Former New York Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum talks rise to NFL front office career

By Matt Fitzgerald

ESPN analyst and former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum recently sat down for an interview with Rich Salgado on Big Daddy & Friends to discuss his humble beginnings en route to eventual emergence as an NFL executive.

Tannenbaum transitioned from law school to pro football, crunched numbers with the salary cap, and made some key connections to blaze the path for a long-term front-office career.

Mike Tannenbaum: A Hail Mary answered by Bill Belichick

After graduating from law school in 1995 from Tulane, Tannenbaum knew he wanted to find an “in” with an NFL team. Having already worked for the New Orleans Saints while attending school, he at least had some experience. This was also right around the time the salary cap became a major consideration in front office strategies.

Tannenbaum had a plan, perhaps slightly simplified here to provide proper context: Put up a Hail Mary to all 30 teams at the time, tell them how he’d manage their cap situation and hope for the best.

Eventually, despite getting 58 rejection letters — presumably two apiece from 28 of the 30 teams — he got the very best “yes” he could’ve hoped for, even if it didn’t seem that way at the time.

“I just put together a small book of how I would run a team in terms of handling the salary cap,” Tannenbaum said. “I sent it out to every coach and GM…the only people that got back to me were Mike Lombardi and Bill Belichick with the Browns.”

Belichick wasn’t the six-time Super Bowl champion head coach he is now with the New England Patriots, yet he did win two championships as the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator, working under the legendary Bill Parcells. Belichick was making his mark in Cleveland, having led the Browns to a playoff victory and 11-5 record during the 1994 campaign.

After getting hired by the Browns for the 1995 season, Tannenbaum did things like drive players to the airport and researched contracts, serving as an assistant to Lombardi. Unfortunately, after that year, things went horribly wrong for a time.

Mike Tannenbaum reconnects with Saints, then Bill Belichick, after Browns’ big move

Cleveland lost its beloved football team, which became the Baltimore Ravens. That meant a lot of lost jobs for Browns coaches, staff members and, well, any team employee. Owner Art Modell moved the team in the middle of the night, and Cleveland had to watch the Ravens emerge as Super Bowl champions less than a handful of years later.

Much to Tannenbaum’s relief, New Orleans offered a safety net during a time of serious uncertainty, as his future of working in the NFL was in sudden jeopardy.

“The Saints took me back. I spent a year and a half in law school working for them for free, and made a good enough impression where they brought me back,” Tannenbaum explained.

Only one season later, that prior connection with Belichick paid massive dividends — and laid the foundation for Tannenbaum’s rise to general manager.

Belichick reunited with Parcells on his staff with, funnily enough, the Patriots. Parcells then brought Belichick with him when he left New England for the New York Jets in 1997.

Mike Tannenbaum has a long history with Bill Belichick, former assistant coach of the New York Jets
HEMPSTEAD, NY – FEBRUARY 4: Bill Belichick, former assistant coach of the New England Patriots, appears at a press conference at the New York Jets training facility 04 February after being named the new head coach of the team. It was also announced that former Patriots head coach Bill Parcells has been hired as a consultant to the Jets . AFP PHOTO/Malcolm CLARKE (Photo credit should read MALCOLM CLARKE/AFP via Getty Images)

Guess what? The Jets hired Tannenbaum that year to be director of player contract negotiations. Although those connections helped, all the credit goes to Tannenbaum for making the most of his opportunity. He wound up carving out quite a legacy for himself as a key contributor to New York’s most successful run in recent franchise history.

“I was fortunate enough to get hired by two Hall of Fame coaches, and spent 16 years there, the last seven as general manager,” Tannenbaum said. “[We] went to three championship games…and [I] made friendships that will last a lifetime.”

After his lengthy tenure with the Jets, Tannenbaum served as executive vice president of football operations for the Miami Dolphins from 2015 through the end of 2018.

The secret to Tannenbaum’s success? Quite simple: “I just believe in, ‘Choose a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.'”