Packers, Steelers, Goodell on center stage as Super Bowl nears
Calm before the Super Bowl storm calls for chilly temperatures in Texas
Knocking down the myth of an East Coast bias in Hall of Fame voting
Making sense of the Jeff Fisher departure, plus Ten Things I Think I Think
DALLAS -- Welcome to Super Bowl XLV prep week, where Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has done everything in his power to make Pittsburgh and Green Bay feel at home when they arrive this afternoon in the Metroplex. He's even imported northern practice weather, this wonderfully considerate man has. When the Packers and Steelers practice Wednesday through Friday -- Green Bay at the Cowboys' complex in Irving, Pittsburgh at the Texas Christian University facility in Fort Worth, 38 miles west of here -- the daily high temps will be 27, 36 and 38, respectively. Oh, and with snow showers and wintry mix off and on. Gotta love these temperate Super Bowl sites.
Just for fun, let's look at the high for those three days in East Rutherford, where the Super Bowl, ridiculously, is scheduled to be played in 2014. The highs: 40, 22 and 31. So, the average high in and around Arlington, where the Super Bowl will be played Sunday, 34 for the three practice days. In New Jersey: 31.
Miami: 80. (True: Miami is predicted to have highs of 82, 79 and 79.) Hey, but who's counting?
It's the calm before the Super storm, with one NFL team taking advantage of a quiet week to fire one more coach, while I started looking forward to Saturday's raucous Hall of Fame debate with some startling stats about the (non-) East Coast Bias of the Hall; listened to a skeptical and hugely respected knight of the keyboard gush over the Packers; found out what has increased in sporting value 246 times in 44 years; discovered the best remake of a film maybe ever; and learned something about the most upstart draft prospect of 2011. Fellow named Colin Kaepernick.
We'll start off with a tease for a project of mine. I've spent some time this season following Commissioner Roger Goodell around for a story due to run in Sports Illustrated this week. It's the longest piece I've done for the magazine, around 6,800 words (if the editors are kind). It's not so much about the labor deal, more about just who this guy is -- though, obviously, I try to illustrate whether he can bridge the oceanic gap in these talks between players and owners.
You'll like the stuff about his showdown with Michael Vick, how much his mother worried about him as a kid, a racist drunk with a gun who tested Goodell in college, and how he solved a crisis with Tank Johnson, but there are some pretty good things I didn't get in, just because it's been a very interesting life so far. So this morning I want to give you the five items that I hope you'll find interesting in advance of this week's magazine story, and then some Super Bowl and Hall of Fame nuggets.
Paul Tagliabue doesn't regret his 2006 deal. You know, the one everyone blames him for pushing through and causing this current mess. "We knew it'd be terminated at the earliest possible date,'' Tagliabue told me of the March 2006 deal that had an opt-out date after just two seasons for either side. "We knew it wasn't sustainable long-term.''
The owners opted out, of course, meaning there would be guaranteed football through 2010 instead of through 2012. That's where we stand now. Tagliabue said then-NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw had a clear understanding that the deal would be shortened, with the implication being that Upshaw understood the owners would need some relief from the deal if it became too one-sided for the players. That's what the owners are claiming now and what the players don't accept.
I had never heard it said that Upshaw had such an understanding -- he died of pancreatic cancer in August 2008, three months after the owners opted out. I asked longtime NFLPA lawyer Richard Berthelsen if Upshaw ever shared that with him. "I don't recall Gene ever saying this was going to be a deal that was destined to be reopened,'' Berthelsen said. "Paul was not saying that to Gene either, before we reached the settlement or in the wake of it, to my knowledge.''
This is the deal that looks so bad in retrospect. It's the deal that might well be keeping Tagliabue out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the thinking being that he shepherded the deal through ownership without being concerned about the aftermath. Though the league is finishing its 23rd straight season with labor peace, and Tagliabue has been out of office for 53 months, he'll get the lion's share of the blame if there's a lockout come March 4, as currently forecast.
He seemed nonplused about it. "Would it have been better,'' he asked me, "If we'd had a lockout in '07 or '08? No. Not at all. The league has had three or four great seasons of football since then.''
He's got that right. And it's also correct to say the 30 owners who voted for the deal in 2006 will have to take their share of the blame too if there's a lockout. They voted to approve a deal -- all but Mike Brown of Cincinnati and Ralph Wilson of Buffalo -- knowing they were giving up too much of what they held dear. But it won't take the spotlight off Tagliabue if games are missed in 2011. And there seems little hope for a resolution in short order.
"History shows there's no real pressure to get a deal 'til you get to September,'' Tagliabue said. Cue the ominous bass drums.
Goodell is adamant that he doesn't want to wait until September for a deal, whatever good that does. "The damage will start occurring and escalating by March," he said. "I say that on all levels. The owners will be forced to take certain steps, the players forced to go to litigation and perhaps decertification [of the union], and those things that are difficult to unwind. Will fans put money down for season tickets? Will sponsors set aside money to advertise on games they're not sure will be played? My fear is that players think there won't be any damage done until we miss games. Not true. Also, what's your free-agency window going to be if this goes far?''
Goodell's friends think he's working too hard. "I'm mad at him right now,'' Jerry Richardson, a key negotiator for the owners and confidant of Goodell, told me in December. When I asked why, he wouldn't say. But Goodell said it's because Richardson believes he's working too hard.
And Richardson did say to me: "He's a workaholic, whether it's Congress, the owners, the CBA, player behavior. I have told him he can't keep going at this pace.''
Richardson is not the only owner who feels this way. One of Goodell's staunchest allies, New England's Robert Kraft, told me: "I am afraid he's going to burn out. He is indefatigable.''
Goodell works out for 60 to 90 minutes, six mornings a week, starting at 5:30. It's almost like he knows if he doesn't train for the exhausting duty ahead, mentally and physically, he won't make it. "His intellect at so many different projects is much greater than we gave him credit for during the interview process,'' Kraft said. "And his demeanor, everywhere, is so positive. When he meets people, it's not just a banquet-circuit how-you-doing. He has legitimate conversations with total strangers. It must go back to the values his dad and mom instilled in him.''
I saw Goodell, at a Skyline Chili parlor in downtown Cincinnati, spend four or five minutes with a fan. He invited the two city cops assigned to escort him around town in for lunch with his party. The motorcycle cop said to me, "This doesn't happen in this line of work.''
"He is a very well-trusted man,'' Richardson said. "He has always given me a feeling that I could trust him, going back to when we in Charlotte were one of about eight cities vying for an expansion franchise. Either you have that or you don't, and he protects confidence as well as anyone I've met.''
Goodell said he "doesn't feel any connection'' with Ben Roethlisberger. Not too surprising there. I'd always heard Roethlisberger felt he got railroaded on his six-game suspension that was reduced to four. But Goodell said he had "some very tough times'' with Chicago defensive tackle Tank Johnson before suspending him, and that Donte' Stallworth chafed when first told he'd be suspended for a year after a car Stallworth was driving struck a man on a Miami causeway and killed him, with the player being legally drunk at the time.
"The one thing I take a little bit of issue with is when guys tell me they're being screwed,'' Goodell said. "[Most often] they're not recognizing they have a role in it.'' Regarding Roethlisberger, Goodell said when he was investigating what to do with the quarterback, he talked to "I bet two dozen players ... Not one, not a single player, went to his defense. It wasn't personal in a sense, but all kinds of stories like, 'He won't sign my jersey.' ''
(Editor's Note: Read Peter King's clarification on Goodell's quote here.)
He says he thinks Mike Vick "is sincerely trying.'' And he isn't blind to the fact that the story isn't over, that Vick needs to prove so much more than he can prove in one successful season. "I do believe we need more success stories,'' Goodell said of Vick. "Too much of our society looks for people to fail. I'm not doing this because I felt sorry for Michael. I felt that because he'd been accountable, he had taken responsibility, and he wanted to make a positive difference. But he needed help getting there. That's why we did sort of a 'stage' return ... But Michael said to me, he said my number one goal is to make you proud and ... win that Super Bowl and be that MVP. We talk about that every once in a while. And it could happen. It would be a pretty cool moment.''
And finally ... This is what Goodell told me about how he wanted to live his professional and personal life: "The one thing I would hope would go on my tombstone is, 'I made my parents proud.' ''