DURING THE contentious NFL collective bargaining agreement negotiations last week outside Dallas, Eagles owner Jeff Lurie voiced the questions on many owners' minds. What's the urgency to make a deal if many of us don't like it? What's so bad about an agreement with only limited revenue sharing, like the one baseball has? Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, aware of Lurie's ability to sway his peers, knew it was time for an iron fist. "I said, 'If you think baseball's system is better than a collectively bargained system with a salary cap, you've got to be out of your mind,'" Tagliabue told SI last Saturday.
Tagliabue has always shown the same blunt, cold-fish persona, whether he's dealing with team owners or the public, but it's precisely those qualities that the NFL will miss when he retires. And that day is coming. Though Tagliabue, 65, dismissed an ESPN report last week that said his departure is imminent, there's little doubt that the new CBA he shepherded through last week will be one of the last major achievements of his 17-year reign. One club executive close to Tagliabue told SI he expects the commissioner to cede the office within a year, though Tagliabue acknowledges he could stay on in some advisory capacity.
Some insiders think Tagliabue's personal pick for his successor is NFL executive vice president Roger Goodell, 47, who oversees much of the league's business operations and knows very well the political lay of the land. Another possibility is Atlanta president and G.M. Rich McKay, 47, who is also the cochair of the league's rules-making Competition Committee. But the ultimate winner might be a dark-horse candidate: Ravens president Dick Cass, who fits the modern-day mold of a sports commissioner. The 60-year-old Princeton grad has a law degree from Yale and is a partner in a D.C. firm. He brokered the sale of the Redskins to Dan Snyder in 1999, then helped engineer the purchase of the Ravens by owner Steve Bisciotti in 2000. (Bisciotti appointed him team president in '04.) Whoever becomes the new commissioner, he must have the ability to move adroitly among interest groups. Cass has the respect of big-market owners like Snyder and Dallas's Jerry Jones, who once employed Cass as staff counsel. And during last week's negotiations, Cass played a key role in brokering a revenue-sharing plan that was acceptable to mid-market teams. Said one club executive, "I could see him as a good compromise candidate."