NEW YORK -- Mike Tannenbaum had the requisite law degree, ambition and love for the game to become an agent. Done with school, chasing a life in sports, Tannenbaum considered a career on the other side of a Roscoe Diner table.
Representing pro athletes, cutting multimillion-dollar deals, ascending to NFL stardom without putting on a helmet or pads. It sounded safe and glamorous at the same time, but to Tannenbaum there was always a catch.
"I've never met an agent who has a ring," he said.
A championship ring.
So there's the reason Tannenbaum negotiated Darrelle Revis' $46 million contract from the team side, not the player side. He desperately wants to win a ring, and starting Monday night in the new Meadowlands stadium, opening night against the Baltimore Ravens, he might be staring at the best shot he'll ever get.
As much as the 2010 New York Jets belong to Rex Ryan -- win, lose or draw -- they belong to Mike Tannenbaum, too. The general manager is no longer a faceless functionary in Bill Parcells' shadow, or a say-nothing bureaucrat notarizing Eric Mangini's Soviet-bloc policies.
Rex's Jets have gone glasnost, baby, and Tannenbaum is basking in the transparency, thrilled he could conduct his business for the viewing pleasure of a "Hard Knocks" audience. Jets fans keep telling him they had no idea he could be so human when slashing and gashing players' jobs and wages, and Tannenbaum keeps insisting he's always done his impersonal job with that same personal touch.
"We're in the ultimate people business," the GM said, "so we try to water the plants and nurture the players and staff."
But here's the thing: All of that supposed nurturing and watering won't matter if these tough-talking Jets end up doing what 31 other NFL teams are dying for them to do.
Tannenbaum is on the line here, not just Rex. This isn't about job security, as the GM signed a five-year extension in June and is scheduled to be employed through the 2014 season, right along with his head coach.
It's about legacy. Tannenbaum has drafted and acquired enough talent to put the first Jets team in the Super Bowl since Joe Willie Namath wagged his index finger to the crowd on his way off the Orange Bowl field.
But Tannenbaum has also brought in some big-name mercenaries and likely one-and-done wonders, enough of them to increase the possibility this Jets season could end up ripped straight from the Dan Snyder playbook.
If that happens, if the Jets collapse under the weight of their own stated goal, Tannenbaum's standing in the league will take a lethal hit. Right now, today, he's the Parcells protégé who rose through the front-office ranks with the Saints, Browns and Jets, going from intern to player personnel assistant to salary cap expert to, ultimately, executive vice president/general manager.
Right now, today, Tannenbaum is the executive who was smart enough in the past three drafts to trade up for Darrelle Revis, David Harris, Dustin Keller, Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene, and who was smart enough to overcome the selection of Vernon Gholston at No. 6.
Right now, today, Tannenbaum is the guy who thought Ryan, a career assistant, would make for a hell of a head coach.
It's been some journey for the GM, transitioning from Mangini's police state to Ryan's reality show, one that reportedly took an ugly turn the other day when some Jets allegedly demeaned a female TV reporter at practice. Tannenbaum and Jets owner Woody Johnson were quick to address the allegation, but the incident illustrates the turbulence that comes with captaining a loose ship.
The league is investigating the matter, and the offenders should be punished.
Meanwhile, as the Jets become defined by a blustering head coach, by aging stars the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson and Jason Taylor, by troubled blue-chip recruits the likes of Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes, Tannenbaum has accepted great risk for a crack at a greater reward.
The GM has made his own Zelig-like adjustments. Once a Parcells pet and a Mangini droid, Tannenbaum's now willing to freewheel it with Ryan.
"I still have the same passion," Tannanbaum said. "I want to win as badly as I ever have. I get energized by change, and so Rex has been great for me.
"I really like our team a lot. I don't think all our guys will be back next year, because it isn't possible. But I look at [Baltimore GM] Ozzie Newsome, someone I admire, and I think about the success the Ravens had had over the long term. That's what we want to be. We want to keep stacking winning seasons one on top of the other."
Tannenbaum needs a winning season in 2010 like he's never needed a winning season. His head coach has effectively guaranteed a Super Bowl victory, and the "Hard Knocks" series only hardened the league-wide sentiment that the Jets need to go down, and go down hard.
Ray Lewis was the latest to put a face and voice to that feeling, to serve notice that Tannenbaum's uncrowned roster will remain under siege.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself," the GM said. "I try to outwork everybody every day, and I try to have more passion than everybody every day. I don't want to leave any stone unturned. If I keep doing that, hopefully one day I'll be able to call myself a champion."
Tannenbaum should understand he's cutting against the grain of 40-plus years of franchise history here. If nothing else, Jets executives are much like sports agents.
They don't wear rings, either.