Published On: Mon, Jun 29th, 2020

Inside NFL’s reluctance to hire ex-agents to run teams


Imagine the listing for an NFL general manager vacancy on a typical jobs board, next to a delivery driver or a music teacher:

Seeking leader with a shrewd eye for identifying talent. Experienced negotiator who drives a hard bargain. Deep knowledge of salary-cap structure a must. Building personal relationships, managing egos and comfort in the media spotlight should come naturally.

Sounds remarkably similar to the description of a high-powered sports agent. And that’s no coincidence.

There’s a trend bubbling in pro sports — hiring agents to switch sides and run teams — and it’s prominently displayed in New York: Second-year Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen and recently hired Knicks president Leon Rose previously were co-heads of the baseball and basketball divisions, respectively, at Creative Artists Agency (CAA).

But that trend hasn’t caught on yet in NFL front offices.

“I’ve always been mystified by why there wasn’t more of it,” said NFL agent Leigh Steinberg, who has secured more than $3 billion for 300-plus clients over 46 years. “The skill set is perfect to move into front offices in a variety of capacities. That’s a big advantage.”

The agent-to-executive switch is popular in the NBA — where Rose, Bob Myers (Warriors), Rob Pelinka (Lakers), Justin Zanik (Jazz) and Arn Tellem (Pistons) carry title of general manager or above on the hierarchy.

Van Wagenen’s company in MLB includes White Sox GM Rick Hahn. Former Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart and former Diamondbacks and Padres chief executive officer Jeff Moorad were agents first.

“Being a general manager in New York is unlike any place else,” said Mike Tannenbaum, who went from Jets GM to CAA agent to Dolphins executive vice president. “It’s all times 10.

“Candidly, 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 an agent without having those characteristics.”

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

Excluding the three coach/GMs and two owner/GMs, 20 of the other 27 general managers in pro football come from a scouting background.

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

“Football is a far more complex game [than basketball], and the complexity of what happens on the field means you better be able to hire the right people around you,” former Redskins and Texans GM Charley Casserly said.

“The dominant sense in football is: ‘I want a general manager who has expertise on the field, whether it’s personnel or X’s and O’s.’ 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: Work under Packers ownership or under a rapper?

Brandt signed top-five NFL draft pick Ricky Williams out of college but quickly had his client poached by Master P, a rapper trying to become a sports agent. Brandt considered Williams’ invitation to come along, but he opted instead to become the vice president of player finance for the Packers.

“I remember these exact words: ‘We want to get more agent-friendly. What better way than to hire an agent?’ ” Brandt said. “I had to get off this train of chasing players around the country. What people don’t know about being an agent is 70-80 percent of your life is recruiting.”

During Brandt’s 10-year tenure surviving two regime changes, three future NFL GMs worked in scouting for the Packers. He never wanted the personnel responsibility.

“I think there is a more of a traditional yet-to-be-broken mold in the NFL, where your general manager is by and large from a scouting background rather than a negotiating background,” Brandt said. “I think it’s the longest of any of the sports to chip away at that bias.”

The NFL’s complicated salary cap could be one reason.

Other agents made a similar jump to Brandt, a numbers-minded voice as a right-hand consultant to a personnel-minded general manager. In running the Broncos, John Elway’s two hires to handle the cap were both former agents, Mike Sullivan and Rich Hurtado.

The next step up the ladder — to calling the shots — is a glass ceiling.

“It would take out-of-the-box thinking,” former NFL agent Joel Corry said. “You are not going to get one of your old-school [owners] doing it. Football is a different breed. You can see a situation where a cap guy has been there forever and ends up gaining the trust of the owner and gets the job.”

Van Wagenen says he wasn’t willing to take just any GM job. The stuck-in-neutral Mets 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 a conflict of interest from the MLB players’ union, but it eventually quieted.

“Each player has his own needs, wants and goals,” Van Wagenen said. “Understanding how to satisfy those from an individual player’s perspective is an important carry-over for me in this job that I never want to lose. In many ways, I feel like I am 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 getting shorter by the year, as owners react to increasingly impatient fan bases huddled in social-media mobs.

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

Joining a front office might actually require some super-agents to take a pay cut and forego job security.

“You can control things more directly in terms of your success than as a general manager,” NFL agent Drew Rosenhaus said. “Perhaps agents who are very successful don’t want to give up control over their destiny and be in a situation where your star quarterback gets hurt and that affects whether or not you have 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 if I work hard and do a good job, I’m going to be successful,” Rosenhaus said. “It’s really that simple. There are a lot of honest, hard-working general managers who don’t succeed because they weren’t necessarily in the right place at the right time.”

The flip side?

“As a team guy,” Corry said, “you are not babysitting and getting phone calls at 3 a.m. And trying to clean up a mess, to the extent that you can.”

Steinberg says he considered the switch in the 1990s, when then-Seahawks owner Ken Behring wanted to relocate from Seattle to NFL-less Los Angeles. Preliminary discussions included Behring also buying the Angels baseball franchise and putting Steinberg in charge of both teams and a regional television network, but it never materialized.

“Most agents are viewed by some people in NFL ownership with less collegiality than you see in other sports. That has to be part of it,” Steinberg said. “Not that agents are lovey-dovey … but an agent won’t come in with a predisposition to dislike agents.”

Who better to call an agent’s bluff than someone who has tried the same tactics?

In Brandt’s case, he knew “cash is king,” so he closed tricky deals by exchanging money early in a contract for team flexibility down the road.

“It cut out a lot of the B.S. because I’ve heard all the lines before,” Brandt said. “I know you are coming in with comparisons to this Pro Bowler, and I’m going to say, ‘Your guy has never made a Pro Bowl.’ Or, ‘Your guy is two years away from free agency and you are showing me free agents.’ ”

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Van Wagenen admits he was surprised by the positive feedback from other agents interested in how he might bring a “fresh perspective to the front office” and the “immediate sense of inclusion” received from other MLB executives.

Rose has not granted an external interview — only talking with MSG Network’s Mike Breen this week — since he was hired.

“The agent business is fiercely competitive,” Van Wagenen said. “Failure to sign or retain a client is a zero-sum game in terms of revenue. On the team side, the importance of a process is magnified. My intent is to maintain the sense of urgency of the agent mindset while simultaneously attempting to build an infrastructure capable of consistently acquiring and developing players with the ability to win multiple championships.”

The 1996 film “Jerry Maguire” — Tom Cruise’s lead character was loosely inspired by Steinberg — painted a picture of an agent-versus-team stand-off. It’s easy to understand within those battle lines a reluctance to hire the enemy, but spats like those are not the norm, agents say.

Respect can be earned.

“That’s where it really requires a good negotiator who will drive home a deal for his or her client as an agent but not burn any bridges in the process,” said Heitner, a former agent. “As long as you don’t make it personal, bring emotions into the equation or publicly smear 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 regarded as one of the top NFL GMs after three years. The jury is out on Mayock after a tumultuous first year.

“We are going to see more and more of a broader scope,” Tannenbaum predicted.

The track record of former agents in other sports eventually could determine whether the NFL expands the credentials used for running a franchise.

“At this time, there are enough data points through different sports to show an agent could have more success than others who made a career out of being in a particular organization,” Heitner said. “I would hope selecting an agent is not an option of last resort. It shouldn’t be.”



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