Numbers don't add up for GMs
Even in salary-cap era, 'football men' are favored over financial experts
Virtually every personnel move in the NFL includes an economic component of some sort. But even as the salary cap commands such a prominent role in player movement, the league still values defensive backs ahead of greenbacks in some ways.
At least when it comes to general managers. Unlike in Major League Baseball -- in which more than one-quarter of the game's current general managers possess a background specializing in finances, computer science or even public relations -- the path to most NFL general manager positions is still earned by paying a lot more attention to the 40-yard finish line than the bottom line. Although a few exceptions exist, the playbook still trumps the ledger book in the NFL.
In a league in which the salary cap holds such sway in roster decisions, one might surmise that qualified executives with a background primarily in finance would be promoted into general manager vacancies. It is still unusual, however, for a person to win a general manager's post without being labeled a so-called "football man." Generally speaking, you earn your stripes in the NFL by assessing football talent in such far-flung venues as University Park, Pa.; Lubbock, Texas; and Itta Bena, Miss.
"The salary cap has created more room for the bean counters, and they play an important role with your team," said one AFC general manager, employing the derisive term frequently used to characterize men with mostly financial backgrounds and only a modicum of scouting or personnel experience. "But when it comes to talent, and not cap space, they shouldn't have these [general manager] jobs."
And even in an enlightened NFL, in which financial acumen plays an increasingly significant role, they usually don't.
Only four general managers -- Mike Tannenbaum of the New York Jets, Brian Xanders of the Denver Broncos, Marty Hurney of the Carolina Panthers and Mickey Loomis of New Orleans Saints -- predominantly spent their formative years as something other than a football lifer. Tannenbaum owns degrees in sports law and accounting. The recently promoted Xanders, who played linebacker at Florida State, has dabbled in scouting and coaching in the past, but has spent plenty of time in cap management and computer systems. Hurney is a onetime sports writer. And Loomis principally worked with negotiations and contracts for the Seattle Seahawks before moving to the Saints and eventually rising to general manager.
With the exception of Xanders, all the men have been in their current jobs for at least three years. Hurney, Tannenbaum and Loomis average more than 20 years overall in the league. And except for those executives who believe that the only road to the general manager's office is a two-lane dirt path leading into a small college town, all of them are regarded now as solid football men.
It might be comparing apples and oranges, but there are presently more African-American general managers in the NFL (five) than there are GMs whose original backgrounds are in areas that are not in scouting or player personnel.
Of the past 14 general manager slots filled, only one went to a person with more experience balancing the books than rating players.
Noted Hurney, who has been in the league in various capacities for nearly 30 years, last summer: "When do you become a 'football man'? I mean, what's the [apprenticeship] supposed to be?"
There are a number of terrific salary-cap/negotiation specialists in the league. They include Kevin Abrams (New York Giants), Joe Banner (Philadelphia Eagles), Rob Brzezinski (Minnesota Vikings), Omar Khan (Pittsburgh Steelers), Pat Moriarty (Baltimore Ravens), Jim Overdorf (Buffalo Bills), Eric Schaffer (Washington Redskins) and Cliff Stein (Chicago Bears), to cite a few. Banner is the Eagles' team president, and most of the others are vice presidents of their respective teams.
And although each of the cap specialists wields considerable clout with his franchise, and each has some degree of input into personnel decisions, none is a general manager.
Eight franchises in the league are without a nominal general manager, but the top personnel executives on those clubs still hold titles (vice president, director of player personnel, senior football executive) that carry GM-type job descriptions.
Perhaps because of baseball and the success of clubs such as the Boston Red Sox, the perception in many quarters is that the NFL's general manager vacancies are being filled by men who are more familiar with finances than football. But that is not the case.
There are more personnel men learning about the vagaries of the salary cap and supervising contract negotiations than there are financial experts boning up on the nuances of the game.
Promoting money men into general manager spots appears to be one of the few areas in which baseball has an edge on the NFL. In a league that has stressed diversity in recent years, NFL general manager positions still go mostly to men with résumés steeped in scouting and player personnel.
"The cap is critical, but it's still a game basically about talent," said Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
Many NFL executives have read "Moneyball," the seminal baseball book written by Michael Lewis in 2003, and applied some of its principles to roster composition. The book is central, for instance, to the philosophies of new Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, a onetime economics major at Georgetown. Last week, Indianapolis Colts president/general manager Bill Polian noted that he counseled quite a bit with baseball general managers when the NFL enacted free agency.
But that knowledge, although immensely helpful to franchises, certainly hasn't translated yet into general manager positions.
"I think you can know the [finances] and know talent as well," said Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "It's possible to know them both."
In the NFL, though, it seems most owners prefer to split those responsibilities.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.