Change is inexorable in the NFL. The career of players is the shortest of any major sport, and when a team's core stars are no longer able to play at the level they once could, it usually leads to some major changes. The ability of teams to manage and prepare for the inevitable replacement of those players is often the difference between whether the teams are able to maintain a high level of performance or have to go into rebuilding mode. And any time a team does not avoid that dreaded rebuilding, it usually means a change of the head coach, and all the upheaval that entails.
But an even more wrenching transition can happen when a team's owner dies or is otherwise incapacitated without a proper plan of succession in place. An NFL franchise is one of the most valuable operations on the planet, and over the past few years they have proven to be incredibly consistent in their ability to generate profit for their owners. A poorly planned succession can lead to turmoil, as is the case when someone who may not be properly prepared to handle things inherits or buys the team (see, for instance, Dan Snyder). It can be just as bad when a declining owner refuses to turn over control of the business (see Al Davis).
That was brought into sharp focus by the announcement that the owner of the Denver Broncos, Pat Bowlen, is giving up control of the team because of his struggles with Alzheimer's. He has made arrangements for the team to be handled through a trust.
"Mr. Bowlen's long-term hope is for one of his children to run the Broncos at the appropriate time, and his succession plan will continue to be implemented by our organization in compliance with NFL ownership policies."
It is sad to see a man have to give up something he has worked so hard to build for thirty years because he recognizes his own inability to handle things. And there is another sad thing in that, apparently, those children are not ready to handle the organization.
Bowlen is 70 years old. Jerry Jones, owner, general manager, and very much the public face of the Dallas Cowboys, is 71. Not only has he seen one of his fellow owners have to step down, he has also watched four other team owners pass away in the recent past (Buffalo's Ralph Wilson, Tennessee's Bud Adams, Detroit's William Ford and Tampa Bay's Malcolm Glazer).
Bowlen was clearly heavy on Jones' mind during the annual "State of the Cowboys" press conference in Oxnard, when he was visibly emotional and seemed to choke up in concluding his remarks about him. And despite the vigor and good health Jones seems to display, there are inevitably going to be questions about his own plan of succession.
According to him, he has things in hand.
Jones said recently that the NFL requires every owner to sit down with league officials once a year to outline their succession plan and to update them on any changes that may have occurred.
"They can't have chaos among ownership,'' Jones said. "I can't, the Cowboys can't afford chaos because it impacts us all."
Fortunately for the Cowboys, their fans, and the league in general (since Dallas is such a ratings driver), there are probably few teams positioned to make such a smooth transition on the day that Jerry Jones is unable, for whatever reason, to continue in his multiple roles with the team. That is because his three children, Stephen, Charlotte, and Jerry Jr., are all already working daily in the organization. All three are executive vice presidents, and all have their own areas of responsibility. Jerry Jones, Jr. handles marketing, including DallasCowboys.com. Charlotte Jones Anderson is in charge of the brand, which includes that crucial element of the organization, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
But be assured, the guy that will really take over when the time comes is Stephen Jones, currently listed as the chief operating officer. For years, he has been working side by side with his father as a de facto assistant GM. If Jerry were to suddenly decide he was ready to retire and buy a yacht (which he would hopefully name Glory Hole) and sail the world, Stephen would take over things seamlessly. He already has a very good working relationship with head coach Jason Garrett and assistant director of player personnel Will McClay. More importantly, he has had input into all the major decisions of the past several years. There would be no major change in the course of the Cowboys, because the course is one he has helped chart.
You can make the argument that Stephen might actually be better at the GM job than his father. He has seen the mistakes of the past couple of decades and is in a position to avoid making them himself. He certainly is less difficult to follow when he talks to the press.
The bottom line is that the Cowboys should belong to the Jones family for a long time to come. The next generation is well prepared to keep the organization thriving financially. Hopefully, Dallas can also turn the corner on that win/loss thing very soon.