A Kraft-Y Owner Might Be the Best

Alex MarvezCorrespondent IOctober 22, 2008
FOXBORO, Mass. - A periodical naming Robert Kraft the "best owner in sports" rests on a coffee table outside his office.

The large color pictures that hang from the surrounding walls provide justification. Mixed with action shots of famous New England Patriots players are photos of Kraft and coach Bill Belichick celebrating the franchise's three Super Bowl victories this decade.

A fourth Lombardi Trophy seems unlikely this season. But such a failing wouldn't challenge Forbes' proclamation from earlier this year.

In fact, the way Kraft personally handled the devastating loss of the NFL's best quarterback may have even bolstered the claim.

Once Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1, Kraft could have become as emotional as every Patriots fan who wanted New England to seek a veteran replacement rather than playing inexperienced backup Matt Cassel. Kraft could have imposed his will on the team's front office. It's his team -- a potentially great one if Brady were healthy but still pretty darned good with the right player under center.

As the NFL's Oct. 14 trade deadline approached, the Cassel-led Patriots already had more losses in his four starts (two) than New England did in their previous 20 games with Brady. A 30-10 drubbing at San Diego gave more fodder to those who believed the Patriots should act before it was too late.

They didn't.

As big a fan as Kraft is -- he became a season-ticket holder during the franchise's dark days in 1971 -- he continued to trust the judgment of Belichick and top football executive Scott Pioli. They are the ones who got the Patriots this far. Kraft stuck with the duo through Spygate. He wasn't going to change now.

Such loyalty should pay dividends in the long run. Challenging or overruling the judgment of Belichick and Pioli could easily have created a disastrous fission in the NFL's most prosperous working relationship between an owner, personnel executive and head coach.

Simply put, it wasn't worth it.

"When I hired Bill, I hired someone who I believed had a system," Kraft said Tuesday during an interview at Gillette Stadium. "You need a system that is not dependent on any one person. It affects the way we draft people, how the players play. They bring in free agents and draftees who fit the system.

"There are no quick fixes in this business. Throwing around big money, we did that. I've learned. You need to have a solid base foundation and build from that."

Think Jerry Jones would have handled this situation in Dallas the same way had Tony Romo gone down in similar fashion?

The question isn't meant to disparage the NFL's most high-profile owner. Actually, Kraft and Jones share plenty in common. Both have:

- Transformed teams that were a mess before their purchase into three-time Super Bowl champions.

- Taken leadership positions on NFL committees that help shape the league's future.

- Actively engaged in banter with the average fan, unlike some reclusive owners who frequent ivory towers and country clubs. Jones is known to let fans wear one of his Super Bowl rings. Kraft is so down to earth that he and a business associate ate lunch Tuesday at a restaurant alongside other patrons even knowing he would be interrupted by well-wishers and photo-seekers.

- Hired their children as team executives. Jonathan Kraft and Stephen Jones are likely to carry on their fathers' legacies as future team owners.

The family atmosphere spreads into the locker room. Jerry Jones has become personally close with Cowboys legends like Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin. Patriots linebacker/special teams ace Larry Izzo remembers eating pizza with Robert Kraft inside his office before signing with New England as a free agent in 2001.

"That told me as much as he's a big-time owner, he's the kind of guy you can sit down with and shoot the breeze," Izzo said.

Jones and Kraft also successfully parlayed their outside business acumen into NFL prosperity. With Jones completing a new stadium the size of Texas itself, Forbes lists the Cowboys as the league's most valuable franchise at $1.6 billion. The Patriots -- buoyed by a new entertainment complex around Gillette Stadium and gorgeous team Hall of Fame inside it -- are third at $1.3 billion.

But in one major way, Kraft and Jones are three million miles apart in their ownership roles.

Jones doubles as Cowboys general manager, bearing all responsibility for coaching hires and personnel decisions. He believes 20 seasons of hands-on ownership combined with experience culled from playing at the University of Arkansas makes him well-suited for the role.

Since the Cowboys haven't won a playoff game since 1996 and are currently struggling at 4-3, that may not be the case.

There is no doubt that the 67-year-old Kraft is in his element. He runs New England's business side and has others handle the Xs and Os.

Kraft feels better about the 2008 Patriots after Monday night's 41-7 rout of Denver. But he also has realistic expectations for a 4-2 squad wracked by other major injuries besides Brady's. All things considered, Kraft's hope that New England even reaches the playoffs is a realistic goal.

"When someone like (Brady) is taken out of the system, it's almost like -- forgive the analogy -- a dear one in your family passing or not being there anymore," Kraft said.

"But this is a business of quality depth management. The coaching and personnel people have done a great job. I think Matt Cassel has done very well.

"I have a lot of respect and affection for this team."

The feeling is mutual.

"As far as building a franchise, I don't know if you can find a better model than what he's done," said left tackle Matt Light, an eight-year Patriots veteran with three Super Bowl rings. "I just respect the way he does business. Everything is very personal with him and his family. He takes a lot of pride in what he does. He knows every guy in this locker room. If you can say that about your boss, it's pretty good."

Maybe even the best, depending on what magazines you read.

This article originally published on FOXSports.com.

More of Alex's articles can be found here.


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