Picture it: An owner of one of Philadelphia’s major sports franchises, so immersed in the minutia of the sport and league he loves that he stays up late every night, every night, watching games and taking notes, as if he were not an owner but a scout. Then, he surveys those notes and peppers members of his player-personnel department and coaching staff with questions about his team – not their team, not the city’s team, his team – and the league as a whole, to test their knowledge and acumen, to have them prove to him that they were credible by whatever standard he uses to judge credibility.
John Nash doesn’t have to picture it. John Nash lived it. John Nash worked for Harold Katz.
“He’d say something like, ‘Name the 12th man on every team in the NBA,’” Nash, who was the 76ers’ general manager from 1986 to 1990, said in a recent phone interview. “I would say to him, ‘Well, Harold, in order to do that, we’d have to agree on the first 11.’ He’d say, ‘OK, then name the first 11 on every team.’ And he could do it.”
How many terrific special-teams players around the NFL could Jeffrey Lurie identify? Did he dig up the statistic that JJ Arcega-Whiteside’s jump radius was the best in the NCAA, or did a member of the Eagles’ analytics department deliver that datum to Lurie on a silver-plated spreadsheet? Such questions have taken on greater resonance lately, with the NFL draft less than a week away, with the Eagles having undergone a four-win season and an offseason of incredible upheaval. New coach. New quarterback. Same concerns that have existed for a while: that Lurie’s role in the Eagles’ draft process has been growing to the point that he has become too involved in the sorts of football-centric decisions that should be the province of his coaches, his executives, his scouts.
The results of the Eagles’ recent drafts – they have been, on the whole and to be kind, underwhelming – suggest that the team does need to reorganize its chain of command and information. Actually, based on the reporting that has come out over the last few months about the haphazard manner in which Howie Roseman and his staff have arrived at some of these decisions, it’s probably better to say organize instead of reorganize.
It’s certainly possible that the Eagles’ batting average would improve if Lurie stepped aside and let his football guys use their football minds to determine which potential draftees can excel at football’s highest level. But if Lurie has demonstrated anything since purchasing and assuming control of the Eagles in 1994, it’s that he is not content to be a hands-off owner. So if he maintains that posture, if he wants to have a say, perhaps the final one, on a player or a draft pick, what exactly are the people under him supposed to do?
“Owners have the right, in my opinion, to be involved,” Nash said. “It’s their money.”
And they have all sorts of reasons for recommending or demanding that their franchise follow a particular course of action. Sometimes those reasons are to help the franchise win games. Sometimes those reasons are to make the owner more money. Sometimes there are reasons that have nothing to do with winning or money and are never made public. Sometimes those reasons make sense. Sometimes they don’t.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, believing Tom Brady’s insistence that he could continue playing at an elite level into his 40s, aligned himself with “Tommy” and overruled Bill Belichick, who was ready to move on from Brady. Jerry Jones likes to keep the Dallas Cowboys relevant within the nation’s sports/popular culture, and he will make and has made controversial, even infamous, decisions in the name of their remaining “America’s Team.”
Nash became the New Jersey Nets’ general manager not long before the 1996 NBA draft, and Joe Taub, a member of the franchise’s ownership group, told him that it would be preferable if the Nets did not select Kobe Bryant with the draft’s seventh pick. “Joe’s fear was that we would invest time and money in Kobe,” Nash said, “and he’d become a free agent, and like a lot of good players, he’d want to leave the Nets.” Talk about a franchise with an inferiority complex.
Was Katz too meddlesome in the late 1980s and throughout the early 1990s? The Sixers had won an NBA championship less than two years after he bought them. Is Lurie too meddlesome now? The Eagles won the Super Bowl just three years ago. Those celebratory parades can be awfully empowering and intoxicating for an owner. Funny, few Flyers fans seemed to have much of an issue with Ed Snider’s philosophy – that each season represented an all-in opportunity to win another Stanley Cup – and his involvement in implementing it despite the vicious cycle that characterized the final years of his ownership. Determined to win a championship, the Flyers would make a major change only to come up short or set themselves back and create, in their minds, the need for another major change.
“I feel the moves we’ve made have been basically good, have kept us in the hunt year after year after year,” Snider said in a 2014 interview. “Basically, my view is every team makes mistakes, and I can go back and count mistakes we’ve made and count mistakes every other team in the league has made. But I like what we do, and I like how we do it, and we think our fans like what we do.”
Lurie has his own team-building creed: He wants the Eagles to win by scoring a lot of points and relying on analytics, and he wants them always to have a franchise quarterback, because a franchise quarterback generally helps a team score a lot of points … and sell a lot of jerseys. That approach and the people he has assigned to carry it out are deserving of critique and criticism. But waiting for him to back off on his own is probably a waste of time. The only thing that will compel him to change is another four-win season. And another. And another. And the unlikely development, in this football-mad region, that all that losing leads to indifference and empty seats. After all, it’s his money.