"I sell hope, kid."
That's what Art Modell would tell me, regarding his role as owner of the Cleveland Browns and then the Baltimore Ravens. Giving fans hope, giving them a competitive team and, most importantly, giving them a good show -- these things were extremely important to Art. I spent almost 11 years of my NFL career on his payroll, all of them in Cleveland. And Modell, who passed away at age 87 on Thursday, was a wonderful owner to work for.
Art Buchwald, a humorist/journalist who was one of Modell's favorite people, once said, "The best things in life aren't things." Art Modell's life was not about "things." He had a unique sense of humor, an admirable knack for generosity and a vision that expanded beyond our wildest dreams.
Art loved humor and he lived to tell jokes. Even if you had heard a joke a million times before, Art could still make you laugh because of his great sense of timing and delivery. He was part Jack Benny, part Henny Youngman. He inserted humor into any situation on a daily basis. He loved to laugh, but more importantly, he loved to make you laugh. Art had a vaudevillian personality that made you feel comfortable the minute you were introduced to him. Sitting around the lunch table at the old Municipal Stadium was one of the highlights of my young career, as Art loved an audience and knew how to work a room.
Art's generosity was not just limited to signing checks and giving money to numerous charities. His true generosity as an owner was allowing you to work your craft, to perfect your craft -- giving you the tools you needed to become the best at your craft. He was an owner who deeply cared about his team and stayed involved, but also allowed you the freedom to do your job. His business was the team, which meant he came to work every day with intentions to do whatever was needed to make the team better. His willingness to provide assistance and heartfelt advice was the real mark of his generosity. Many people in and out of the league benefited from Art's giving.
Management guru Peter Drucker once said, "The best way to predict the future is to create it." Art's vision helped create a better league, a better game for everyone involved -- especially the fans. His comedic timing benefitted him when dealing with broader issues. He was a natural salesman and a natural fan, so working to provide a better fan experience was a labor of love. From doubleheader preseason games to Monday Night Football, Art was not afraid of implementing change. He embraced new ideas and never had a problem admitting a mistake. Art Modell had an entrepreneurial spirit and deeply wanted to make the game better for the fans.
When Art moved the team from Cleveland to Baltimore -- a difficult and painful decision -- he offered me the chance to join him in a different role. But I declined. My memory of him was as the owner of the Cleveland Browns. That memory was reflected in a letter I wrote him when my Browns contract expired in February of 1998. Here is an excerpt of that note:
When the organization decided to leave Cleveland, I am very glad you allowed me not to accompany you to Baltimore. My heart and memory lies with you as the owner of the Cleveland Browns, not the Baltimore Ravens. Seeing you in that camel hair coat in your loge on a cold day in November, watching the team play, knowing you were going through the emotions of the day is something I will hold onto until the day I die. That memory is something I could not compromise.
That memory of Art still shines bright.
I will miss him calling me "kid." I will miss him referring to his beloved wife Pat as "Pat Modell." I will miss his morning calls, his funny jokes, his story-telling and, most of all, his passion for winning. Art Modell's impact on the game we all love will live on forever. And so will the fondness I have for him in my heart.
My sincere condolences are offered to his sons, John and David, as I genuinely loved working for -- and just plain loved -- their father.
Ten thoughts on Week 1
1) Overall depth will be extremely important for all teams this month, as the heat and humidity take their toll on players -- particularly those players who didn't play much in the preseason. Most games in the NFL are decided in the fourth quarter, so teams must keep their players fresh for the final period, especially when playing in uncomfortable conditions on the East Coast in September.
2) DeMarco Murray was really impressive Wednesday night. When he finally got over the mental block of last year's season-ending injury and decided to just run, he was sensational. His power, burst and toughness were striking. The Dallas Cowboys are now 6-0 when Murray has more than 12 carries. Based on his latest performance, I suspect he will have 12 carries before halftime from now on.
3) Tom Coughlin had to hate looking at that game tape on Thursday morning, as the Cowboys beat his New York Giants at their own game: toughness. Dallas controlled the line of scrimmage and finished strong. The G-Men definitely have work to do. New York needs more speed at Mike 'backer. I know Chase Blackburn was an emotional leader down the stretch last year, but he looked a step slow on Wednesday night.
4) The Chicago Bears better be careful with the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Even though the Colts are going through a dramatic philosophical change on defense, they still have two players the Bears cannot single block: Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Bears offensive tackles J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi will be challenged all day. New Colts head man Chuck Pagano is an outstanding scheme coach who will present some problems for the Bears' offense.
5) The Kansas City Chiefs have a huge challenge facing the Atlanta Falcons without Tamba Hali, who is serving a one-game suspension. The Chiefs are banged up on defense as is, with their best corner (Brandon Flowers) missing most of the preseason due to injury. The critical question in this game: Can new Chiefs corner Stanford Routt handle one-on-one assignments on the Falcons' talented receivers?
6) Things are never as bad -- or as good -- as they seem in the preseason, which is good news for the New York Jets. The Jets' defense is better than it looked and will create problems for opponents as the offense finds its way. I don't see Gang Green as the sinking ship most envision, but the Jets really need production from their rookies -- especially receiver Stephen Hill, who will start opposite Santonio Holmes. During Rex Ryan's tenure, only three of the Jets' 18 draft picks have become starters: Hill, fullback John Conner and defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. Of those 18 picks, eight have been spent on running backs and wide receivers.
7) Speaking of the draft ... Ten quarterbacks from the past two drafts are Week 1 starters -- five rookies from April's event and five from the 2011 installment. The key question to assess all season: How many of those 10 teams (Carolina, Tennessee, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Washington, Miami, Cleveland and Seattle) have solved their quarterback issue and have a player capable of winning a title? I would say less than 50 percent of them have a Super Bowl-caliber starter.
8) The Arizona Cardinals are not one of those teams. Their intended (and costly) quarterback of the future, Kevin Kolb, will not be starting on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. However, with the Cards' offensive line situation, keeping starter John Skelton healthy will be a challenge. Try to name the five starters on Arizona's offensive line off the top of your head. It's hard. And it will be even harder to watch that unit try to block the Seahawks' outstanding defensive front.
9) Outside linebacker James Harrison is questionable for Sunday night's game against the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have outstanding depth at the position, so Harrison's absence would not greatly affect the outcome of the game. Chris Carter, a fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft, looks like Pittsburgh's next star rusher. And undrafted free-agent rookie Adrian Robinson could be another find. Both players fit the part for the Steelers.
10) I love opening day in the NFL. But the games are really hard to predict. Teams don't show much in the preseason and special teams trick plays are always highlighted this time of the year. Home-field advantage does not matter as much this weekend -- the teams that can adjust the best are the teams that usually prevail in Week 1. Enjoy the games.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.