The NFL Owner’s Manual on What Not to Do

There is no growth without a little confrontation, especially in the NFL.

Tension is good. Animosity is not just warranted; it’s usually a daily occurrence. The weight can crush a lot of people, but most high-level coaches thrive in this environment. It is high stakes poker with a football, helmets and millions — even billions — of dollars on the line.

In the last seven days we have seen Jim Harbaugh mutually part ways with San Francisco (aka: lose his job), and Chip Kelly become the most powerful man in the NFL not named Belichick.

Harbaugh’s 49ers beat Chip Kelly’s up-tempo Eagles earlier in the year. Harbaugh had his worst year as a pro coach (8-8) and only had two less wins than Kelly. Kelly has never won a playoff game; Harbaugh won five (three on the road). Harbaugh also has one more division title than the king of the no huddle. But still, Harbaugh was essentially shown the door. The irony is Harbaugh didn’t even want the personnel power Chip clearly coveted.

Making it Work

The reality with guys like Harbaugh and Kelly, regardless of their personalities, the owners job is to make sure it works. Your coach is the cash cow.

The major difference in Philly and SF was ownership. One values the head coach as the most valuable individual in the building (which he is), while the other thinks he can replace him like a backup offensive lineman. Let’s take a look at the two situations starting with Philly.

Philadelphia Eagles

Rumors had been flying in league circles for months that the Eagles were every bit as dysfunctional as the 49ers. It was a ticking time bomb, sure to blow up — except it never did. Ownership refused to let it happen.

Jeffrey Lurie‘s team was knocked out of the playoff picture by a division rival led by his former star WR that his coach had WANTED to cut. He didn’t tweet his embarrassment post game, mainly because he is not stupid enough to have a public twitter account. What can be gained from that as an owner? Simple answer – nothing.

What if he had tweeted, “Sorry Eagles fans! We should have done a lot better against Washington.” What does everyone in Philly say the next day? Is Lurie turning on Kelly? Did Lurie wish he still had Desean Jackson? Why even go down that road as owner? Instead, after the season when turmoil broke out in the building between his coach and general manager, it took him less than 48 hours to create and execute a solution. Was this an ideal scenario for Lurie? No, but that’s part of the job. He handled it like he knew what he was doing.

Lurie values a coach more than anyone else. Why? Because it’s the tried and true formula that works in the NFL.

He proved with Andy Reid, who lasted 14 years and was the most successful coach in the history of the franchise that he would stick through the good times and the bad. Like Harbaugh, Coach Reid never won the big one. But also like Harbaugh, he helped a franchise return to their winning ways, helped build a new stadium, made his team nationally relevant all while making his owner a stupid amount of cash. Business was good for everyone.

Reid didn’t talk to the media the day he was fired, but he did speak to the Eagles business employees with Lurie at his side in the cafeteria. There is a level of respect the Eagles’ owner commands through his actions; he doesn’t talk a big game, he just operates one. That’s why since firing Andy Reid, Lurie’s organization has had back-to-back winning seasons and hasn’t skipped a beat. Even when waters got a little rough, he quickly navigated them to quieter seas.

San Francisco

When Eddy Debartolo was forced to give the team to his sister, the York family steered the worst stretch of Niner football in their history owning the team. It wasn’t until her son Jed took over, promoted Trent Baalke and hired the coach from up the road that got them back on track.

Four years later, after two division titles, three NFC championships, a Super Bowl appearance and five playoffs wins – the 34-year-old owner could not get rid of Harbaugh fast enough. Most around the business knew for a long time that York and his right hand man President Paraag Marathe did not get along with Jim. Emotion overruled the bottom line — winning.

This started back in January 2014 when word around the league spread that Harbaugh could be had (traded for). That forced the Browns to make inquiries about a trade. (Anyone call the Seahawks or the Packers about trading for their coach lately? Probably not.) Rumors and leaks continued to undercut the coach — who, for all intents and purposes, is the voice of the organization — yet ownership did nothing to squash the flow of information. Many believe the leak to was the man who signs everyone’s checks, not a great look.

Resolve to Win

The 49er vibe is the opposite you get in Philly where the owner has coaches back 100 percent of the time. The coach is ultimately responsible for putting hundreds of millions in the owners pocket.

I thought the low point of the season was a tweet Jed York sent out Thanksgiving night saying the teams performance was unacceptable. Even a rival, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll came to Harbaugh’s defense. Carroll said his owner in Seattle would never do that. Once the firing (mutual separation) became inevitable after a loss to San Diego in the regular season, many assumed the team would quit on the coach.

They didn’t. They won the last week, gave Harbaugh the game ball and dumped Gatorade on him. Pretty typical when the players hate the coach.

The next day, York gave a press conference which did not go well. He came off as defensive, like he was talking down to his fan base, the essential part of the historic brand that Harbaugh helped to restore. He referenced Bill Walsh countless times, a man who was hired before Jed was even conceived. He acted like he had strong football philosophies that didn’t mesh with Harbaugh’s. He didn’t come off like a leader; more like a guy who did not belong in the seat.

Does York know something we don’t? Did he study under Parcells? Belichick? Hell even Eric Mangini? No. He worked on Wall St. before coming over to work for his parents.

On local radio the next day, it got worse. York was all emotion, coming off as Joe fanboy instead of the leader of the 49ers. While Jeffrey Lurie made swift decisions empowering the most important figure in any NFL organization, York complained to media members about his twitter mentions.

The head coach is not the most important guy in the building. The owner is. In Philadelphia the owner proved why coaches want to work for him, while in San Francisco, the owner gave his two cents on why 28 power may not be the right play for SF moving forward.

Who would you want to coach for?