Mike Reinfeldt isn’t one for the spotlight.
Even when he was an All-Pro safety for the Houston Oilers with 12 interceptions in 1979, there were other, far more flamboyant players on the roster alongside him during the fabled “Luv Ya Blue” era in Houston. Names like Earl Campbell, Elvin Bethea, Dan Pastorini and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson garnered far more attention than Reinfeldt.
Reinfeldt maintains that same low-key approach in his current position as the general manager for the Tennessee Titans. But while he may prefer to work behind the scenes, the impact of his efforts is visible in the shaping of the team’s roster and recent success.
“I think that’s kind of the nature of the job. I think you are kind of behind the scenes,” Reinfeldt said. “You’re a big-picture, behind-the-scenes guy and a lot of what you do is more in meetings and not necessarily out on the field, but meeting with people and talking with people.”
The fruits of Reinfeldt’s labors are readily evident in that both his first-round choices — safety Michael Griffin in 2007 and running back Chris Johnson last year — have already been Pro Bowl selections in their short NFL careers.
And while there have been draft disappointments as well (Chris Henry and Paul Williams being the most notable thus far), it appears that a number of players, especially from last year’s class, have a chance to be solid contributors over the next few seasons.
Naturally, Reinfeldt is quick to deflect the credit elsewhere for the Titans’ run of success, which has included 23 regular-season wins the past two years.
“I believe in delegating things,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of talented people here in all areas — whether it’s in the contracts, the college scouting or the equipment, the video. I think …you hire qualified people, make it clear what the goals are, give them the resources to accomplish that. I think so far that’s worked well with us.”
Lake Dawson, the team’s director of pro personnel who came with Reinfeldt from the Seattle Seahawks, says Reinfeldt’s abilities to delegate, observe and decipher information are his strongest qualities.
“He’s very much an observer,” Dawson said. “That’s probably the best way to describe Mike’s personality. He likes information, as much information as possible. At that point, he’s going to process it, and he’s going to take his time.
“During the draft, he wants everyone’s opinion, not just personnel’s opinions, but also the coaches’ opinions. He wants it to be a collective decision. Ultimately, we understand that Jeff [Fisher] and Mike make the decisions, but he wants all the information.”
Director of college scouting Blake Beddingfield, a holdover from previous general manager Floyd Reese, was promoted into his current role in Reinfeldt’s first year, and says the general manager places trust in people to perform their assigned tasks well as part of the process.
“The biggest difference between Floyd and Mike is that Floyd was all about football. Mike is a really good manager of people,” Beddingfield said. “He trusts the people he has in place, he’s a good listener, values everyone’s opinion and input, whether it is coaches, scouting or the salary cap and administrative process. Ultimately the decision rests with him, but he listens and takes input from everyone before making that decision.
“I enjoyed working for Floyd, and I really enjoy working with Mike too, because he’s such a good listener and has an open-door policy. He’s honest, and he lets people do their work.”
Those who deal with Reinfeldt and the Titans say the organizational philosophy toward them hasn’t really shifted that much since Reinfeldt’s arrival.
“I like both guys, Mike and Floyd,” agent Peter Schaffer said. “Mike and I have known each other for 15 to 18 years, going back to Seattle and even Green Bay. I don’t think there’s been a huge change in the way they do business over there. Both treated players and agents with respect and fairly. … The Titans have always been one of the teams that have been fair and professional to deal with.
“They have different strengths, but in terms of dealing with players and agents, from that perspective, they have a lot of similarities.”
Many of the changes in the Titans organization in the transition from Reese to Reinfeldt have been subtle, but are evident nonetheless.
One thing that Reinfeldt is keen on is getting plenty of bang for his buck when a contract is negotiated.
With this year’s rookie class, the Titans are dealing in four-year contracts, rather than three-year deals, thereby helping to eliminate restricted free agency. This past off-season, the team’s salary cap situation was set up in such a way that the team had no unrestricted free agents.
“When I first came here, we really wanted four-year deals with escalators. There are some changes that we wanted to put in rookie contracts,” Reinfeldt said. “Vin [Marino, who handles the bulk of negotiations] has done a good job with being consistent. Teams kind of know what we’re going to do now, and I think it kind of simplifies the procedure.
“As I perceive it, there’s value in that fourth year. It still gives you the chance to redo guys early, but you can control it a little bit more.”
And while Reinfeldt has been a bit deliberate in free agency, he has moved quickly to lock up the 2009 draft class, with eight players under contract more than two weeks before training camp.
Perhaps the major difference between Reinfeldt and Reese is their approach to the salary cap. Reese always kept the Titans tight against the cap, knowing someday a day of reckoning would come after a championship window of opportunity had closed. That happened in 2005.
Reese kept his well-paid “core group” around as long as the cap space was available (Jevon Kearse was the notable exception). The Titans made sure to keep the likes of Eddie George, Steve McNair and Keith Bulluck in place and built around them, often filling in the pieces with rookies and role players, some of whom were cast off from other teams.
Reinfeldt, on the other hand, even with an increasing salary cap, is far less likely to dole out superstar money to a few players. Just ask Albert Haynesworth, who got more in guaranteed money ($41 million) from the Redskins than the Titans’ whole package of $34 million that was on the table.
“I don’t know if it goes back to him having been involved in the cap and involved in being a negotiations guy and having to deal with numbers, and being involved with finance and math and applying that to the football side,” Dawson said. “Also, I think playing safety, you have to be able to process things. He played so many years in the league, and he got to see the whole picture, not just looking at one thing. I think that’s just how his mind works.”
Whatever it is, Reinfeldt believes that a team can consistently live within its salary cap means and be a playoff contender as well.
“I think you have to manage the cap carefully. I think you have to manage this year and future years,” Reinfeldt said. “I think you look toward building your team through the draft, and if you do those things right, and if you have an experienced, really qualified coaching staff, you can have the type of team that can make a serious playoff run every year. I think it’s been shown that it’s possible in the NFL, and that’s what we’d like to have here.”
Another difference is that Reinfeldt appears much more content to do his work behind the scenes, and hand-in-hand with Fisher, who after more than 14 years as head coach, is the face of the franchise.
It’s a relationship that works for both men and for the Titans organization.
“We’re drafting well and the draft picks are playing. Mike is great to work with, and we talk many times a day every day,” Fisher said.
Reinfeldt said the relationship is based on communication and respect for each other.
“I think we have a really good relationship. I think there’s a lot of mutual respect and good communication. There’s input by both sides,” he said. “We meet, we talk, and we kind of work through things. It’s amazing that if you take the time to work through things, you kind of all arrive at the same decision.”