacks that are currently on the Dolphins roster. If anyone should inspire a team NOT to go with a hurry-up offense with constant deep balls, it is these men.

Stephen Ross has been eminently successful in all aspects of his life and has certainly earned the right to do as he wishes with his football team. However, he has only been an NFL owner for about three years and still has a lot to learn about the nuances of professional football. It would be highly advisable for him to delegate the responsibility of football operations to lifetime professionals who he can trust on a macro level to get the job done to his satisfaction.

In recent years, we have seen the perils of meddlesome ownership in the NFL. The four most conspicuous activist owners, Jerry Jones, Al Davis, Mike Brown and Daniel Snyder, have all seen their franchises struggle immensely. Mike Brown, owner and general manager of the Bengals, has presided over a team where mediocrity would have been infinitely better than the on-field results have been. Since Brown took over the Bengals in 1991, the team is 115-204-1 in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoffs. In that putrid stretch, the Bengals have had just two winning seasons.

Daniel Snyder’s reign of terror with the Redskins has also been an unmitigated disaster. Snyder has been accused by Jimmy Johnson of “building his team like a fantasy football roster” as the Redskins have gone 86-106 under his perpetually meddlesome ownership. Since Snyder bought the team in 1999, the Redskins have had six different head coaches. Current tyrant/head coach Mike Shanahan, who may have even less humility than Snyder (full story for another column), seems poised to make sure there is a seventh sooner than later.

Although Davis and Jones have achieved success with hands-on ownership in the past, there has been none lately. Although Jones has assembled rosters that have made the playoffs six times since 1996, the Cowboys have only won one playoff game and have had six different head coaches in that time.

Since making the Super Bowl in 2003, Al Davis’s Raiders have gone 37-93, had no winning seasons, and gone through six head coaches. For whatever reason, Davis fired coach Tom Cable after the Raiders went 8-8 and showed marked progress this year so next season there will be a seventh.

Conversely, owners Robert Kraft, Jim Irsay, and Dan Rooney of the Patriots, Colts, and Steelers have demonstrated humility and achieved stellar results in delegating control of football operations to Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick, Bill Polian, and Kevin Colbert respectively. Starting in 2001, the Patriots have gone 121-39 in the regular season and won three Super Bowls, the Colts have gone 115-45 in the regular season and won one Super Bowl, and the Steelers have gone 106-54 in the regular season and won two Super Bowls. The teams have combined to have five head coaches; Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy left via retirement and not by dismissal.

Irsay, Kraft, and Rooney certainly do not have minor presences – they are intimately involved in the overall operations of their football franchises. However, they recognize that when it comes to the fielding and coaching of talent, it is best to have people in power whose entire functions in life are to methodically and meticulously build successful football teams.

Stephen Ross deserves a great deal of credit for amassing the fortune to purchase an NFL team. He has been inordinately successful in his lifetime and has every reason to have the utmost confidence in himself to achieve greatness in anything that he puts his mind to. However, if we are to take the last decade of NFL results as evidence, Ross should have the self awareness to realize that he is in dire danger of tumbling down a slippery slope as meddlesome ownership has shown to be a losing strategy.


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