Inside the NFL's reluctance to hire former agents to lead teams

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Imagine listing an NFL general manager vacancy on a typical job board, alongside a delivery driver or music teacher:

Looking for a leader with a cunning eye to identify talent. Experienced negotiator who deals a hard deal. A deep knowledge of the salary structure is essential. Building personal relationships, managing egos, and comfort in the media should come naturally.

It sounds remarkably similar to the description of a high-powered sports agent. And that is no accident.

There's a trend in professional sports: hiring agents to switch sides and running teams, and it's prominently featured in New York: second-year Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen and recently hired Knicks president Leon Rose were previously co-directors of baseball and basketball. Divisions, respectively, at Creative Artists Agency (CAA).

But that trend has yet to catch on in NFL offices.

"I've always been puzzled as to why there wasn't more," said NFL agent Leigh Steinberg, who has secured more than $ 3 billion for more than 300 clients for 46 years. “The skill set is perfect for moving to headquarters in a variety of capacities. That is a great advantage. "

The switch from agent to executive is popular in the NBA, where Rose, Bob Myers (Warriors), Rob Pelinka (Lakers), Justin Zanik (Jazz), and Arn Tellem (Pistons) hold the title of CEO or higher in the hierarchy.

Van Wagenen's MLB company includes White Sox general manager Rick Hahn. Former Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart and former Diamondbacks and Parents CEO Jeff Moorad were the agents first.

"Being a general manager in New York is different than anywhere else," said Mike Tannenbaum, who went from Jets GM to CAA agent and executive vice president at Dolphins. "It's all the time 10.

“Honestly, Brodie and Leon are really well prepared for their jobs. You need innate mental toughness and leadership here. You can't be that type of agent without those characteristics. "

Bruce Allen, the only former agent who led an NFL team last season, was fired by the Redskins on Dec. 30. The NHL also has zero, although former agents Mike Barnett and Mike Gillis previously had shots with the Coyotes and Canucks, respectively.

Excluding the three coaches / GM and two owners / GM, 20 of the other 27 general managers in professional football come from an exploration environment.

Why so traditional? The Post asked 10 sources from both sides of the negotiating table.

"Football is a much more complex game (than basketball), and the complexity of what happens on the field means it's better to be able to hire the right people around you," said the former Redskins general manager and the Texans, Charley Casserly.

"The dominant sense in soccer is: 'I want a general manager who has experience on the field, whether it's personal or X and O.' But a leader is a leader. If you get the right person, it absolutely can be done."

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Andrew Brandt's agent career was at a crossroads in 1999: Does he work under the Packers' property or under a rapper?

Brandt hired Ricky Williams for the NFL draft pick in the top five, but he quickly had his client looted by Master P, a rapper trying to become a sports agent. Brandt considered Williams' invitation to come, but opted to become the vice president of player finance for the Packers.

“I remember these exact words:‘ We want to be friendlier with agents. What better way than to hire an agent? "Brandt said." I had to get off this train of chasing players across the country. What people don't know about being an agent is that 70 to 80 percent of their lives is recruiting. "

During Brandt's 10-year tenure surviving two regime changes, three future NFL general managers worked to find the Packers. He never wanted the responsibility of the staff.

"I think there is a more traditional mold in the NFL that has not yet broken, where its general manager is generally from an exploration fund rather than a trading fund," Brandt said. "I think it is the longest of all sports to eliminate that bias."

The complicated NFL salary cap could be one of the reasons.

Other agents made a similar leap to Brandt, a number-minded voice as a consultant to the right of a staff-minded general manager. In directing the Broncos, John Elway's two hires to wield the cap were both former agents, Mike Sullivan and Rich Hurtado.

The next step on the ladder, to make decisions, is a glass ceiling.

"It would be a thought outside the box," said former NFL agent Joel Corry. “You're not going to get one of your old school (owners) to do it. Soccer is a different breed. You can see a situation where a guy in the cap has been there forever and ends up winning the owner's trust and getting the job. "

Van Wagenen says he was unwilling to accept any GM job. The Mets caught up in neutral wanted to be innovative. So Van Wagenen and Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon turned an already close relationship into a partnership.

The pairing initially faced skepticism about an MLB players union conflict of interest, but eventually subsided.

"Each player has their own needs, wants and goals," said Van Wagenen. “Understanding how to satisfy those from the perspective of an individual player is an important transfer for me in this job that I never want to lose. In many ways, I feel like I'm an agent for every Mets player and every Mets employee. "

The same unwritten rule with coaches applies to GMs: most are hired to be fired. The leash is shortened each year, as owners react to increasingly impatient fan bases huddled on social media.

There are 814 agents certified by the NFL Players Association, compared to approximately 1,700 players on the regular season rosters. About 75 percent of those players are represented by 17 percent of the well-connected agents.

Joining a front office may require some super agents to take a pay cut and give up job security.

"You can control things more directly in terms of your success than as a general manager," said NFL agent Drew Rosenhaus. "Maybe very successful agents don't want to give up control over their destiny and be in a situation where their quarterback is hurt and that affects whether or not he has a winning season."

Rosenhaus, who has negotiated more than $ 7 billion in contracts, has more active clients (79) than any other NFL agent, according to The Sports Agent Blog, founded by Darren Heitner.

"What I like about being an agent is that if I work hard and do a good job, I will be successful," said Rosenhaus. "It really is that simple. There are many honest and hard-working CEOs who are not successful because they were not necessarily in the right place at the right time.

The other face?

"As a team member," Corry said, "you are not babysitting and receiving phone calls at 3 a.m. and trying to clean up a mess, as much as possible."

Steinberg says he considered the change in the 1990s, when then-Seahawks owner Ken Behring wanted to move from Seattle to Los Angeles, without the NFL. Preliminary discussions included that Behring also bought the Angels baseball franchise and put Steinberg in charge of both teams and a regional television network, but it never materialized.

"Most officers are viewed by some people on NFL property with less collegiality than is seen in other sports. That has to be part of that, "said Steinberg. "It is not that the agents are loving … but an agent will not enter with a predisposition to reject the agents."

Who better to call the deception of an agent than someone who has tried the same tactics?

In Brandt's case, he knew "cash is king," so he closed tough deals by exchanging money early on a contract for team flexibility in the future.

"He cut a lot of the B.S. because I've heard all the lines before," Brandt said. "I know you'll come up with comparisons to this professional bowler, and I'm going to say, 'Your boy's never done a Pro Bowl' or" Your boy's two years from free agency and you're showing me agents free. & # 39; "

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Van Wagenen admits that he was surprised by the positive comments from other agents interested in how he could bring a "new perspective to the main office" and the "immediate sense of inclusion" received from other MLB executives.

Rose hasn't given an outside interview, just speaking to Mike Breen of MSG Network this week, since he was hired.

"The agent business is fiercely competitive," said Van Wagenen. “Not signing or retaining a customer is a zero sum game in terms of income. On the team side, the importance of a process is magnified. My intention is to maintain the sense of urgency of the agent's mindset while trying to build an infrastructure capable of constantly acquiring and developing players with the ability to win multiple championships. "

The 1996 film "Jerry Maguire" – the main character of Tom Cruise was freely inspired by Steinberg – painted an image of a confrontation between agent and team. It is easy to understand within those battle lines the reluctance to hire the enemy, but disputes like those are not the norm, agents say.

You can earn respect.

"That's where you really need a good negotiator who takes a deal home for his client as an agent but doesn't burn bridges in the process," said Heitner, a former agent. "As long as you don't make it personal, incorporate emotions into the equation or publicly spread to the other side … it's almost like the best job interview you could have."

The most unconventional recent NFL GM hires came from the broadcast booth: John Lynch (49ers) and Mike Mayock (Raiders). Lynch is considered to be one of the best NFL general managers after three years. The jury is in Mayock after a tumultuous first year.

"We are going to see more and more of a wider scope," predicted Tannenbaum.

The history of former agents in other sports could eventually determine if the NFL expands the credentials used to manage a franchise.

"Right now, there are enough data points across different sports to show that one agent could be more successful than others who made a career out of being in a particular organization," Heitner said. “I hope that selecting an agent is not a last resort option. It should not be like that ".

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