NFL Teams Add Another Job: Salary Cap Manager -- New Supervisors Wield Influence On Personnel

DENVER - Dave Blando used to be a financial analyst and a part-time draftnik who was trying to sell a computer program to help National Football League teams pick college players.

Now, he's the Denver Broncos' director of salary cap information.

Although few football fans have heard of Blando, since the salary cap was instituted in 1994, people like him have become as much a part of the game as Steve Young, Troy Aikman or Emmitt Smith.

The salary cap is an NFL-imposed limit on the amount each team can spend on payroll each year. Determining how much teams can spend to re-sign players and free agents has become increasingly more complicated. That in turn, has caused at least 10 NFL teams to hire people whose main job is managing their salary cap.

"I remember Mike Ditka ranting and raving and complaining about these business guys trying to take over the game," Blando said. "But now, I think Mike Ditka would even admit, he has to listen to us a little bit."

With free agency becoming almost as important to teams as the draft, salary cap supervisors are wielding more influence in a franchise's personnel decisions. They tell general managers how much money they can spend re-signing their own players and free agents, and even keep lists of players who could become free agents in two and three years.

"I think there's a perception out there that all it takes is a guy with a calculator to figure the cap, you see what you have left, and then you sign players," said Philadelphia Eagles Vice President Joe Banner. "This is a full-time job."

Dodging the cap

It's become a full-time job because teams try anything to get around the salary cap, including deferring salaries and bonuses. Franchises are also planning ahead to make sure they have enough money to sign players and free agents in future seasons.

Salary cap managers make a lot less than players whose paychecks they track, earning anywhere from $55,000 to $125,000. Like free agents, they change teams and use other clubs as leverage to increase their salaries.

This offseason, Blando went from the Dolphins to the Broncos. The New Orleans Saints' salary cap supervisor signed with the New York Jets. When the Saints' supervisor left, the Arizona Cardinals' salary cap coordinator visited New Orleans before re-signing with the Cardinals.

"There's been a lot of movement," Blando said. "But I don't think there's a lot of fans out there, saying, wow, we got another team's cap coordinator."

The Broncos, though, believe Blando is going to help them get to the Super Bowl. Before serving as a salary cap consultant for the Miami Dolphins last season, Blando worked in the NFL office in New York, where he was responsible for checking every team's payroll to make sure they weren't above the salary cap.

In that job, he saw every way teams create room under the cap with incentives, signing bonuses and deferred salaries.

"You can't get much better experience than that," Banner said. "He knows all the ins and outs and every way teams try to get around the cap."

Long before the salary cap was adopted, Blando began studying free agency and personnel. A lifelong Miami Dolphins fan, Blando was working in the finance department at Boeing Co. and looking for a career in the NFL. He began compiling a database using player ratings to help teams with the draft, and tried to sell the product to NFL clubs.

He had no luck, until he called the Dolphins - looking for tickets. The team's director of finance, Bill Reed, answered the phone and talked with Blando about finance and football. A year later, the NFL office was looking for a researcher. Reed recommended Blando.

Blando spent three years with the NFL and said he joined the Dolphins because he hated living in New York. Even though he's no longer with the Dolphins, he loves his career.

"I have my dream job," said the 36-year-old Blando. "It's hard to believe."

Paths to glory

Other salary cap managers have followed odd career paths. The New York Jets' Mike Tannenbaum was in law school when he got an internship with the New Orleans Saints. The team didn't have much for him to do, so he spent his time studying the cap. He was hired by the Saints and now manages the cap and negotiates contracts for the New York Jets.

"I guess I picked the right subject to study in school," said Tannenbaum, 28, who joined the Jets in February.

The Washington Redskins, San Diego Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs are among others with an employee whose time is mostly spent on the salary cap.

The cap this season is $41.4 million, an increase of $700,000 from 1996. In 1996, the cap, which is determined by league revenue, increased by $3 million.

The cap has become such an important part of the game that it's even made Ditka turn to a business expert for football advice. Ditka, the fiery former Chicago Bears coach, was an NBC television analyst when he criticized NFL owners for allowing financial people to take over the game.

When he was named New Orleans Saints coach Jan. 28, Tannenbaum said Ditka called him into his office.

"He said, `Put me in your salary cap school, I want to enroll,' " Tannenbaum said. "I don't need to know everything, but I'm going to need to know something.' "