New Owner, Cautionary Tales

Earl Louis “Curly” Lambeau (center). the Green Bay icon finished his coaching career in Washington 1952-1953. Here he’s pictured with his coaching staff.

Washington’s change of ownership signals a beacon of hope for a fanbase long devoid of any. The assumption with such a change is that it will bring improvement. Often the improvement is oversold and under-delivered. The explosive growth in the valuations of professional sports franchises is unlike nearly any other investment. As with most investments, those who bought in early have reaped the largest reward. Those who buy in now, with the market at astronomical levels pay the dearest. The pool of possible buyers is quite small. Recent buyers offer a glimpse of what the new owner might bring to the table. Hint; it’s not particularly reassuring.

Humble Beginnings

It’s worth a moment to recount how we got here.

Even casual football fans are somewhat aware of the humble origins of the National Football League. In 1920 eleven regional football team owners met at Ralph Hays’ Hupmobile car dealership in Canton, Ohio. Teams included such stalwarts as the Akron Pros, the Rochester Jeffersons, and the Muncie Flyers. Most of these teams were owned by individual players sponsored by small businesses. The Bears began life as the Decatur Staleys, named for the A.E Staley Manufacturing Co. Ironically, a new Hupmobile cost more than the value of any of the franchises.

The meeting was held in the Showroom after hours with fenders and bumpers for seating with cold beers set in buckets of ice. These were hail fellows well met if there ever were any. Their agreement established the American Professional Football Conference. Within a few years the branding changed to the NFL moniker. It’s a safe bet that no one in that car dealership foresaw what the League would develop into 100 years later. Also safe is the notion that none of them could even have remotely afforded a modern franchise even with adjustments for inflation. These guys were hardly Rockerfellers or Carnegies.

Ralph Hays’ Car Dealership in Canton, Ohio the site of the meeting establishing the NFL in 1920.

When Dan Snyder bought the Burgundy and Gold in 1999 for $800 Million it raised the value of all the other franchises in the League. The selling price 24 years later was $6.05 Billion. It’s a price tag very few can afford.

Modern Owners

There are roughly three categories of NFL owners today. The first is the bloodline group. New York’s Maras, the Steelers’ Rooneys, and the Lions’ Fords among others are in this category. Then there are the ones born outside of the League, but into enough money to buy in. Rob Walton of the Broncos by way of Walmart is one example. Jimmy Haslam of the Browns by way of Flying J is another. Then there are the nouveau riche who made their money in the Real Estate business, Oil, or as Hedge Fund/Private Equity Fund managers. This last group includes Carolina’s David Tepper and Washington’s Josh Harris. There are winners and losers within each category.

Michael Bidwell inherited the Cardinals from his father. Along the way he must have taken classes at the Daniel Snyder Finishing School. He has been alleged to have created a hostile work environment. When his General Manager was suspended Bidwell procured burner phones to bypass the suspension. And, his on-field product is lacking. With his father aged and ailing Michael quietly took the reins before becoming Owner in 2019. He became enamored with Kyler Murray out of college as the franchise Quarterback. So much so that he hired Murray’s college coach to lead the team. When that failed, with Murray injured Bidwell cleaned house and started over. The team is now 3-10 after last week’s shocking upset of the Steelers. Articles describe “dysfunction” in the organization. This may be turn out to be a replication of Snyder’s reign.

Jimmy Haslam inherited the Pilot Flying J truck stop business from his father. It is a top-5 private company with annual revenues of ~$20 Billion. He purchased the Cleveland Browns in 2012. Eleven years later he has had one winning season…and five Head Coaches. He disastrously drafted Johnny “Football” Manziel with a Number 1 pick. He finished his two-season career with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. After nearly of decade of missteps he hired a very good coach in Kevin Stefanski. Then he made the controversial decision to give DeShaun Watson, up to his ears in legal issues at the time, a fully guaranteed contract for some $230 Million. Fellow owners were not enamored with this move. However, after a decade it appeared Haslam had learned some lessons. His team entered this season with considerable promise. Injuries have made a mess of plans. However, Haslam demonstrated that he could learn. Daniel Snyder never could.

David Tepper’s House of Horrors

The most cautionary tale of new ownership is reserved for Carolina’s David Tepper. The Hedge Fund Manager worth some $20 Billion has made a litter box mess of a nice franchise in Charlotte. The listing of miscues would require a proper scroll to enumerate in any detail. Perhaps most telling was one of his early moves to replace the grass at Bank of America Stadium to artificial surface. The reason had nothing to do with football. Just the opposite is true. It was to facilitate more money-making concerts. Players don’t universally despise field turf. However, they do so by a large majority. His unspoken message to the players was that money was more important to him than them.

Tepper made a deal with Rock Hill, South Carolina, just over the line from Charlotte, for a new team headquarters and training facility. Rock Hill forwarded money. The state began construction on an interchange on I-77 to allow easy access. Contractors were hired. Ground was cleared. In the meantime Tepper pulled out of the project. It’s all in court now. Every entity involved is basically suing every other entity involved. The whole thing is an Attorneys Festival. If memories of Frostburg and Richmond are flashing there is good reason.

Leaving no stone unturned in his quest to completely wreck the ship Tepper is the consummate meddler. He directed Head Coach Ron Rivera to switch defensive alignment form 4-3 to 3-4. It went poorly. He fired Ron mid-season. He then hired college coach Matt Rhule. If you’re finding parallels to Norv Turner and Steve Spurrier it’s purely coincidental…or maybe not. Rhule may end up setting the longevity record for Tepper Head Coach hires at 38 games. David fired him mid-season. He then lucked into Steve Wilks as the interim coach. Wilks got the squad to over-deliver with a heavy power run game. The team was on the ragged edge of the playoff picture. His only sin was that he was a, “Defensive-minded coach.” Tepper let him go at the end of the season. He wanted an “Offensive-minded” guy. On last review there is no designation in the won-lost records for which side of the ball the coach is more skilled.

Tepper’s hire was football lifer and Maryland alum Frank Reich. He was the offensive guru that would mold David’s next prize, a top of the heap draft pick Quarterback. Frank was to assemble a top-flite staff. However, the owner dictated that several staff were to remain including Special Teams’ Coach Chris Tabor. Tepper went big on the draft trading away the team’s top receiver, DJ Moore, their #9 pick, their #61 pick, their 2024 First Round pick, and their 2025 Second Round pick to move to #1 overall. The pick was between Alabama’s Heisman Trophy winning Bryce Young and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud. This is where things get really curious.

Many mock draft boards had Young as the #1 pick. He had a very successful career in college. But, there was one major concern among football people; his size. The architect of the Dallas Cowboys personnel acquisitions for many years was the late Gil Brandt. His hard and fast rules for QBs were simple: Never draft a QB shorter than 6’1″ or with hands less than 9″ from the tip to tip when outstretched. Young is 5’10”. Stroud is 6’3″. The coaching staff wanted Stroud. Tepper wanted Young. He owns the team. He won. If you’re getting flashbacks to the Robert Griffin III situation in Washington it’s not a random thought.

Aside from Young’s bling value the underlying reason may be hiding in plain sight. North Carolina is one of those states that does not require a front license plate. The area is saturated with vehicles adorning the Minion Pro “A” Alabama front plate. The Roll Tide cult is fiercely loyal to their alums, especially those winning the Heisman. It says here that Tepper thought he’d get more fans in the seats with Young than Stroud by drawing in the Alabama faithful. It fits his “Money first” pattern.

With the football people overridden their job was to make Young into an NFL world beater. Rookie QBs have a tough time in general. QBs coming from a dominant college program tend to have a harder time than others. Brock Purdy played all those games at Iowa State behind less-than-stellar lines. He faced pressures often. (He’s also 6’1″ tall.) Young played behind All- Americans mostly against inferior competition. His protection there was better than any NFL QB gets. Adding to the mix is the poor quality of the O-Line in Charlotte. The best receiver was gone. And, the Offensive Coordinator and Reich were not aligned. It was a recipe for disaster. It’s yielded just that. The 2024 First Rounder Tepper traded to Chicago will probably produce the top pick overall. The occupants of the Bears’ McCaskey Hall must regard David Tepper as the gift that keeps on giving.

The week of Thanksgiving Tepper told Frank Reich that he needed to “Fix Young’s footwork.” QBs work on footwork constantly their entire career. Tepper was channeling his inner King Canute with the twist being that he actually believed he could make the tide stop ebbing. Fixing footwork within a week was an absurd order with a predictable result. Within seven days Reich was fired. His staff had turned into a cloak and dagger mess with Tepper loyalists undermining Reich at every turn. Chris Tabor, Tepper’s mole, was elevated to interim coach. The members of the Elizabethan Court would have been quite at home.

The old saw is that two data points don’t constitute a trend, but three data points do. Reich was Tepper’s third in-season firing. The next day he claimed that he was a very patient man. In comparison to what exactly was not specified. Hedge Funds turn on a dime. Ditching an underperformer early is the smart move. The late Jets’ owner Leon Hess famously told new NFL owners that their previous success in business was useless in the football world. It is different. Some take note. David Tepper has not. Although it’s chump change to DT he’s paying Frank Reich $25,000 a day for the next three years to sit at home. Frank earned every dime of it.

Bryce Young, for the moment, is one piece and still standing. It’s probably a safe bet his head is spinning. Whether he develops or not is an open question. Weeds will grow through cracks in concrete. Desirable plants have a harder time of it. In the meantime CJ Stroud is exceeding any reasonable expectation in Houston. It’s the cherry on top of the David Tepper poo pie.

So, is Josh Harris going to be David Tepper 2.0? We don’t know. He ran a tanking operation on his Philadelphia basketball operation that was so audacious the Association had to intervene. There was even a name for it; “The Process.” Washington has suffered through two and half decades of unintentional, yet spectacular tankings. A deliberate one would be a bitter pill at this point. Harris has been willing to be practically invisible once the season started. Despite the pitchfork-and-torch crew yelling for Rivera’s head on a plate Harris has been patient. He didn’t have any appetite to follow Snyder’s example in firing his Head Coach mid-season right out of the chute. Any bonding to a Snyder precedent has been avoided to date. There’s little doubt the proverbial new broom will sweep clean come the start of the off-season, though.

What Harris does after that is the question of the moment.

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