When you're working in the front office of an NFL team, it's crucial to know who truly holds the power in each organization across the league -- because it can mean the difference between nabbing a future superstar in a trade or walking away empty-handed.
I handled trades when I worked with the Dallas Cowboys, and I absolutely had to know who could say "yes" or "no" among our potential trading partners; I had to know I was talking to the right person. Perhaps nothing better illustrates that than the story of how I missed out on a chance to land John Elway.
Elway was drafted by the Baltimore Colts with the first overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft, even though the quarterback had made it clear he didn't want to play there. So I went to Colts head coach Frank Kush, whom I knew well, and asked him who I'd need to have a conversation with about trying to deal for Elway. Kush told me that he'd be handling it, so we made our pitch to him, and he said the Colts would get back to us. The next thing we knew, Elway had been traded to the Denver Broncos.
As it turned out, Kush wasn't the man to talk to about Elway, because while we were busy trying to work something out with him, Colts owner Robert Irsay was reaching an agreement with Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser -- and the future Hall of Fame quarterback slipped out of our grasp.
Irsay wasn't the only owner who liked to get into the negotiating game. Chicago Bears owner/coach George Halas preferred to be the man through whom everything in Chicago moved. We had several dealings with Halas, who would say things like, "We like the people at Dallas ... We like Tom Landry ... We want to help you be a better team."
When talking trades, Halas would never refer to a player on your team by name. One time, he called and offered us Rudy Bukich, Ronnie Bull and Fred Williams for "No. 17" (Don Meredith, who went on to make multiple Pro Bowls), "No. 20" (Mel Renfro, an eventual Hall of Famer) and "No. 74" (Bob Lilly, also a future Hall of Famer).
So I jokingly said, "Mr. Halas, are you sure you're getting enough in return?" To which he responded, "You're getting the better of it, but that's OK." When I asked how, he said that Bukich's 11 years of experience were a "plus" for me, as was Bull's status as a former Rookie of the Year. While Halas was willing to concede that Williams probably "wasn't as good as No. 74," he still insisted I would win the trade, 2-1.
Knowing who to talk to is no less important in today's NFL.
Over the past couple weeks, Albert Breer studied every team's current power structure in his "Who's really in charge?" series. In a similar vein, here is a list, by my estimation, of the top eight power brokers in the league today when it comes to off-the-field moves. You'll see some head coaches and some general managers, but all of these guys know what they're doing -- seven of the eight helped their teams make the playoffs last season.
1) Bill Belichick, head coach, New England Patriots
He's the guy who makes the Patriots. Obviously, he has a very good support staff and relies on information from some very knowledgeable people, but ultimately, he's behind everything they do -- every draft pick, trade and free-agent signing. He has an outstanding knowledge of the entire organization's off-the-field workings; he understands the salary cap and what has to be done to make the team's plans a reality. This is his 39th year coaching and he hasn't slowed down.
2) Ted Thompson, general manager, Green Bay Packers
Thompson is an unbelievably hard-working guy who never puts on airs. Trained in the Green Bay way of doing things, Thompson believes in the draft and the development of players. Also, he has surrounded himself with outstanding people. Thompson travels extensively to evaluate players and coaches -- he was responsible for picking the Packers' current coach, Mike McCarthy, who is very good. Moreover, he sticks to his guns, as everyone saw when he decided to move on from Brett Favre and make the switch to Aaron Rodgers. It was a huge decision, one that spawned angry mobs in Green Bay when he made it. Of course, now you hardly see a No. 4 jersey around Wisconsin.
3) Trent Baalke, general manager, San Francisco 49ers
Baalke has something of an unusual résumé. Before landing with the New York Jets as a scout in 1998, he spent a few years as a defensive line/strength and conditioning coach at South Dakota State. Bill Parcells, with whom he worked in New York, has nothing but high praise to offer about Baalke. Since taking the GM position in San Francisco in 2011, he's improved all areas of the team. He's very creative and has an outstanding ability to make good hires. For example, he was involved in the hiring of coach Jim Harbaugh -- and that ended up working out pretty well for San Francisco.
4) Jerry Reese, general manager, New York Giants
Reese is a very low-key person, but he gets the job done, and he garners a great deal of respect from people in the Giants organization. He started with the Giants' scouting department in 1994 and kept working his way up until he became GM in 2007. In the six seasons since he assumed the top job, the Giants have won two Super Bowls. If you want to make a trade with the Giants involving draft picks, he's the man to talk to, as he has final say on those.
5) Ozzie Newsome, general manager, Baltimore Ravens
Newsome has great energy and intelligence and is an outstanding decision maker. The former player -- and Hall of Famer -- is involved with everything the Ravens do, bringing a lot of good information to the table. When it comes to finding fresh talent via the draft or the undrafted free agent list, he's a one-man band. Additionally, he's very active in the competition committee and other league duties.
6) Thomas Dimitroff, general manager, Atlanta Falcons
Dimitroff is a different kind of cat, but he does his job well. He was regarded as a good talent evaluator before taking the GM job, and it turned out to be an accurate perception. He drafted Matt Ryan third overall in 2008, even though a lot of folks thought Ryan wasn't worthy of the pick. He traded for Tony Gonzalez when the tight end was considered to be on the downside of his career -- and the veteran turned out to be a key member of the team. He also pulled off a blockbuster trade in the 2011 NFL Draft to land receiver Julio Jones. It's said that he'll solicit the opinions of others in the Falcons organization, but when it comes to final decisions, he's the man who makes them. Dimitroff is willing to try new technologies in an attempt to improve his risk-reward ratio.
7) Mike Shanahan, head coach, Washington Redskins
Shanahan has a great ability to see things in players that others might have missed, especially when it comes to quarterbacks. For example, when he traded up to draft Jay Cutler as the head coach of the Denver Broncos, he got all the tapes, he met the guy himself and he put the whole deal together. He's really smart and has a knack for understanding how things are going to play out in the future. He hires great people and makes great decisions. Personally, I think he has a good chance to go into the Hall of Fame.
Incidentally, I helped get him a job early in his career. In 1980, my friend Charley Pell was coaching at Florida and needed an offensive coordinator -- so I recommended Shanahan. Now, Shanahan is beginning his 29th year in the NFL.
8) Rick Smith, general manager, Houston Texans
Smith, who wears a lot of hats for the Texans, is well-respected by everyone and makes very good decisions for the team. He's another guy you see out on the road; I ran into him at the University of Texas during a game last year. Even though he's an executive, he's still out there, pounding the pavement and looking for talent.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.