Few could have guessed that the league's return would become so bloody, bitter and, most of all, emblematic of how power in the NFL truly works. ... The inability of America's most popular sport to occupy the nation's second-largest market since the Rams and Raiders left after the 1994 season had become a running joke. In the past two decades, at least 20 Los Angeles stadium proposals had been designed and junked. An expansion team had been awarded to LA in 1999 but then, mired in red tape, sent to Houston to become the Texans. Many clubs had used the threat of moving to Los Angeles as leverage to build new, publicly financed stadiums. But now, the idea of at least one franchise relocating to LA wasn't just a fanciful notion. It was real. ... Most owners meetings are boring. Some members doze. Groupthink often prevails. Not this time. For hours, the owners argued and traded barbs.
Elway is one of the most famous GMs in NFL history, but when he took the Broncos job, he had the walls of his office replaced with glass so staffers would feel comfortable stopping by. He lets employees leave the office early if they have a softball game to coach or an anniversary dinner to plan, and during the holidays last December, he helped arrange for high-end retailers to visit team headquarters to make Christmas shopping easier. He downplays his fame within the organization but isn't afraid to leverage it externally. An NFL GM who grew up as an Elway fan had a deal with the Broncos scuttled by his team's executives because they feared Elway was fleecing their guy, suckering him with a hard count. For laughs, the bosses left it to their GM to break the news that the deal was off, and he was so conciliatory in doing so, some of the Broncos' staffers on the call wondered whether it might end in an autograph request. ... The hardest thing about being a GM is the stillness of it, sitting around watching film. He never wanted to be a coach because he couldn't explain his own gifts -- the improvisation in the midst of disaster, the routine cross-field throws that sent legions of mimicking high school quarterbacks to the bench. Sometimes he still feels the itch to let one fly, even if his body no longer allows it. ... In 2001, bored after two years in retirement, Elway asked Shanahan for a job with the Broncos. Shanahan said there was no job for him. The next year, hell-bent on proving he was serious about succeeding in his second act, Elway bought an ownership stake in the Colorado Crush, an Arena League franchise. He took on the role of GM and appeared in cheesy commercials with Jon Bon Jovi, owner of the Philadelphia Soul. He wasn't just lending a famous face to a new league. He was grinding, learning every facet of running a football team.
It has always been easy to underestimate Mark Davis. After all, he is known for his wacky bowl cut and silver-and-black suits and for managing the Raiders from the bar at a P.F. Chang's. Since his Hall of Fame father, Al, died six years ago, Davis has been an afterthought in league circles, easy to malign and hard to take seriously. ... Adelson considered the Raiders' move a chance to help him shift a windfall of public money away from a competitor's convention center renovation -- and a chance to enhance his legacy by delivering an NFL franchise to his home city, sweetened by a stake in a gleaming, state-of-the-art $1.9 billion domed stadium and, perhaps, a piece of the team. ... What no one could see then is that, after making good on his word by delivering an American-record $750 million in public funds for the stadium and pledging $650 million of his own money, Adelson would end up furious a year later, feeling that Mark Davis -- the goofy Mark Davis who "surprises people if he can roll out of bed and put on his pants," as a team owner says -- had completely and utterly fleeced him.