For all the ado made about the structure of the Bears' front office, one man gets little love: Senior Director of Football Administration Cliff Stein. He's been with the Bears since 2002, was one of the three men who interviewed potential GMs, but his retention in the current front-office overhaul got only a peep from the sports press. At the GM level, football is as much about dollars and cents as it is Xs and Os, and the Bears have one of the best NFL contract negotiators and cap managers in Stein. Flip below the fold to learn more about this unsung Bears hero and why he should be getting the love he deserves. Onwards!It's not often that a player agent switches sides and becomes a team's contract negotiator, but that's exactly what Cliff Stein did. As a lawyer, he represented sports players in civil court, a job that led him to become an agent in 1994. After eight years as a player representative, the Bears brought him on board in 2002 to be their representative. Stein's experience as an agent translated well into his current work on the other side of the table, as Jerry Angelo explained in a 2009 interview with ESPN:
"The mentality of most [negotiations] in our league is that it has to be a win-lose kind of thing... Somebody's going to get screwed, and somebody is going to come out on top. That's how most people view contract talks. But that's not the case with Cliff. He understands the nuances of [the task]. His firsthand experience on the other side of the table is beneficial, I think, because it gives him more perspective."
Other than this one profile of Stein, his name comes up in the press only when the Bears are once again one of the first teams to have all of their draft picks signed, something Stein has done consistently since he was promoted to his current role in 2007. Stein has been equally adept at retaining high-end talent and preventing player holdouts, proving he is just as good at negotiating with an agent when it is the second or third time around.
So, what is his secret? The process, at least with draft picks, starts before the pick is made. As this Chicago Tribune article mentions, the first Bear to talk with a player's agent, even before the pick is made, is almost always Stein. His goal is to make sure a player is willing to take his standard rookie contract - a four-year deal with yearly salaries based on draft round - before the player even becomes a Bear. This pre-negotiation is a brilliant tactic. It puts the agent on the spot to either agree to the Bears' basic terms right away or explain to the player how he would have been a better-paid, higher-round pick if only the agent had agreed to a slotted four-year deal. It also shows that Stein operates in the open: he is very upfront with the agent about the type of contract he will offer and is an honest broker. Although with the new rookie wage scale, it won't be as much of an issue, his proactive approach to rookie contracts also kept the Bears from being held hostage by the market: instead of waiting for other teams to set the price, the Bears are the ones out in front. When it comes to rookie deals, Stein makes sure the ink is dry before OTAs and mini-camps start in the off-season, giving Lovie Smith and company every chance they can get to work with new players before they hit the field.
As far as the other big part of Stein's job - writing up new contracts for veterans - the process is a bit more opaque. His official biography states that he is the "lead contract negotiator for all player contracts," but it is presumably not up to Stein how much money a particular player will end up getting paid. The ESPN article did give him credit for going 30 out 31 in players sticking to their contract extensions, so whatever Stein is doing, it is clearly working pretty well: he has kept players and the Bears' finances happy. In the cases of Forte and the once-again unhappy Briggs, it will be up to Emery to decide how much we are willing to offer them, but it will be up to Stein, to get them to agree to that value. To his credit, he has done a fantastic job so far in getting deals done with a minimum of (public) fuss. When it comes to "paying the man," Stein ultimately is the guy, but when it comes to figuring out just how much pay that will be, it is up to Emery. Let's just hope Emery gives Stein the maneuvering room he will need to keep these two key players on board for next season.
Last, but certainly not least, Stein has done a wonderful job of getting the numbers to work out under the salary cap. In an interview, he explained just how complicated this process can be:
The salary cap, otherwise known as Team Salary, is governed by a complex set of accounting rules set forth in the collective bargaining agreement. Every contract that is negotiated and submitted to the NFL for approval must comply with the rules governing the salary cap. Therefore, during the negotiation process, every contract has to be structured to ensure compliance with the salary cap accounting rules as well as each team’s individual salary cap philosophy. It is important that the contract negotiators for the club and player are well versed in the salary cap rules.
Stein, who has dealt with this issues as an agent and a team's contract negotiator, has never put the Bears in danger of going over the cap. Emery, who has at least been in the room during contract talks and discussions on team "salary cap philosophy," has already said he would lean on Stein to make sure the numbers add up correctly. We will find out soon enough of Emery is what we think he is as a player evaluator, but by letting go of Tim Ruskell and keeping Cliff Stein, I've already marked him down as two for two in good decisions.