By Erin Sherbert
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Today, with the Niners at last on stable fiscal footing with an estimated $20 million in cap room after the season, their approach is different. "The name of the game is not finding the best players, as conventional wisdom says," according to Marathe. "The name of the game is finding the best possible players for the lowest price. ... It's just being smart about managing your money. It's what a financial adviser would do for a client."
Two off-season acquisitions stand out: Marques Douglas, an underrated defensive end from Baltimore whom Pro Football Prospectusdescribed as possibly "the most economically sound signing of free agency"; and, perhaps counterintuitively, Jonas Jennings, a 28-year-old left tackle who has missed most of the season with a shoulder injury. In March, Jennings signed a reported seven-year, $36 million contract. "People thought Jonas Jennings was an expensive free agent," Marathe says. "But... left tackles -- productive ones -- play a long time, and he was the youngest possible unrestricted free agent." Moreover, according to the NFL Players Association, the average base salary for an offensive tackle with four years of experience is about $5.8 million a year. "He's clearly better than an average left tackle, in our scouting view," Marathe adds. "To us, it was a great value."
There was a time Marathe thought he'd be on the other side of the negotiating table. Born in Sunnyvale and raised in Saratoga -- he played one year of football at Lynbrook High School -- Marathe steered himself toward the sports world from the beginning. As an undergraduate in UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, he did marketing for the football team, thinking he'd probably wind up an agent.
Steve Tseng, a vice-president with IMG Consulting, where Marathe interned during college, says Marathe distinguished himself immediately. "He's got great energy," Tseng says. "It became clear early on that he was brilliant. Most interns take a while to come up to speed. They don't know how we want the work presented, how to find it. Anytime I asked Paraag for anything, it'd come back perfect."
After graduating, Marathe took a job as a management consultant at Bain & Co., where he helped a Fortune 50 company with its CEO search. He continued to drift along the peripheries of the sports world, as well. He advised "a very, very large sports footwear manufacturer," he says, and became "kind of the sports guy at Bain," which in the spring of 2001 led to a brief assignment with the 49ers. Under co-owner John York, a former pathologist and the ultimate non-football guy in the popular mind, and then-player personnel director Terry Donahue, the team was looking at new ways of valuing draft picks. (Marathe won't go into much more detail than that, and the Niners refused to make York available for an interview.) "I got along really well with Terry, Coach [Bill] Walsh [general manager at the time], John York, and they asked me to come on board," says Marathe, a longtime fan who wanted to remain in the Bay Area and make a career in sports. "It wasn't a tough decision."
He joined the team that fall as a special projects manager; the next year, he began working toward an MBA at Stanford. "[The 49ers] said it was part-time," Marathe explains, "but it ended up being 40 hours a week of work, 40 hours of school. I didn't sleep for two years."
His role quickly expanded. While he remains vague about the nature of his work, it's clear that by 2003, he at least had a voice in personnel matters. During that year's draft, he allegedly clashed with Walsh over trade proposals. Marathe insists the disagreement was "misreported," but Walsh -- for whom Marathe still uses the honorific "Coach" -- was later quoted as saying, "Can a computer help determine who you pick on draft day? I don't know, maybe it can."
In fact, Walsh seems conflicted about the matter. A friend of Marathe's runs a company called Protrade that, according to its Web site, "uses live market buy/sell activity to establish a predictive market of athletes." Walsh offers a plug on the site: "Athletic performance analysis is heading in this direction, and I think Protrade is going to lead the evolution."
Says Marathe: "Bill Walsh always made trades based on instinct and gut feel. I looked at it from an agnostic point of view and said, 'All right, how did those picks pan out?'" Marathe analyzed the previous 15 drafts and found that Walsh's instincts were unimpeachable. "All the research [showed] that the value of those draft picks [was] almost identical to the value Bill Walsh placed on them. At the end of the day, all we were trying to do was replicate the genius of his mind."
In football, the "debate" over statistical analysis -- over whether someone like Marathe has a place in the NFL -- has largely been a phony issue, something that plays out in the columns of a newspaper more than in a team's front office. This is especially the case in the Bay Area, where the name of the Oakland A's general manager, Billy Beane, is a shibboleth within a certain segment of the population and a profanity within another.