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Original Issue

Roger That

With a labor war looming, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell artfully showed who's boss of all the bosses

Pete Rozelle, during his tenure as NFL commissioner from 1960 through '89, used to move around the room at NFL owners' meetings, cigarette in hand, making his presence felt, lobbying for the cause of the day and usually getting his way. Last week at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Roger Goodell, commissioner since 2006, moved around the room, bottle of water in hand, lobbying for his cause of the day: reforming overtime in the postseason. This would not have happened during the reign of Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, who preferred formal presentations. "Don't let perfect stand in the way of better," Goodell said to owners as they considered whether to enact a modified sudden death, under which both teams would get a possession on offense unless there was a touchdown or a safety on the first series after the coin flip.

There are many interesting angles to the owners' approval of the new overtime rule (by a 28--4 vote), not the least of which is that a clear majority of coaches and general managers oppose it, some vehemently. "I hate it," says Sean Payton, coach of the Super Bowl champion Saints. But as the league enters its year of living dangerously—one that will be highlighted by negotiations with players to avoid a work stoppage when the current collective bargaining agreement expires next March—the recognition of Goodell's influence is as significant as anything that happened at the four-day meeting. "That's spot on," one of the league's power-broker owners, Robert Kraft of the Patriots, said last Friday. "That vote sent a message that we're a united group heading into a very important year for the league."

Just as the owners look for little cracks in player solidarity under new players' association executive director DeMaurice Smith (there are none—yet), so do the players look for fissures within the owners' group. The gulf between the two sides is oceanic. Of the league's $8 billion of total annual revenue, the owners want to remove $1 billion from the players' salary pool, to credit the bosses for all the new stadiums built in recent seasons. The players say it's not their job to fund infrastructure. It's doubtful they will budge much, particularly with the tough-talking Smith in his first negotiation with the owners. But don't expect Goodell to back down either.

Last week left some coaches bitter at the way the overtime change was ramrodded through—they were on an afternoon golf outing—but the owners adjourned "as united as at any point in the 17 years we've owned the Patriots," Kraft declares. The Raiders, always a burr in the league's saddle, voted with Goodell. The Jets, whose owner, Woody Johnson, was furious with the commissioner for the clandestine coin flip that awarded the Giants the first game in the new stadium the two New York teams share, voted with Goodell. Kraft, whose Pats were docked a first-round pick and $250,000 for the 2007 Spygate affair, not only voted with the commissioner but also lobbied his peers in the room.

The owners were in general agreement that the current overtime rules were not equitable for the playoffs. In the first 19 years of overtime, the team winning the coin toss went on to win almost 47% of the time. In the last 16 years that number rose to almost 60%. The coin-flip winner had an unfair advantage because of the skyrocketing efficiency of field goal kickers, whose success rate stands at 82% over the past five years. There were many ideas for rectifying the growing imbalance, but Goodell worried that a consensus wouldn't be found. He chose to push the reform proposal suggested by his Competition Committee because he felt it had the best chance of passing. The message: Coaches coach. Owners own. Commissioners build bridges on tough issues.

"What was interesting," Kraft says, "is that a lot of people either were opposed to the proposal or indifferent to it when we arrived at the meetings. But Roger wanted it. He's a subtle leader, an impartial arbiter. His collegial qualities really showed, and those are the qualities we're going to need in the next year." In that way Goodell has become a little more like Rozelle, a delegating, consensus-building diplomat, than like Tagliabue, a nuanced lawyer. Goodell will leave the nuts and bolts of the player negotiations to NFL executive V.P. and general counsel Jeff Pash, but the commissioner will be intimately involved.

The question remains whether the owners can stay as united as they were last week through the roller coaster of the next 12 months, with sky-is-falling headlines and saber rattling on both sides. Last week's show of unity behind Goodell, coming on the heels of the NFLPA's unanimous demonstration of support for Smith and president Kevin Mawae at the annual union meeting in Hawaii, might be good signs for each side, but it can't be good news for fans, who don't care which will bend. If the results of the overtime negotiations are an indicator, it won't be the bosses.

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Goodell has become like Pete Rozelle, a DELEGATING, CONSENSUS-BUILDING DIPLOMAT.