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Thursday, June 30, 2011
Seeking the best? Look for longevity

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Aaron Rodgers
The Green Bay Packers vault over other franchises when it comes to richest tradition.
Longevity has to play a key part in any list of NFL bests in the team category, because that quality helps define "best." Some teams can hit an easy schedule with a healthy roster and make a nice playoff run, but that means little if it can't be repeated. The NFL strives for parity. The worst teams get the best draft choices and a chance at a slightly easier schedule. But only the best can be a contender each season. Here are the bests:

1. Best tradition: Green Bay Packers -- Lambeau Field is considered sacred ground in the NFL, and you can't top the significance of the Packers. Thanks to remarkable fan loyalty and their status as a community-owned team, the Packers can compete with and beat the top cities in the league. Vince Lombardi made the Packers a legacy franchise, and quarterbacks such as Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers -- along with smart front offices -- have kept the tradition alive.

2. Best front office: Pittsburgh Steelers -- The Steelers are the model franchise among all sports. They are in their third generation of family ownership. Art Rooney and his son, Dan, are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Now Dan's son, Art, is running the franchise and is becoming more involved in league matters. The Steelers have had only three head coaches since 1969, the ultimate in organizational stability. They've always had top talent evaluators.

Joe Flacco
Baltimore's gamble on Joe Flacco helped seal its reputation for great talent evaluation.
3. Best talent evaluation: Baltimore Ravens -- General manager Ozzie Newsome is a master at filling needs in the draft and finding long-term starters. Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end, knows how to put together playoff teams. He has a great scouting staff, but his specialty is running his organization like a CEO and making the right big decisions. Though it didn't work out when he drafted Kyle Boller to be Brian Billick's quarterback, Newsome gambled on Joe Flacco, who has been to the playoffs in each of his first three years and will be an elite quarterback in Baltimore for at least the next decade.

4. Best rivalry: Steelers vs. Ravens -- The Bears-Packers rivalry moved closer to the top after the NFC North rivals met three times, including in the NFC title game. But the best rivalry in football is in the AFC North. Steelers-Ravens games are hard-fought battles that have more hard hits than scores. These games are old school but a delight to watch.

5. Best coaching staff: New England Patriots -- Most people outside New England don't know the names of Bill Belichick's assistants. Get to know them. Belichick has found the right formula to developing assistants. Many start in the personnel office and then move to the field. No coach in football gets more out of role players than Belichick, who is a master at recognizing what a player can do and what he can't do. The staff keeps the Patriots ahead of other franchises in what they do on the field.

6. Best quarterback controversy: Denver Broncos -- Tim Tebow is popular among fans but he scares scouts and coaches because of his funky throwing motion. Although there is definitely a trade market for Kyle Orton, an Orton-Tebow training camp battle figures to be the best in football this season. Orton, executing the play calls of former coach Josh McDaniels, was on pace for 5,000 yards at one point last season. Tebow may not be a conventional quarterback, but he's exciting. This will make for great theater.

Jerry Jones
Does Jerry Jones meddle? Yes he does. But he has produced Super Bowl titles.
7. Best meddling owner: Dallas Cowboys -- Jerry Jones may not have recaptured the success he had when Jimmy Johnson ran the front office, but he does everything possible to try to win. As Bill Parcells found out, Jones likes to be general manager along with being the owner. That may scare some coaches away. But Jones cares. He's competitive and wants to win. Dallas Cowboys is one of best brand names in sports, and it's in great hands with Jones.

8. Best non-meddling owner: Indianapolis Colts -- Jimmy Irsay lets football people make the football decisions. His father, Bob Irsay, meddled too much and made life tough for those who worked for him. Like Pat Bowlen of the Broncos, Irsay hires good people and lets them do their jobs. General manager Bill Polian has full authority to do what is necessary to win games. All Irsay does is come to the building and ask if anybody needs anything from him. Having the support without meddling is good enough.

9. Best fan base: Steelers -- Sorry, Packers fans. My apologies, Browns fans. To you, too, Raiders fans. The nod goes to Steelers fans because they find ways of making road games sound like home games. Who can forget the Super Bowl at Ford Field when Steelers fans had more than 75 percent of the seats? I remember seeing Ben Roethlisberger's first start, against the Cowboys. There had to be more than 10,000 Steelers fans at Texas Stadium. How they did that, no one knows.

10. Best training camp venue: Oakland Raiders -- Too bad fans can't see what happens at Raiders camp -- Al Davis closes camp to the public. But there is no better setup in the league. The Raiders stay in Napa Valley. They have space to practice twice a day. Their camp weight room is one of the best. And although players can't enjoy it, there is wine tasting between 4-6 p.m. every day. It doesn't get any better than that.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.