Mike Tannenbaum had been preparing for the moment since he was a kid in Needham, making deals in his head to help out his beloved Celtics of the Larry Bird Era. Yet when it finally arrived last Monday, it was a mixed blessing because along with it came suspicion in some NFL corners about how his final step was taken.
It was on that day that Jets owner Woody Johnson announced he was moving the soon-to-be-37 Tannenbaum ahead of the last in a long list of mentors who had nurtured his development, 50-year-old general manager Terry Bradway. Although Bradway said he was surprised at the timing, he said he had been discussing a reduced role for some time and agreed to a one-year contract extension to work under Tannenbaum as an adviser in personnel matters.
Only a handful of people know for sure how the change came about, but one thing is clear: Bradway had a two-year option that had to be picked up next month, so his one-year ''extension," in some people's opinion, was really a payoff to help the Jets get through this draft before he moves on to, as they say, ''spend more time with his family."
As for Tannenbaum, who always has seemed an oasis of conscience in a cutthroat business, he was legitimately upset that some of his peers would question his honor.
''I can't worry about what the perception may be," Tannenbaum said. ''I'm not perfect, but people who know me know I wouldn't be involved in something like that. Terry and I have a great relationship. He allowed me to broaden my responsibilities under him. Terry's a unique guy who loved working on the draft and scouting. He didn't like some of the other things that go with being a GM. I think he's relieved."
Bradway acknowledges that he never was totally comfortable wearing all the hats of a general manager and that the promotion of Tannenbaum was a ''mutual" agreement. He also had the final say on the hiring of coach Eric Mangini, who has been close to Tannenbaum since they were interns working for Bill Belichick in Cleveland. Yet around the league, skepticism abounded.
''The kids pulled off a palace coup," said an AFC front office executive. ''Tannenbaum was close to the owner and to Mangini. Mangini came in and immediately stepped on Bradway when he hired [Brian] Schottenheimer [as his 32-year-old offensive coordinator] without consultation.
''They're all bright guys, but they're ruthless guys. Johnson has no idea if any of them can do the job. Mangini hasn't ever been the boss of anything, Schottenheimer hasn't ever coordinated a lunch order, and Tannenbaum likes to make believe he's a football guy but he isn't. That's the first thing they have to do now. Hire a football guy."
Although Tannenbaum said he is in the market for both a new salary cap operative and someone to assist him in personnel, he will have the final say on personnel matters. Some are skeptical of that because he has had no scouting or coaching experience.
''I've been with the Jets since 1997," Tannenbaum said. ''I've run a pro personnel department. I've been fortunate to have worked under some of the most talented people in football: Bill Kuharich and Chet Franklin in New Orleans, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Evaluating players is a skill like anything else. The more you do it, the better you get."
Those skills, which include tenacity and a ceaseless work ethic, first surfaced when Tannenbaum was at Tulane Law School. Long passionate about football, he kept writing to then-Saints GM Jim Finks and Kuharich trying to get his foot in the door. But he received only a foot-high pile of rejection letters.
''I received an embarrassingly large amount of rejection letters from the Saints," Tannenbaum said with a laugh, ''but I don't do a good job of taking no for an answer. I guess I became fixated on it with a persistence bordering on obsession."
That impressed Franklin, a Saints executive and former Oakland secondary coach, who urged Kuharich to bring Tannenbaum in to look at this new thing called the salary cap in 1996. That led to an opening that eventually would get him to the Jets under Parcells in 1997. As often happens, his ''lucky break" was the residue of design and perseverance.
''I was in the right place at the right time," Tannenbaum said of his New Orleans days. ''It was the start of a new system and all the teams were trying to understand the complexity of the cap. How do you build a team in this system?"
Tannenbaum crunched numbers, came up with scenarios, and eventually impressed Franklin and Kuharich before catching the eye of Parcells, who brought him to New York. Coincidentally, the same week Tannenbaum was named the Jets' GM, his first mentor, Kuharich, was elevated to the third-highest position in the Chiefs' front office, personnel director. As such he will work closely with, of all people, former Jets coach Herman Edwards, who shot his way out of what is perceived to be the sinking ship Tannenbaum and Mangini have to try to right.
Time will tell whether this was an opportunity or a trap for the young brain trust in New York. Many around the NFL are skeptical because of that youth at the top of an organization that has a question mark at quarterback, an aging running back with no true apprentice, an offensive line that is the reason there is a question mark at quarterback, and a cap situation that is dreadful.
Despite that, Tannenbaum is upbeat. He believes he got the job the right way and will keep it the same way. He believes he and Mangini will outwork and outthink their opponents, using as a model the successful system of his friends Belichick and Scott Pioli in New England.
''This is a difficult job, but I'm one of the luckiest guys around," said Tannenbaum. ''I've always been in the right place at the right time and I had the benefit of working for some of the smartest people in this business. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. I was excited to say yes."
Well-received in South Korea
Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward has become a hero in a most unlikely place. Ward is now a household name in South Korea, a country that has little knowledge of pro football but has embraced Ward because his ancestry is half Korean.
Last Thursday, Ward was featured in nearly every South Korean newspaper, and his story of being born to an African-American father and Korean mother is drawing attention to discrimination faced by children of mixed parentage in South Korea, where the culture places a strong emphasis on pure bloodlines.
Ward's mother, Kim Young-Hee, has been the subject of numerous interviews, recounting how she worked three jobs to support her son after she divorced her ex-soldier husband soon after following him to the US.
The fact that Ward has his name tattooed in Korean on his upper right forearm has only fed the growing Ward Mania, and also may lead some to rethink their country's treatment of mixed-race children. At present, the South Korean military bans men who clearly appear to be of mixed racial background from compulsory duty out of concern that they might be unable to fit in; and children with a black American parent routinely suffer harsh discrimination by fellow students, according to Yi Kyung-Kyune, director of Pearl S. Buck International Korea, a group that supports mixed-heritage youth.
Ward's success on a football field in Detroit might help to change that, however.
After paydirt, Alexander wants payoff
Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander is set to become a free agent March 3 unless the league and the union agree to extend the deadline for negotiating an extension of the collective bargaining agreement. Whether it's March or April, Alexander believes it's time -- time to get paid.
''I'm the only one in history to do what I've done," said Alexander, who set an NFL record for touchdowns last season with 28 and became the first player in NFL history to score at least 15 touchdowns in five consecutive seasons.
Last offseason, the Seahawks signed quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and left tackle Walter Jones to deals totaling $100 million. Each player received a $16 million signing bonus. Hasselbeck received $48 million over six years, Jones $52.5 million over seven.
It is unlikely that Alexander would exceed those figures because of the unsettled labor situation and the fact that he turns 29 before next season. Even Alexander acknowledges the harsh reality of a runner's life as he approaches 30, especially one who's never missed a start because of injury.
''I turn 29 at the beginning of next season, so that is a reality that you're older," Alexander said. ''But at the same time, with our offensive line and the shots that I haven't taken this year, I think that most 29-year-olds probably don't feel the way I feel."
After gaining more than 3,400 yards the past two seasons, Alexander said he's looking forward to seeing just how much he's worth on the open market -- if he gets on the open market.
''I just can't say you can put me in the same class as average running backs," he said. ''To not 'have a home' yet is a weird feeling."
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.