Out of Bounds: In the NFL, owners dictate success

On Tuesday, Sept. 30, the termination of Oakland Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin was announced during an ostentatious press conference held by owner Al Davis.

Kiffin had long been considered a lame-duck coach, having fallen out of Davis' favor following a 4-12 record in his debut season. Davis, however, was widely criticized for his brazen remarks during the conference. "I was embarrassed for him, to tell you the truth," said Kiffin.

With his spontaneity, abuse of power and lack of faith in a purported franchise leader, Davis provided a striking illustration of the dangers of clumsy, brash ownership. The firing of Kiffin is the most recent example of how, in the NFL, the competency of the owner is directly connected to the success of the team.

For instance, the Rooney family has owned the Pittsburgh Steelers since their conception in 1933. Pittsburgh has experienced a tremendous amount of success thanks to the ownership tactics of Dan Rooney, who took over in 1975. Rooney's accomplishments have been evident: during his tenure, the Steelers have endured just seven losing seasons, won four Super Bowls, and developed into a symbol of constancy in a league notorious for its perpetual turnover.

This constancy can be most plainly observed in the head coaches under Rooney's ownership. There have been only three over the past 33 years: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin. Whereas Al Davis' 16-game tryout for Kiffin did not produce a quick fix, Rooney's commitment to his coaches has cultivated the growth of long-term dynasties.

Such stability doesn't always foster success, however. In the case of the Detroit Lions, a lack of action by owner William Clay Ford Sr. led to an era of futility rarely seen in professional sports. After hiring Matt Millen as the team's general manager in 2001, the Lions went 31-84 and endured seven straight losing seasons. Millen was ridiculed for questionable personnel moves, such as drafting three straight wide receivers with three straight top-10 draft picks. Following a preposterous five-year contract extension in 2005, exasperated Lions fans were calling for Millen's termination.

So then, why did Ford continue to let the patently incompetent Millen drive the historic franchise into the ground? It essentially boils down to Ford's lack of passion for the Lions. While Rooney had good faith that his hires would turn out for the best, he had a reason for doing so: both Cowher and Tomlin made the playoffs during their first seasons. Conversely, the Millen-run Lions quickly deteriorated into the laughingstock of the NFL, but a dispassionate Ford remained indifferent to the team's putridity. Eventually, Ford's son, the more zealous William Clay Ford Jr., publicly remarked that he would have fired Millen if given the chance. Two days later, on Sept. 24, 2008, Lions fans were finally reprieved of their inept general manager.

When Rooney's organizational stability is coupled with passionate influences such as Ford Jr., it results in what is perhaps the best example of ownership in any sport: the Green Bay Packers. The one-of-a-kind Packers are not owned by a money-hungry, power-tripping billionaire. Rather, the franchise is publicly owned by over 100,000 devoted fans moonlighting as shareholders and unlike most organizations, the Packers are non-profit. If the team is ever sold, all proceeds will go directly to the Green Bay Packers Foundation for charity.

Although the shortcomings of owners such as Davis and Ford Sr. have crippled their respective franchises, the teams' futilities could have been remedied with the addition of patience or passion. Seldom does an ownership achieve a synergy of constancy and fanaticism, but when it does, the success is unparalleled. The Green Bay Packers have won 12 NFL titles in their history, more than any other team. And until Davis or Ford achieves a similar synergy, Lions and Raiders fans alike will have no choice but to enviously watch the Packers and Steelers take the field each January.