By Anna Pulley
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"It's funny. I actually had one of my interns look at all the GMs and vice presidents and their backgrounds before they got the job. You'd be shocked: Half of them are what you'd qualify as 'non-football guys .'" (Later he'll ask that this quote not be included in the story, perhaps worried that he might seem defensive.)
In this sport, the distinction between "football guys" and "non-football guys" is critical -- and, as Marathe points out, meaningless and arbitrary. On résumé alone, for example, Atlanta General Manager Rich McKay is no more a football guy than Marathe; he was an attorney before entering the NFL, with no playing or coaching experience. Yet with time and good press McKay has earned a fraternity pin.
What's overlooked, or outright ignored, in this bickering over who can and can't be a football guy is the fact that football guys no longer drive the league. Today's NFL, 12 years into what's known aridly as the Salary Cap Era, is as much Paraag Marathe's as it is Vince Lombardi's. That's disconcerting to those who insist football stopped evolving around the time Lombardi was first hoisted on a set of shoulders, but there's no denying that what happens now in the front office, on all those kryptonite-powered laptops, all but decides what happens on the field. It's no coincidence that the best teams of the past few years -- Philadelphia and New England, last year's Super Bowl matchup, come to mind -- are also the most efficiently run businesses. Maybe the 49ers' problem isn't that they employ too many people like Marathe; maybe it's that they don't have enough.
In all likelihood, however, the mindless scapegoating of Marathe will continue. "I believe," he says, "it'd be half as bad if [my name] were Perry Martin. It's a name you can pronounce. That would cut it in half. If I were white, it would cut it by another quarter. If I were 10 years older, it would cut it by another 10 percent.
"The thing is," he continues, "I'll never be a football guy, even when I'm 45 or 50. I'll never be a football guy."
In 1993, the NFL adopted a salary cap as part of the league's collective-bargaining agreement with the players' union. The move is often credited, perhaps dubiously, with the rowdy success of the NFL in the past decade, during which time it's supplanted baseball as the American pastime. Facing penalties for exceeding the cap -- this season's ceiling has been set at about $85 million -- teams were forced to adopt a more efficient approach: No longer could the wealthier franchises simply stockpile talent; no longer could they afford to consistently overpay for free agents. As a source of moderately priced talent, the draft took on a greater significance, while the importance of signing and retaining stars greatly diminished.
The culture of the league began to shift as well. Football guys were still football guys, but with the success of the Patriots' Bill Belichick, who studied economics at Wesleyan, the coaching ideal moved away from the tyrant with the cigars and Patton quotes to a new model entirely: "Bill Belichick, CEO," declared one Boston Globeheadline.
The 49ers, however, struggled within the financial strictures of the new system, becoming by the end of the 1990s the cautionary tale of the Salary Cap Era. San Francisco, the league's biggest spender in the year before the cap, mortgaged its future without apology, borrowing against 2004 for the sake of 1994. The approach yielded a fifth Super Bowl victory, but saddled the 49ers with a number of ill-conceived contracts that landed them $20 million over the cap in 1999, in what's known as "salary cap hell." There's no question the Niners' cap problems have contributed to their current woes on the field, but to what extent is open for debate. Writes Aaron Schatz, editor of the indispensable Web site FootballOutsiders.com and lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2005, in an e-mail: "Um, like, 100 percent? No, let's try that again. The salary cap problems are the reason this team collapsed." Scot McCloughan, the team's vice-president of player personnel, agrees that the "front office was handcuffed" and "didn't have money" for free agents.
The solution was obvious. Says Jeff Angus, a management consultant and author of the forthcoming Management by Baseball: "If I'm the owner of the Niners, I'd say, 'How do you squeeze more value out of a dollar?' Given the financial complications of the salary cap, I would want at least one finance guy to look for loopholes, to tell me how to structure my money, to tell me how to get the best present value and ROI [return on investment]."
Enter Paraag Marathe, CFO.
The resurrection of the 49ers will happen first in the cell of a spreadsheet. It's a business matter, above all, as much about standards and practices as it is about X's and O's. "We have a history of that," Marathe says, referring to the team's old habit of structuring deals so as to minimize the immediate hit on the salary cap. "That's why we got in salary cap hell twice. 'Wow, they were in it in '99, and all of a sudden they were in it in '03, '04. What happened?' Truthfully, we didn't do anything different. We just swept it under the rug, swept it under the rug, swept it under the rug, and at some point it was going to catch up to us."