A couple of weeks ago, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his chief TV negotiator, Browns owner Art Modell, were leaving the Drake Hotel in Manhattan after putting the finishing touches on the league's new $752 million contract with NBC. "Let's get some pizza," Modell said. And off they went to a mid-town pizza joint, where they clinked glasses of beer before eating. "To a job well done," Tagliabue toasted.
As far as the league is concerned, a toast is in order for nearly everything Tagliabue has accomplished in his six months on the job, and the rave notices continued through last week's annual league meetings in Orlando, Fla. Even the old-guard owners who fought so hard to get Jim Finks elected commissioner are now in Tagliabue's corner. "If this were a Broadway show," said Modell, once a staunch Finks man, "the early reviews would be boffo. He's had an absolute missile launch to his career."
The early highlights:
•The TV contract (SI, March 19). The NFL wound up with the biggest payoff in television history—$3.64 billion over four years, from CBS, NBC, ABC, ESPN and TBS. Tagliabue and the TV committee assembled an escalating deal ($26.1 million per club in 1990, followed by $30 million, $35.2 million and $39.1 million) to soften the impact on the networks' coffers.
•Reaching out to the union. Tagliabue has talked with NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw about trying to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement. Last week Tagliabue appointed a committee to explore solutions to the stalemate, which is in its third year. At the same time, his criticism of the union has been blunt. "When I talked to players from four teams last fall, their response to me was, "Save us from our union.' It was like a victims' rights movement," says Tagliabue.
•An expanded steroid policy. In the past, testing took place only during training camp. Now players will be selected at random for unannounced testing during the regular season. In addition, all participants in postseason play will be tested, and some players will even be tested in the off-season.
Tagliabue's biggest achievement may be the swiftness with which he has won the owners' confidence. After informing them of his random-testing plan, Tagliabue listened to a few comments and then, according to one club official, said, "We're not going to talk about it. We're going to do it." It was done.
At the same time, he is a conciliator. For example, he has attempted to make peace between coaches and game officials, who have been feuding more than usual in recent seasons. Tagliabue brought five officials together with 27 coaches in Orlando for an airing-out session. "The best meeting I've had in seven years in this league," said Bengal coach Sam Wyche.
How long will these good feelings last? One of Tagliabue's best friends, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, recently wrote him, enclosing a sample of the glowing clippings about Tagliabue's reign. "In politics we call this a honeymoon," wrote Alexander. "Sooner or later, it will come to an end." Later, the league hopes.
It's amazing how owners who oppose instant replay find reasons to become pro-replay five minutes before voting on whether to continue the system. Last year—in spite of growing sentiment against it—instant replay was approved for a fourth year, mainly as a tribute to one of its more vocal advocates, Pete Rozelle, who had just announced his plans to retire as commissioner. Tagliabue pushed instant replay through again, in Orlando, even though the competition committee opposed it.
The night before the meetings began, Tagliabue watched a tape of all of last season's 65 reversed decisions. Then he told the owners that without instant replay coaches would resume their griping to the NFL office about controversial calls and the league would take its licks ad nauseam from TV highlights. The replay measure needed 21 votes to pass, and with the tally at 20-7 in favor, the floor was handed to Eagle owner Norman Braman, who said he opposed instant replay in theory and in practice. Then he voted for it, out of respect for Tagliabue, he said.
The Buccaneers pondered making Bears running back Neal Anderson an offer but decided otherwise. At 25, Anderson, who rushed for 1,275 yards last season, second-most in the NFC, certainly seems worth the required two No. 1 draft choices and his asking price of $1.75 million a year. What's more, Chicago would probably not match that amount. Another prime free agent, Bengal safety David Fulcher, is also still available. Fulcher, 25, could anchor anyone's secondary for several years.
So why are there no takers for either player? Well, consider—as most teams apparently have—the lesson provided by the Broncos. Last year Denver made Bruce Smith, the Bills' All-Pro defensive end, an offer, but Buffalo matched it and Smith stayed put. Had the Bills allowed Smith to leave, Denver would not have been able to draft safety Steve Atwater or running back Bobby Humphrey. And without those two key players, the Broncos would not have made it to the Super Bowl.
Quarterback Don Majkowski, who transformed the Green Bay Packers into contenders last season, hasn't generated any interest either. The publicly owned Packers have more than $30 million in the bank and would most likely match any offer for Majkowski. "And the people in Wisconsin would burn Lambeau Field to the ground if they lost him," said one coach.
The market for Colt running back Eric Dickerson, who would like to be traded to a contender, is bearish. He'll be 30 when the season starts and has already carried the ball 173 more times than Jim Brown did in his career. Dickerson makes $1.45 million a year, and he wants $2 million. "There's a one-in-a-thousand chance he'll be traded," says Indianapolis coach Ron Meyer. The Colts have given Dickerson permission to talk to the Giants, the Raiders, the Redskins and the Oilers, but right now Indy could not get two first-round picks for Dickerson, and it wants three....
Even if quarterback Dan Marino, who wants out of Miami, holds out well into camp, the Dolphins won't deal him....
Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, due to make $1.21 million this year, is certain to hold out. Taylor, 31, the game's highest-paid defensive player for four of the last six seasons, wants one more contract, at $2 million a year, before calling it quits....
Coach Jerry Glanville may have moved from Houston to Atlanta, but he'll still wear a bulletproof vest during certain road games, as he did several times last year with the Oilers....
The NFL is inching snaillike toward some semblance of racial balance within its coaching ranks, with the off-season appointments of the league's only black offensive coordinators, Ray Sherman in Atlanta and Jimmy Raye in New England. At present, there are no black defensive coordinators. The league's three-year-old intern program, which gives black coaching candidates pro experience during training camps, has seen four of those prospects earn full-time assistant coaching jobs. "Is it significant? Yes," says David Cornwell, the NFL's director of equal employment. "Is it sufficient? No."
Anderson has put himself up for sale but hasn't found a buyer.