Robert Kraft remembers what it was like to be the “new guy” among NFL owners. Back in 1994, when he purchased the Patriots for a then-record $173 million, he didn’t exactly receive a warm embrace from the other 27 NFL owners.
“It’s a very cold room,” Kraft said on Friday. “Everyone fends for themselves in this league. It was 28 partners, now 32, we all own roughly 3 percent. But it’s so competitive, you didn’t have a lot of people who are really trying to be helpful.”
But Kraft will always remember the one man who wasn’t afraid to reach out with advice or lend a sympathetic ear: Steelers chairman Dan Rooney.
“He was special in that he always was welcoming and easy to talk to and tried to be helpful,” Kraft said. “When I had questions, there was no one really to turn to, and he was someone that was really helpful. He was also very loving and gracious.”
Rooney, the Steelers’ longtime owner, died on Thursday at the age of 84. Kraft released a statement on Thursday thanking Rooney for his guidance, saying, “I feel the success we have had as an organization is directly tied to the lessons I learned from Dan.” Friday, while flying to Palm Beach, Fla., for the weekend, Kraft had more to say about the loss of one of the NFL’s old guard of owners.
Running the Patriots was unlike any other business Kraft had experienced, and Rooney was one of the few NFL insiders willing to help.
“We’re living in a world where people don’t bring people together enough, and he was somebody who really did do that,” Kraft said. “When you come into this league cold, you’re used to running a business, where people know the results of the end product, but they don’t know the process. But I think he was helpful to me, when I just had questions I didn’t really have anyone to turn to.”
The memories of Rooney got Kraft thinking about the good old days, when the Patriots had a young franchise quarterback in Drew Bledsoe and were trying to turn around a culture of losing in New England.
“There were two teams that sort of represented what we wanted to build the Patriots into. One was the 49ers, they were fresh off all their Super Bowl victories, and of course the Steelers,” Kraft said. “We particularly liked the way the Steelers, they represented the city of Pittsburgh.
“And I remember after we won — this just came to me, now that you’re asking — after we won our first Super Bowl, he had grandchildren in the area, and one of his grandchildren wrote in school about me and the Patriots winning and what that meant. And I was just thinking, this was a family that owns shares of the Steelers, and he was comfortable sharing that with me and sent me a copy of the article. The young man was 7 or 8 years old. It was pretty cool.”
Countless tributes have poured in from across the NFL to honor Rooney, who represents much of what the NFL strives to be.
A Pittsburgh native whose team adopted the identity of its city, Rooney took over day-to-day operations from his father in 1969, was personally responsible for hiring Chuck Noll, and was part of six Super Bowl championship teams.
He advised three NFL commissioners, helped end two work stoppages in the 1980s, and served on many important league committees. Rooney also leaves a legacy of progress as the father of the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and general manager positions.
“Dan has always led with humility,’’ former Steelers defensive end “Mean” Joe Greene said at Rooney’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 2000. “When things go as planned, Dan is in the background. When things don’t go as planned, he’s in the forefront.”
Kraft said that, now entering his 24th season as an NFL owner, he tries to emulate Rooney’s graciousness.
“It actually impacted me to the point now where when new people come in, I try to be very welcoming,” Kraft said. “Because in the end, we’re only really competitors three hours a year, or six hours in the division. Other than that we’re true partners with aligned interests.”
The Rooney family will hold a public viewing on Monday at Heinz Field from 2-7 p.m.
“I just loved that he was a guy who lived in the same modest house that he grew up in, as I understood it,” Kraft said. “And just really a man of the people and just a great guy.”
DISPLAY OF PATRIOTISM
News hits close to home
Let’s take a look at some issues revolving around the Patriots:
■ The Malcolm Butler situation likely is coming to a head this coming week. The Saints already have stated they won’t sign Butler to an offer sheet by the April 21 deadline, making a sign-and-trade the only way Butler lands in New Orleans this offseason. The draft, which begins April 27, is the likely deadline, as the Patriots might as well keep Butler for 2017 if they’re only going to get 2018 draft picks.
Butler has visited with the Saints, and a trade cannot be executed until he signs his restricted free agent tender from the Patriots. The Patriots could simply ask for pick No. 32 in return (which they traded to the Saints for receiver Brandin Cooks), or a package of mid-round picks.
It’s unlikely that Butler will score a Stephon Gilmore-type deal, ($13 million per year, $31 million fully guaranteed), but as one league source explained it, Butler needs to cash in now. He will be 28 years old next year, on the older side for free agents (Gilmore is 26), and his value is pretty much set after two excellent seasons with the Patriots.
Another season with the Patriots won’t really increase Butler’s value, but he runs the risk of injury or decreased production (he can buy injury insurance, but it can be costly and is often hard to prove “loss of value”).
The Saints would have to give Butler a new contract if they trade for him. Whatever he can get now is probably worth forgoing what he might be able to get next offseason.
■ The Patriots enter the draft with seven picks, but their highest is the eighth pick of the third round (No. 72). Two weeks ago at the owners’ meetings, Robert Kraft noted that maybe the Patriots don’t need high draft picks after acquiring young veterans this offseason — Cooks (23), Kony Ealy (25), Gilmore (26), and Rex Burkhead (26).
“We’ve gotten some younger players who are known entities,” Kraft said. “We’ve made some draft picks high up and they haven’t performed well. So having known value versus not being sure . . . there’s a risk-reward analysis there.”
It’s an interesting debate: Are teams better off acquiring young veterans instead of gambling on the draft? Going the veteran route certainly makes more sense with a soon-to-be 40-year-old quarterback in Tom Brady. But while the young veterans are proven, they have also proven their negatives and limitations.
As for the draft picks, the Patriots released 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley, didn’t have a first-rounder in 2016, and 2015 first-round pick Malcom Brown has had a slow start to his career. For an organization determined to maintain long-term success, the Patriots need to start replenishing the roster with first-round talents.
■ The Patriots’ opening game on Sept. 7 at Gillette Stadium will almost certainly be against the Chiefs, who are coming off a 12-4 season and an AFC West title. A rematch with the Falcons was an option, but they are likely to open the season at home on “Sunday Night Football” to debut their new stadium.
■ The final details of Dont’a Hightower’s new four-year, $43 million contract are in, and a nice chunk is based on him staying healthy. In all four years, Hightower earns $54,687.50 for every game he is active (maximum of $875,000 per season) — or, put another way, he loses that much for every game he misses. Hightower also has $2 million in incentives in all four years — $375,000 if he plays in 65 percent of snaps, another $250,000 for 70 percent, another $250,000 for 75 percent, and another $125,000 for 80 percent, plus $500,000 bonuses for earning first-team All-Pro or making the Pro Bowl on the original ballot.
Hightower has played in all 16 regular-season games once in his five seasons. In 2016 he played in 67.9 percent of snaps, 54.3 percent in 2015, and 76.6 percent in 2014.
Inside Raiders’ move to Vegas
ESPN The Magazine published a lengthy piece on how Mark Davis, not exactly known as the sharpest NFL owner, pulled off the deal of the century in moving the Raiders to Las Vegas and a $1.9 billion stadium that includes more than $750 million of public funding.
The story, by reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham, was fascinating on several levels and deserves further exploring:
■ The tone of the article suggests that NFL owners were not in favor of this move, despite the 31-1 “yes” vote at the owners’ meetings. The owners are wary of abandoning the prosperous Bay Area for the nation’s 40th-largest city that has never had a professional sports team and is experiencing an economic downturn. Many owners, most notably the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, also were wary of powerful casino magnate Sheldon Adelson worming his way into their exclusive club.
And they were also wary of abandoning their third city in the last 15 months. NFL executive vice president Eric Grubman was simultaneously negotiating a stadium deal with Oakland while Davis was working to get a deal in Vegas.
At one point the owners were so intent on keeping the Raiders in Oakland that they floated the unprecedented idea of paying for a new stadium themselves, so long as Davis sold the team within five to seven years, an idea Davis rejected.
But Davis got a record amount of public funding from Clark County, Nev., the Oakland stadium projects didn’t materialize quickly enough, and the NFL doesn’t say no to free money.
■ Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, the only owner to vote “no,” argued that the Raiders should no longer be included in league revenue sharing, because they downsized their market and are accepting $200 million of NFL funds for their new stadium.
■ Jones’s role in the move also has several owners concerned. Jones’s Legends Hospitality stands to reap a windfall from selling the new stadium’s naming rights, corporate suites, and other non-football revenue, giving him a significant stake in someone else’s team. Robert Kraft makes a cameo, telling longtime friend Adelson in a telephone conversation, “Jerry is running wild. I can’t believe this.”
Jones was able to nudge Adelson out of the process and replace his $650 million in private funding with a loan from Bank of America, which has been the Cowboys’ official bank for the last 25 years. A great factoid from the story: Jones carries only one credit card, and it’s issued by Bank of America.
He’s officially done
Senior director of officiating Dean Blandino surprisingly left the NFL on Friday to pursue television opportunities. According to reports, Blandino will join Fox as a rules analyst alongside Mike Pereira this fall.
The new role is certainly less stressful than the one formerly held by Blandino, whose job description as the head of officiating was to catch grief for explaining and justifying all of the officials’ controversial calls. He also wasn’t a favorite among the officials, many of whom resented having a boss who didn’t have any on-field experience (Blandino’s background was in instant replay).
The timing of the move was especially surprising, given that just three weeks ago the NFL approved a new instant replay system that gave the final say on all replay calls to Blandino. Now the league must quickly find someone it trusts to put in that seat. Former referee Alberto Riveron, No. 2 in the officiating department behind Blandino, makes sense. He already works in the replay room and was going to be involved in making final calls.
Hat tip to longtime Broncos head trainer Steve Antonopulos, who announced last week that he is taking a new role as the team’s director of sports medicine so he can spend more time with his family. “Greek” has been the Broncos’ head trainer since 1980, and his 41 total years with the Broncos are believed to be the most by anyone with a single team . . . Another week, another sign that Tom Coughlin is going to have his hands all over the Jaguars’ day-to-day minutiae. Coughlin, the vice president of football operations, told Jacksonville TV station WJXT, “When the players report, I’m going to be in the weight room watching who the workers are on this team.” That might not be allowed, as only strength and conditioning coaches are allowed to be present during the first two weeks of the offseason program. We’ve said it several times already, but we’ll say it again: Good luck, coach Doug Marrone . . . Eli Manning is in some hot water over the Giants’ game-worn memorabilia lawsuit, but I’d like to see more “proof” than one e-mail provided with no context before concluding that Manning was in on the scheme to defraud collectors . . . Antonio Gates and Julius Thomas have made it fashionable for teams to scout college basketball ranks for tight end talent, and the Chiefs are taking it to a new level. They already have two tight ends on their roster who played college basketball, not football — Demetrius Harris and Ross Travis — and have scheduled predraft visits with three more, per the Kansas City Star: Virginia Commonwealth’s Mo Alie-Cox, Kansas State’s D.J. Johnson, and Texas Wesleyan’s Najeal Young . . . Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski is taking classes toward an MBA degree this spring at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “I want to be prepared for whatever opportunities may come my way outside of just football,” he told the NFL Players Association website. “It’s also a really good example for my kids. They see me working hard to finish something that is important to me.” . . . Tom Brady played 18 holes at Augusta National the week before the Masters with Jordan Spieth, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, and club member Jimmy Dunne. The word in Augusta was that Spieth-Dunne defeated Brady-Plank, Brady was a big off the tee but had accuracy issues, and poor Spieth put another one in the water on No. 12.
Tony Romo, the Cowboys’ all-time leading passer, announced his retirement after playing in just five games over the last two seasons. The four-time Pro Bowler, who will enter the broadcast booth, completed more than 65 percent of his passes since 2006. Romo is one of just seven players to have a completion percentage north of 65 percent in that span (minimum 500 attempts).
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.