When talking with Miguel Benzan about Patriots football and the NFL salary cap, it's easy to lose track of time.
Our phone call was to be a brief exchange between myself and the distinguished "cap guru" regarding how his work got started, accented perhaps with a few of his thoughts on NFL free agency. We quickly meandered off track.
Ping-ponging between topics such as the current state of the NFL, popular salary cap misconceptions, the delicate balance between his work and his passions, the 2001 Super Bowl, and just about everywhere in between, two hours vanished. His passion and energy made a conversation between two individuals separated by almost 1,000 miles seem as if it were taking place on the back porch of his north central Connecticut home.
For those unfamiliar, Miguel Benzan is the foremost authority on all things related to the New England Patriot's salary cap. He is the first to create a website (patscap.com) dedicated to following an NFL team's salary cap. It's been his passion since the 2001 season.
He believes the benefits of understanding the NFL salary cap are simple. If you understand the way your team functions from a cap perspective, you can better understand how and why they make the decisions and transactions they make.
These days you’ll commonly find his work cited by prominent New England media members like ESPN’s Mike Reiss and CSNE’s Tom E. Curran. His burgeoning Twitter presence has his follower count over 15,700, and continuing to grow.
We spent the first few minutes of the conversation as most Patriots fans do these days, sharing our personal experiences from Super Bowl 51. Our anguish evolving into faint hope and somehow culminating into exhilaration. We all have our personal moment in the second half of that game when we started believing. Dont’a Hightower's strip-sack was Miguel's moment.
We eventually settled down and jumped into a multitude of topics. Nothing in our conversation was chronological, but at some point in the discussion I did manage to ask how this entire thing got started.
“I was looking in the Boston Globe one day, and the figures they had on a guy’s salary were different from what I saw somewhere else, so I decided to start keeping track of it.” Benzan said.
His Massachusetts accent is thick, as you would expect from someone who has spent his entire life in New England. He was born in Massachusetts and lived there until he moved to Connecticut for work in 1995, where he and his wife have raised a family.
"I started looking at the CBA and the way it related to players’ salaries...I don't claim to know every little thing about it. I couldn't tell you all the stuff on the benefits side of the CBA like retirement and league revenues. I just know the stuff that affects the Patriots players..."
There it was — his modesty. It was common thread that weaved throughout our conversation. He has no issue admitting he doesn’t know something, or when he gets something wrong.
“Dont’a Hightower, that is one I got totally wrong.” he expressed while discussing the linebacker’s contract negotiations, “I thought for sure that they were going to have his extension done by the end of (the 2016 calendar year).”
It should come as little surprise to anyone that a former college economics major who has spent his career in the IT industry created a website dedicated to the financial analytics of a team. What is potentially surprising is how little his professional life merges with his growing persona as the “Patriots cap guy”. In fact, it doesn’t at all.
“My work is my work, plain and simple.” he said. “I don’t check my phone while I’m working, I’m not checking Twitter. If I’m on a break or something, yea I might check it out, but my work is my work.”
“People think I do this full-time and I try to tell them, no, this is a hobby. Would I love to do it full-time? Yes, absolutely, but I have a life too.”
I asked if people at work knew who he was. His answer was interesting.
“Some people do, but really a majority of them don’t. You have to be a really big Pats fan, or salary cap fans, or be on Twitter a lot to know me. My real close friends, yea they all know. But I don’t tell anyone else really. Again, work is work.”
A handful of random thoughts/questions we chatted about:
Greatest Patriots game you’ve ever been to?
“Super Bowl 36 in New Orleans, the Patriot’s first Super Bowl. We were in the end zone and Vinatieri’s kick fell just a few rows in front of us. We were going crazy.”
You’ve said the Patriots are the best in football at cap management, why is that?
“Because there is no other team in the league that build its roster in as many different ways. Through the draft, free agency, practice squad promotion, they do it all. No other team does it like them.”
What other teams in football would you put towards the top in cap management?
“The Packers, I would put them up there. But again, they don’t use free agency so they aren’t using everything available to them like the Pats are.”
What is the biggest misconception about the salary cap?
“I’d say that its when a contract for a player is announced, people think the player is going to earn all of that money. Say a guy gets a deal for five years and $50 million, people think he’s getting all of that money, when in reality he’s taking home maybe, what, 40%?”
If you had the power, what would you change in the upcoming CBA?
“I would want to fix the 89% over-four-years cash spending rule and make it more like 95% or 100% over three years, something like that. More money has to get to the players.”
“I’d also make some changes to the franchise tag. I’d adjust some of the positions like linebacker so that all the linebackers aren’t grouped together where you off-the-line guys influenced by players on the edge like Von Miller.”
Who is the second greatest quarterback of all time?
“Man that’s tough. I’d have to go with Montana. But, if the question is ‘who would I want to have the ball for a final drive’, I’d say Aaron Rodgers.”
“Yup, worst case he’ll throw up one of those Hail Mary passes, he’s the best at that.”
What criticism to you catch the most on Twitter?
“I catch a lot of heat sometimes for being a (homer). What can you do? I’m a fan. Also, I realize I probably haven’t criticized a move Patriots have made since they cut Lawyer Milloy in 2003. I mean, they know a heck of a lot more than I do about what they are doing. It’s clearly been working.”
If you go to his website or Twitter page, it's hard to miss the links for The Bread of Life food pantry in Malden, MA. I asked him about it.
"You know Brian, I was pretty lucky growing up, I never had to worry about food on my table. People would ask me about the website making money, they would offer, and I just said, 'hey you know what, give it to these guys, they'll get it to people who need it.' I never got into this thing to make money, and it's awesome to see what they can do with it. "
Whether it's holding his Wednesday afternoon Twitter Q&As and answering many of the same questions week after week, generating money for charity through, or making a phone call to talk Patriots football and salary cap with a writer he only knows from Twitter, Miguel just wants to help. He wants to educate. He is open and willing to share everything with anyone who wants to learn, and he does it with an enthusiasm that only a true fan can have. Because above all, that is what Miguel is. He's a fan.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked what the end-game was for him. Where was it all leading?
"The plan is to take the next step and move forward with turning this into something I can do professionally for an organization. I've been reaching out to people I’ve made connections with ro see what I'd have to do. If it requires a new degree, I'll do that. But that is the next step."
The one organization Miguel would not take a position with? You could probably guess. The Jets.
“Yup, no way. That’s the only one. I’d work for any other team, no problem. But not the Jets.”
I told you he was a fan.
In part two of this piece we delve into the salary cap specifics pertaining to the start of the 2017 NFL league year: free gency, Jimmy Garoppolo, Calais Campbell, the Patriots’ cap space, and more.
Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @b7phillips