In the current era of professional sports, when free agents roam and winning is accomplished with the dollar, the National Football League is an oasis of stability.
There are no easy streets to winning in the NFL, because big spenders can't reverse the pattern of defeat by buying quality players. Nor can superstars abruptly alter a team by leaving for greener pastures. Restrictive rules have tied down players for the long term, making it imperative for owners to follow a blueprint instead of a whim.
That's why there hasn't been a George Steinbrenner in the NFL. George Allen had his moments in the early 1970s. But his disdain for the draft eventually caught up with the Washington Redskins, who still are suffering from a deficiency of young talent. A Steinbrenner would be frustrated by general managers, who are reluctant to trade, and a free agency system that penalizes more than it helps the aggressive talent seeker.
It is far better to imitate the Dallas Cowboys, the franchise that has produced the best winning percentage in the league since the NFL and the American Football League merged in 1967.
"The Cowboys are the ultimate in a coordinated organization," said Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Redskins and self-proclaimed Dallas copycat.
"The Cowboys are severely disciplined," Cooke said. "They are the essence of efficiency and professionalism, beginning with Tex Schramm and aided and abetted, if not emphasized, by Tom Landry. I know of no finer organization in the National Football League."
In Cooke's mind, winning organizations in the NFL are lean and muscular. The losers are loosely operated and inclined to be fat.
George Young, the New York Giants' general manager, put it another way.
"You have to have faith in what you are doing and you have to stay with it," he said. "You have to be dedicated to your beliefs and have everyone else in the organization on the same page. You can't cave in the first time something goes wrong or the first time you get criticized for making the wrong move."
Of course, Dallas is not the NFL's only winner. Since 1967, Oakland, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Miami have compiled the next best winning records. In general, these five teams have certain similiar characteristics. Most have had few, if any, changes in coaches and owners. Most have traded infrequently and relied almost entirely on the draft. Most have put together a nucleus of veteran players who have excelled over long periods.
Oakland's Al Davis has been a bit more willing than the rest to chance trades instead of relying strictly on the draft. But Davis' total control of his organization has allowed him to wheel and deal as he pleases. He has built over a long period without worry of being fired or of having someone else suddenly implement a different approach.
"If the guy at the top keeps changing his mind, it's almost impossible to be good consistently," Young said. "There has to be a stabilizing factor. Then you can implement policy."
Davis also has kept the Raiders competitive despite coaching changes, because they never have wavered from his solid offensive and defensive philosophies no matter what coach was on the sideline.
The Rams also have done well despite frequent changes in coaches, but they benefited from having Don Klosterman as general manager. Still, good coaches seem vital to a team's success. Bud Grant in Minnesota, Don Shula in Miami and Landry in Dallas all rank as among the game's best, and they have been able to adapt to league rule and personnel changes just as quickly as their younger counterparts.
On the other hand, Seattle has had, for the most part, continuity in its coaching staff and front office since joining the league in 1976. But unlike Tampa Bay, which has followed a similar pattern, the Seahawks have not been winners. They have lacked the judges of talent necessary to building a contender; gifted players have been passed up on draft day while they picked lesser athletes.
No teams illustrate the differences between winning and losing in the NFL better than tough Dallas and weakling New Orleans, the aimless 'Aints.
The front office lineup that started with the Cowboys in 1960 still is there: owner Clint Murchison, general manager, and president, Schramm, personnel director Gil Brandt and Landry. The result has been 16 straight winning seasons, 15 trips to the playoffs, five Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl victories.
The Cowboys have relied almost entirely on Brandt's ability to draft players and Landry's ability to coach them, although Schramm has pulled off trades that brought such stars as Randy White, Tony Dorsett and John Dutton.
"There is now a pride in the organization that starts at the top and affects every other employe," Cooke said. "They know they set a standard of excellence in the league and that makes them strive even harder to remain on top."
The Saints began operations in 1967. They have yet to experience their first winning season, having reached .500 just once in 15 years. And now, the team is the target of a grand jury investigation into drug use among the players.
Even though John Mecom has owned the team from the start, he has not brought to the Saints the stability Murchison has to the Cowboys.
Instead, despite advantageous draft positions brought about by their lowly records, the Saints either have made terrible choices or dealt away those high-round selections. In their first three years, they traded one first-round choice and used the others to draft Leslie Kelley, an Alabama fullback, Kevin Hardy, a Notre Dame defensive end, and John Shiners, an Xavier guard. Not until 1969, when Ken Burrough of Texas Southern was chosen in the first round, did New Orleans get a bona fide talent. And as the team continued to lose, Mecom continued to make wholesale changes.
Starting with Tom Fears, Mecom has hired as coaches J.D. Roberts, John North, Hank Stram, Dick Nolan, Dick Stanfel and Bum Phillips. One year, a former Navy aerospace program executive was running the front office. In another, Stram was the man in charge. Then Steve Rosenbloom was brought in from the Rams, along with personnel whiz Dick Steinberg, to bring stability and draft expertise to the organization. That was in December 1979. By January 1981, Mecom had forced out both and had employed Bum Phillips as his czar and coach.
Phillips, who played loose and easy with the draft while at Houston, seems more dedicated to building with youth now that he is in New Orleans. But the problem, of course, is that the better clubs ahead of him already are following that pattern, making catching up that much harder.
"It takes time and dedication to become competitive once you fall behind," Cooke said. "That's why patience is so vital. Despite the odds, you can produce a winner if you don't expect immediate miracles. Those miracles are the dreams of fools."