Protecting his legacy


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Jan 22, 2006
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Protecting his legacy

Don Banks,

If NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue can somehow cobble together 24 votes from his fractious group of 32 owners who are meeting this week in Dallas, thereby accepting what the players union claims is its final offer to extend the league's collective bargaining agreement until 2012, it will represent the ultimate display of leadership in his 17-year tenure and almost undoubtedly be his cue to exit the stage and retire.

At least that's the commonly held belief among many club executives within the league.

"If this does get done, I'll bet you a steak dinner anywhere that he doesn't stay for the last two years of his contract,'' a high-level club executive told me Tuesday morning. "Paul's made big money for a long time. He won't stay just for the money. Maybe he stays through this season. But I wouldn't be shocked at all if he gets this thing done and then announces he's leaving after next season's Super Bowl.

"What more can he do? The TV deal is done. The CBA would be done. Things would be in place. This is the last major piece for him.''

Such are the considerations that sometimes decide matters of great import, and that's why Tagliabue's legacy is no small footnote in these contentious CBA talks. His determination not to have his largely successful watch end on a note of damaging labor strife could be the NFL's best hope to strike a deal with its players and avoid further escalation and the looming specter of a work stoppage in 2008.

That's why sources within the league say Tagliabue is preparing for a two-day "Come to Jesus-style'' owners meeting in Dallas. He's willing to lock the doors, order in lunch, dinner and breakfast if need be, and throw the sum total of his executive clout behind the union's latest proposal.

Tagliabue must make a convincing argument to so many diverse constituencies within the ownership and be ready to answer and assuage the concerns that spring forth from a complicated set of issues that feature so many different moving parts. It will be far and away his greatest test since succeeding Pete Rozelle in 1989, but it would represent the ideal exclamation point to end on.

"I'm the eternal optimist, but if I were a betting man, I'd say we get a deal done,'' the club executive said. "As a negotiator, Paul, in my view, would not present this proposal to the owners unless he was willing to put his full force behind it. He's a prideful man, a very intelligent man. And he's had a great run. I personally don't think he has any desire to go out on a bad note. He doesn't want a failure on this front to be the last chapter of his legacy. I think that motivates him.''

Now we'll see, maybe one last time, how much Tagliabue can motivate the discordant group of owners he works for and answers to.

• If a labor deal is to get done, either somebody within the block of high-revenue teams, who are against the notion of sharing too much of their local revenues, or somebody in the block of low-revenue teams, who are just as adamantly in favor of such level-the-playing-field methods, will have to play the role of statesman, putting the good of the league above their own interests.

Who will it be? In talking to club officials, the two most likely candidates seem to be Patriots owner Bob Kraft or Houston's Bob McNair, who have been staunch members of the high-revenue camp.

"Kraft and McNair are the voice of reason,'' one league insider said. "If anyone is going to lead that compromise, it'll be one of them.''

• How all-consuming has the specter of the NFL's never-ending CBA saga been in the past week?

Let me answer that with another question. Did you ever think you'd see the day when the NFL's reigning MVP -- fresh off an 1,880-yard rushing season with a league-record 28 touchdowns -- would re-sign with his old team to barely avoid free agency and hardly anyone even noticed?

Check out Monday morning's New York Times. It ran all of one not-so-fat paragraph about Seattle running back Shaun Alexander re-upping with the NFC defending champion Seahawks late Sunday night. Remarkable, but that's how much the CBA story drowned out all else.

• When free agency finally starts, three of the first dominoes to fall could be Drew Brees becoming a Dolphin, LeCharles Bentley signing on with the Eagles and Adam Vinatieri taking his cold-weather kicking to Green Bay. All three of those moves make entirely too much sense not to happen.

• Somebody out there could always make the mistake of helping LaVar Arrington recoup that $4.4 million he forfeited to buy his way out of his Washington contract. But if you've been paying attention the past three years or so -- to the injuries, to the coaches who have grown frustrated with his act and to his penchant for self-aggrandizing -- I don't know why you would invest big money in a player whose reputation far exceeds his recent production.

• Business is always business in the bottom-line world of the NFL, but how awkward must it be to cut a player -- like Oakland chose to do with quarterback Kerry Collins on Sunday night -- and then be able to rescind the move when the start of free agency gets bumped back three days? Collins has been through worse and he knows he can't afford to get his feelings hurt. But there are some strange scenarios being playing out thanks to these on-again, off-again CBA talks.

• That was a kick save and a beauty by Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan in terms of a career rehabilitation last season. Thrown on the scrap heap by Minnesota late in 2004, Hovan couldn't even earn his way onto the active game-day roster when the Vikings went to the playoffs. But one superb job of run-stuffing later, Hovan turned his veteran minimum 2005 salary in Tampa Bay into a new five-year, $17.5 million contract.

• If a CBA extension doesn't get done and teams have to get down to a $94.5 million salary cap this season, it has been said the Washington Redskins may have to play with almost an unprecedented number of rookies and NFL-minimum salary veterans in 2006 (maybe they could change from Redskins to Greenhorns and solve that whole messy nickname controversy).

It would be kind of intriguing to see if Joe Gibbs could get that group to the playoffs, in the process cementing his legendary coaching status once and for all. Oh, and put me down for Week 3 in the when-will-Clinton Portis-pop-off pool. Something tells me Washington's star running back wouldn't be all that hip to wasting a season playing with a watered-down roster.

• I haven't seen this reported anywhere, but it turns out this whole CBA extension process has been slowed by the Redskins gamely holding out for a reduced salary cap. Not for the players. For the coaches. With Gibbs making such big bucks, and three of his assistants pulling down seven figures a year -- Gregg Williams, Al Saunders and Greg Blache -- Daniel Snyder has got to be saying, ''Stop me, before I over-spend again.''

• News flash: In truth, owners such as Snyder, Jerry Jones and Kraft aren't exactly scared of life in an uncapped NFL. They'd welcome it. The way they see it, they'd be fine with no restrictor plates on their wallets.

• Just wondering, but after the wild events of this weekend's CBA negotiations, would I be wise to check with Gene Upshaw and Tagliabue every night before I turn in? Just to make sure they're not still trading e-mails and making news at the midnight hour?;
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