TBT: Moving franchises and Draft Day

Malcolm Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

As Draft Day unfolds, we look at the cities and franchises involved in NFL moves in Baltimore history, past and present

On Tuesday, Kris Jones provided a link to a fantastic article about the Colts’ departure from Maryland and a personal insight into the way the Baltimore Colts had touched his family.

I have sort of a reverse story in that I lived in Indianapolis until 1998 when I moved to Baltimore. My last memory of caring about the Colts was actually the selection of Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf. I was 16 so I had no particularly strong ties to anything Indianapolis related, and I became a Baltimore fan pretty much that same summer. It certainly helped going to some games at what was once called PSI Net Stadium right off the bat.

The Deadspin article is very captivating for its review of the history of our two teams and cities. One thing that stood out was the commentary from the former mayor of Indianapolis that Indy didn’t steal the Colts, but Baltimore lost them.

It’s unquestionably a self-serving comment (after all that move is his entire mayoral legacy), but I believe that neither view is true. Just as neither is true regarding the Cleveland Browns. That is the basis of what I want to examine today in TBT.

The truth – if we are being coldly rational, without any influence of our fan leanings – is that NFL teams are a business, one of 32, and they are within their rights to base themselves wherever they wish whether we hate it or not.

The crux of the issue is in the circumstances, as always. For instance, an employee is always within his rights to leave his company. Having said that, no one would say that all employee departures are created equally. The way in which you choose to leave is the key.  For example, no one should really begrudge LeBron James going to Miami but his ESPN special to make a big show of it was way out of line - and I think even he knows that in retrospect and probably regrets it.

Thus, it is the circumstances of the departure that casts such an ignominious light on the Colts departure from Owings Mills. Leaving in the middle of the night, while the castle is ransacked by mercenaries, is a very disgraceful way for a team to depart the city it had partnered with for decades. That is what former Mayor Hudnut totally failed to grasp as he puffed up his own accomplishment of bringing in the Colts. It's not the leaving itself, it's the way in which its done. It's like burning bridges and sending angry emails to everyone you don't like on your last day of work.

NFL teams are a partnership with the city like most businesses and more than most – they require tax revenue, lots of it, to fund their major initiatives like stadiums. As a result, the city makes a ton of money off the team’s existence there. It is sort of falsely believed that the city is making some grand investment in the team with nothing return – that is nonsense.  Cities make a ton of money on these teams, too. Fans can complain about what their tax revenue is being used for, but they sure seem to enjoy watching the team still. Everyone benefits from having a professional sports team except maybe the person who does not care one iota for sports.

However, because it’s a business, if another city offers a better deal an NFL team certainly can leave. Plenty of other businesses do it but it goes unnoticed because the sheer sums of money involved are nowhere close to what NFL teams deal with. The simple truth is that some business deals go bad. That is basically what occurred in Cleveland in 1995, nothing more.

The real problem with changing cities though, and the reason more owners won’t do it nor will the NFL approve it, is because it tarnishes the team legacy forever. In effect, the team’s legacy comes to a screeching halt in most cases and has to start over from scratch. All its former stars are now a product of the previous city, with no ties to the current one.

A statue of Johnny Unitas stands at M&T Bank Plaza. It always will, and nothing Irsay or his progeny can ever change that. The entire Colts franchise was ransacked top to bottom by a group of fraternity brothers who made off with countless memorabilia. Decades of coveted team history now exists in someone’s basement. In effect, Bob Irsay allowed his team’s heritage to be destroyed in the span of a single night. Their heritage had to start over because the circumstances of their departure were so embarrassing and cowardly that no other outcome could occur. The question of whether it was worth it for Irsay to move is absolutely fair to ask.

Perhaps that is the reason for the decidedly different directions the franchises took once they left town.

The Colts left in 1984, one year after they drafted John Elway, one of the best QBs in NFL history. Unfortunately, Irsay’s Colts were such a dysfunctional disaster that Elway would refuse to play there. Instead, the Colts would trade him for a few picks that amounted to nothing and bounce around in total mediocrity for years until the 1998 Draft.

Elway meanwhile would go to Denver, where he ended several of the Cleveland Browns’ (and Ozzie Newsome’s in his playing days) best seasons, before winning his final Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 1998 season, the same year that the darkness finally abated at Colts headquarters. The man who ended that darkness, Peyton Manning, would eventually be forced out of Indy by an ungrateful owner.

Jim Irsay may have shed some tears at Manning’s final press conference, but he would later comment that he was frustrated that the Colts only won a single ring in his tenure – almost explicitly blaming Manning that more wasn’t accomplished. Classy stuff to say about a guy who gave Indianapolis 10 straight postseasons almost single-handedly.  Anyway, Manning would be cast out into the waiting arms of Denver under John Elway of all people.

In the final twist of fate, proof that an ironic and unpredictable group of NFL gods out there does exist, it would be Ozzie Newsome’s Baltimore Ravens, the city once scorned indirectly by Elway for the dysfunction of the team’s owner and who lost two times to Manning's Colts in the playoffs, that would end not only the Colts' season, but one of Manning’s and Elways’ strongest teams since 1998 in the 2012 Broncos. Undoubtedly, this satisfied some measure of revenge for Newsome and the remaining Cleveland old guard (like David Modell, Pat Moriarty, and Kevin Byrne) for the losses in the 1980s.

Truly, these NFL gods are a fickle and callous group in determining the fates of men.

Anyway, while the Colts continued mediocrity after moving 1984, the Ravens later built the foundation of a dynasty of excellence after moving in 1996. As is well-known, Baltimore took two Hall of Famers in its very first draft.

The difference boils down to the man running the show – the owner. Forgotten in all the national outrage about Art Modell and Cleveland ’95, is that he was an extremely astute and far-sighted man.

Not only did he basically bring the NFL to television, which is why the NFL rakes in $9 billion annually today, but Modell appointed the first African-American general manager in Newsome.

These are not small accomplishments and they deserve to be heralded, much as Branch Rickey was for having the foresight to employ Jackie Robinson in an era of unabashed racism.

In 1996, on Draft Day, Modell famously wanted Lawrence Phillips but Ozzie Newsome knew that Ogden was the right pick. What did Modell do?  He deferred to his brand new Vice President of Football Operations and Hall of Fame player, a man who had studied under Bill Belichick. Ogden was selected and the rest they say is history.

In 1999, as documented by Ravens VP of Communications Kevin Byrne in his recounting of another Draft Day, Newsome wished to make a trade with the Super Bowl losing team, the Atlanta Falcons.  The Falcons, having just lost to the Broncos all teams in 1998 in the Super Bowl, were in win now mode in 1999 and were willing to part with a first round pick in 2000 for a 1999 second round pick. Brian Billick, a first year head coach, was adamantly against the trade, arguing that he was brought there to win and missing a second round pick was a big deal.

What did Modell do?  He pointed to Ozzie and said "It’s his call." Ozzie made the trade. The Falcons imploded in 1999, which netted Baltimore the fifth overall pick in the draft.

That pick was used on Jamal Lewis, who was almost single-handedly the reason that the offense could muster enough points to let a legendary defense carry the team to a Super Bowl.

Meanwhile as the Deadspin article indicates, Colts owner Bob Irsay had forced his general manager to draft Art Schlichter over Jim McMahon in the early 1980s. Schlicter would totally bust, prove a compulsive gambler, and is now doing time for being a cheat. Jim McMahon went on to quarterback the legendary and Super Bowl winning 1985 Chicago Bears.

The forgotten man in most NFL franchises is often the owner – unless of course he moves the team. However, as the leader at the top, he has the most significant impact on the team than anyone – he hires the coach, and he hires the General Manager, the two most critical positions on any team. As a result, his decisions ultimately decide the fate of teams, of trophies, and of fans like us who emotionally live and die by them.

It might sound like cruel and unusual punishment to suggest that Browns fans should be grateful for Art Modell but that’s exactly what they should be. The Browns were a successful franchise for decades under Modell. He made the hire of Bill Belichick, the best coach of the modern era. He crafted a team that competed for a Super Bowl for years, coming up one play short in several instances. Yes, it’s unfortunate for them that it all unraveled in 1995 but these things happen. Business deals go bad, and the fans are often the ones ultimately shortchanged in a sports business deal gone bad because they are the ones with the emotional investment. Sometimes good things come to an end though, and business especially is cold sometimes.

At the end of the day though, the Browns got their team back within three years, which is basically the equivalent of getting it back immediately given how expensive and time-consuming this process takes normally. The long-suffering Browns are only suffering because the post-Modell regimes have been disasters – not because he cheated them out of something. Modell gave that city success for years and years where today they’ve had none.

Blaming Art Modell for their lack of success is like blaming Julius Caesar for dying 100 years before, while Nero plays his fiddle with Rome burning all around him. Whose fault is it really that Rome is burning? Picking Brandon Weeden at 22, Trent Richardson at 3 (after trading picks to move up), and a litany of other failed picks, GM, and head coach selections since 1999 should be the real target of outrage.

Meanwhile, it might sound like cruel and unusual punishment to suggest that Baltimore fans be grateful for the Colts’ departure in 1984 but I believe that, too, is exactly what they should do.

The Colts at the end of the day were a franchise run by a public drunk who ran his team into the ground year after year. That team is currently owned by another man who was recently arrested for drunken driving and possession.

Thanks but no thanks.

The success they once sustained came on the back of a legend – Johnny Unitas. Later, under Irsay’s son Jim, the Colts put together just one single ring with another legend – Manning.

It’s easy to be good when you have two of the top five QB’s of all time at the helm. People love to blame Jim Caldwell, or Tony Dungy, or Bill Polian, for the under-performing 2000s Colts. But look no further than the man who really runs the show – the owner, Jim Irsay. He hired those men. Just like Bob Irsay had hired the coach who future Hall of Famer Elway said he wouldn’t play for in 1983, thus setting the Colts back 15 years. In the process, those same Colts missed out on Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. These are not accidents and they are not bad luck.

The Ravens meanwhile, under Modell and Newsome, won within four years of leaving Cleveland – and they’ve won a lot since, despite having a big question mark at Quarterback until 2008, and winning a second ring in 2012.

The success that the Colts have sustained has been largely the result of being so incredibly and pathetically terrible, that they earned the No. 1 pick at exactly the right time. The truth is they just happened to stumble into the next best QB prospect of a generation, 14 years after they did the same thing in 1998. Whatever success they sustain, it won’t be because of anything the owner did. They may yet win a title – Andrew Luck is good enough after all – however, so would a lot of teams if they had picked No. 1 in 2012.

It’s hard to feel for the Browns as a team because its hard to feel sorry for an organization that continues to be run by failed leaders who make failed decisions. Jimmy Haslam, a man who will likely be convicted of defrauding his own customers, is just yet another example in a long line of dysfunction. It’s hard to feel for their fans because instead of looking inward, too many of them to often look only at Modell as the source of their troubles. A more rational viewer would see the big picture regarding a team’s move and who the true source of their troubles are.

The Colts meanwhile lack a first round pick, having traded that away to get a 3.0 YPC running back in Trent Richardson. Meanwhile their owner may be looking at some very real legal troubles for his own embarrassing behavior, having been arrested for drunken driving, possession, among others. You tell me which fanbase is better off.

I’ll say it flat out – the Colts departure in 1984 was the best thing ever to happen to Baltimore fans. As Irsay allowed college kids to loot the once proud history of his franchise, Modell continued to make history, hiring Newsome as the first black GM and ensuring that we would enjoy success for years as we have by empowering him. Yes, older Baltimore fans saw their proud history boxed up in the middle of the night, and stolen by college kids, but those Baltimore Colts fans still retain that heritage now – not the Indianapolis Colts. Johnny U’s bronzed statue remains at M&T Bank as proof of that.

For all intents and purposes, that franchise started over in 1984 in every possible way. Mediocrity has been their calling card – even when they have the best QB prospects in two generations at the helm. Last year, Kansas City was en route to a total steamrolling of the Colts before they lost their four best players. New England made it official, winning by three touchdowns.

Steve Bisciotti is no less a visionary in the manner that Modell is, an owner we should be grateful for also. He, too, was farsighted enough to make the tough decisions required of leaders – in his case, hiring John Harbaugh in 2008 despite his modest pedigree as a special teams coach and firing a Super Bowl winning coach in Brian Billick.

As fans of the Ravens we are not assured of anything – not winning, not championships, nor even the guarantee of a future starter from today’s 2014 NFL Draft.

However, when you have had farsighted leaders like Art Modell then, and Steve Bisciotti now, running the team, the Ravens' chances are better than most. It’s easy to feel confident about your future when you work for and follow great leaders. Make no mistake about it that is what separates our leaders at Owings Mills from the Bob Irsays, Jimmy Haslams, and Jim Irsays of the world. That is why the Ravens won multiple Super Bowls with strong teams because teams are what win them.

As Draft Day unfolds, we should be glad that all of the franchises in question elected to exercise their very legal and American right as owners of a business to move their team because it has quite simply been the best thing for us as fans of the Ravens.

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