Every Wednesday until the Super Bowl, Brian Billick will write a weekly column looking in-depth at different aspects of the modern NFL and will discuss experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting.
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This Sunday in Baltimore, we’ll see two of the league’s marquee franchises facing off against each other, in a contrast of both football and management styles.
Since 1996 the Dallas Cowboys have had eight quarterbacks, six head coaches and a single playoff win.
The Baltimore Ravens began their franchise the same year, and have had the same number of quarterbacks, but only half as many coaches and have celebrated 12 playoff wins and a Super Bowl trophy during that period.
What’s the difference? It’s not the market. Dallas is a much larger and more lucrative market than Baltimore, which finds itself hemmed in between Washington and Philadelphia. It’s not commitment to winning — both franchises are obsessed with the pursuit of excellence in the hypercompetitive environment that is the NFL in 2012.
You might start here: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has his own radio show. I’ll grant that there’s a rationale for that which makes a kind of sense. In an era of non-stop blogging, wall-to-wall sports talk radio and exploding social media, there are admittedly advantages to getting your message out unfiltered. But take a look at the standards against which other teams are judged in this league: In New York, owner John Mara and and GM Jerry Reese do not have radio or TV shows. Neither do Steve Biscotti or Ozzie Newsome with the Ravens, nor Mark Murphy (president) and Ted Thompson (GM) in Green Bay. In Pittsburgh, owner Dan Rooney and Kevin Tolbert would not think of having their own shows.
Jones does, and while that in itself isn’t a huge problem, it’s a symptom of something larger that is plaguing the Cowboys. The game has gotten so big, so demanding, that two things must exist for any organization to be successful. One, there has to be clear-cut distinctions as to what everyone does and what their responsibilities are. The presence of this first condition leads directly to the second, which is that every successful team in the NFL must have a system of checks and balances, recognizing that no one person can have all the answers in today’s multidimensional workplace that is the NFL. The Cowboys don’t have such a system. Instead, they’ve got Jerry.
I’m not piling on Jerry Jones here. He is, in many ways, a dream owner. He is totally committed to the product, will use all his resources to give his team a chance to win, and now with the loss of Al Davis, you could make the case that he may be more knowledgeable, football-wise, than any other owner in the NFL.
But for all his assets, when you think about Jones and all the different hats he wears with the Cowboys, I still have to invoke “the 3 a.m. Rule.”
My 3 a.m. rule is about priorities. When a football person wakes up in the middle of the night — as quite a lot of them do — what’s the first thing that occupies the mind? The answer to that question tells you a lot about who you are and what your priorities are. When Jerry Jones wakes up at 3 a.m., what is he thinking about? Who will fill out the 53-man roster? Who should go on the inactive list this week? How to keep the quarterback from throwing so many interceptions? Or is it the timing for the next pizza commercial? The financing of the monolithic stadium? The reception to the Victoria’s Secret store he just opened up inside the same monolithic stadium? If he’s thinking about any of those last three, you have to wonder about the corollary — who’s waking up thinking about the football issues? And, among the people who are, do any of them truly have the authority to do something about it?
Regardless of the chain of command, or how much an owner may delegate and assign authority, he has the ultimate final say. It is how he uses that authority that distinguishes an owner, and sets a tone for the club. When I wrote the book "More Than A Game" with the author Michael MacCambridge a few years ago, I spoke to Falcons owner Arthur Blank. He said that when he started Home Depot he was smart enough to know he did not know anything about lumber. What he did know was how to hire knowledgeable people and then hold them accountable to the overall success of the organization. Very soon after buying the Falcons, he reached the same conclusions about football, and time has shown that he possesses the same strengths. That clear chain of command and an accompanying mechanism for checks and balances exists in Atlanta, as well as with the Giants, the Ravens, the Packers and the Steelers.
No matter who’s in the owner’s box, the head coach has to have the “eyes” of the players, and they must know all things flow through him. John Harbaugh, Mike McCarthy, Tom Coughlin, Mike Smith and Mike Tomlin all know that when they make major personnel decisions, they’ll need to be able to justify it to their owners, presidents and/or general managers. But in each of those situations the players on those teams recognize they are most accountable to their head coach. Not because they like him, necessarily, or even because that’s how it’s been done since they were playing Pop Warner football. They know they answer to the coach because their organization is structured so that on game day, there is only ever going to be one source of authority.
The problem in Dallas is that it all falls on one person, and that doesn’t just put more pressure on Jerry Jones. It also makes it harder for Jason Garrett to rally his troops, and focus them on the task ahead. And because there’s no system of checks and balances, the owner won’t fire the general manager who’s won just a single playoff game in 16 years because, well… it’s the same person. In the modern NFL, wanting to win isn’t enough in and of itself, and no single person can do it alone.