JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Given the absence of labor strife over the last decade, the NFL commissioner's annual "state of the league" address during Super Bowl week had largely been a relatively mundane affair, at least when it comes to hard news.
But with negotiations dragging on the proposed extension to the collective bargaining agreement, commissioner Paul Tagliabue was asked on Friday to address the league's labor relationship with its rank and file.
"I don't know whether I'm optimistic or pessimistic," Tagliabue said when confronted with the labor issue as the first item in the question-and-answer session that followed his opening remarks. "We have a long way to go. [NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw's] proposal would have a hard time getting the consensus of 24 owners."
It takes a three-quarters vote of the owners, or 24 of 32, to ratify any NFL rules changes or alterations to policies such as the salary cap or the collective bargaining agreement.
On Thursday, Upshaw reflected guarded optimism that a deal will be consummated, but he reiterated the stance he articulated in a league owners meeting near Detroit last October that players should now share in monies that previously were not included in the so-called designated gross revenues. The union wants revenues from local television and radio contracts, stadium club seating and luxury suites included in salary cap calcaulations.
The union contends that the amount of revenue in which the players currently don't share has risen from 30 percent to about 37 percent.
Tagliabue repeated Friday that there are some "hard differences" between the approach of the union and how the owners feel. There are some owners, though, who share Upshaw's opinion that the disparity between the eight highest-revenue teams in the league and the rest of the franchises has become too wide.
The current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2008 and both sides have agreed that an extension would take the deal through 2011. It is important that a new deal be in place a year before the current one expires. If not, the salary cap would disappear in the final year of the collective bargaining agreement and owners would be free to spend as much as they wanted on player costs. On the flip side, in an "uncapped" year, players would have to accrue six seasons, instead of four, to gain unrestricted free agency.
Upshaw repeated on Thursday his threat that, if the salary cap ever disappears for even one season, the league will never be able to restore it.
The commissioner suggested that 2005 team payrolls will average $100 million for the first time. He must have been including player benefits, however, since just three teams -- two in 2004 -- have had player payrolls of more than $100 million since the current system went into effect. The salary cap for 2005, although not yet finalized, is expected to be about $85 million, roughly a $5 million bump from 2004.
"What we know," Tagliabue said, "is that the system works. The salary cap is good for maintaining the competitive edge that we want as a league."
Upshaw and NFL vice president of labor relations Harold Henderson, who have been in discussions since last spring about the CBA extension, are scheduled to meet again in about two weeks to continue those talks.
Other areas covered by Tagliabue in the 45-minute session:
League officials remain in discussions with ABC and ESPN about the prime-time football packages. The league reached six-year television rights fees extensions with both Fox and CBS in November, but does not yet have accords with the Disney entities. "They have an interest in staying with us and we have an interest in staying with them. There is a difference of opinion, moving forward, on the value of those contracts."
The "flexible" schedule is part of the agreements the league reached with Fox and CBS. Under such a scenario, the NFL would be permitted to switch a limited number of late-season games to present more attractive matchups. The commissioner said the NFL remains in discussions with other networks, believed to be outside of its current partners, for a Thursday- and Saturday-night prime-time package.
The so-called "Rooney Rule," which stipulates that a team must interview minority candidates when filling a head coaching position, will not be extended to also cover front office vacancies. Tagliabue was reminded that the Green Bay Packers recently hired a new general manager, former Seattle Seahawks personnel director Ted Thompson, without interviewing any other candidates. Tagliabue suggested that there are not yet sufficient minority candidates for front office openings and said it would be impractical at this time to fine franchises that don't have exclusionary searches to fill some of the management vacancies.
The NFL is exploring the possibility of playing a regular-season game outside of the United States. There are ongoing discussions with officials from China about having two preseason contests there in advance of the 2008 Olympics. Tagliabue suggested that there could come a day when the NFL will expand beyond the United States borders. But asked by a reporter from Canada if there might be a franchise in Toronto "in our lifetime," the commissioner replied: "That depends on how long you expect to live."
By the May 2005 spring owners meeting, the NFL hopes to have "term sheets" signed with the four stadium sites still vying for the right to be the home for a franchise in the Los Angeles market. Returning to Los Angeles, the commissioner said, "is a top priority and has been for some time. It has been unacceptable to have been out of Los Angeles for this long." The goal had been to place a team in the nation's second-largest market for 2008, but the timetable may be pushed back to 2009. "What's more important [than the timing]," Tagliabue said, "is getting it right and making it successful for 100 years."
Tagliabue said he spoke to Emmitt Smith about a month ago concerning the future plans of the NFL's all-time leading rusher. "He talked to me," Tagliabue said, "about coming back in an ownership capacity somewhere down the line." Smith's name was linked earlier this week to the group that Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler is attempting to form to make a bid for the Minnesota Vikings, but those reports were debunked by associates of the former Dallas and Arizona running back.
The commissioner's only role in the halftime entertainment for Super Bowl XXXIX, following last year's infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction," was to "change the people, the practices and the procedures" for choosing the theme and participants in the intermission. He joked that Paul McCartney, who will be the sole halftime performer on Sunday, "was not chosen just because his first name is Paul."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.