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Realistic middle ground needs to be established

2/3/2006 - NFL

DETROIT -- Commissioner Paul Tagliabue delivered what has come to be known as his "State of the NFL" address Friday morning and, in the hour-long session, there was plenty of emphasis on the "L" part of things.

Labor strife. Los Angeles. Lack of minority hiring. Louisiana. Las Vegas.

Those issues, somewhat predictably, dominated Tagliabue's remarks, as well as the annual question-and-answer period that followed. Perhaps the commissioner's most sobering message was his reiteration that progress has barely been even incremental on a proposed extension to the collective bargaining agreement, a negotiating stalemate that could propel the league into an "uncapped" year for the 2007 season.

Tagliabue's assessment of the discussions was more measured than the borderline vitriol of NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, who Thursday suggested the union is prepared to decertify, as it did in 1987, and to litigate the matter. Even if Tagliabue's words weren't as inflammatory, his conclusion was the same: The lack of progress is troubling.

"There needs to be an additional dose of reality from both sides," said Tagliabue, who stressed the importance of maintaining competitive balance while still rewarding players fairly. "No, there has not been as much progress as I had hoped. We need more reality as to where the middle [ground] is ... and that isn't there right now."

The commissioner, who sounded anything but optimistic about movement in the talks, said he does not agree with Upshaw's stance that the NFLPA is headed to decertification and the league destined for another contentious round of courtroom battles like the ones that marked much of the 1980s. Sources said that the two men met Thursday after Upshaw's remarks but that considerable hurdles remain in bargaining the latest addendum to the labor peace that has helped fuel the NFL's success.

"We need a deal, it's as simple as that," said New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft after the commissioner's address.

Only a few weeks ago, the NFLPA rejected a new league proposal, and Tagliabue all but conceded there is little hope of being able to present owners with the framework for an extension at the annual league meeting in March in Orlando, Fla. Upshaw suggested that if the two sides get past March 3 -- when free agency begins -- without an accord, then the 2007 campaign likely will be played as an "uncapped" year. And Upshaw has maintained throughout the discussions that, if the cap disappears, the players will never permit him to negotiate another spending limit.

Other matters touched on by Tagliabue:

• Although the "Rooney Rule" served to promote more interviews of minority candidates for head coaching vacancies, the NFL might need to approach the problem "in different ways," the commissioner conceded. None of the new head coaches is a minority and, although Tagliabue said the league isn't "back to the old process," he was disappointed with the results during the recent hiring cycle.

• The league continues to move forward with two sites in Southern California, the Los Angeles Coliseum and Anaheim, as possibilities for returning to the market. But the lack of a collective bargaining extension, Tagliabue allowed, could slow the process. The commissioner said the failed labor talks could be "a considerable complication" to the plans to place a team in the Los Angeles market.

• League officials continue to work with New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson toward resuscitating the franchise in the hurricane-ravaged city. League officials still hope the Saints will be able to play their entire home schedule in a refurbished Louisiana Superdome, but Tagliabue conceded that time is of the essence. Said the commissioner: "We need to get moving and get moving quickly."

• Hardly naive about the role gambling has played in the popularity of the Super Bowl and the league in general, Tagliabue essentially said there is little the NFL can do to curb wagering on its games. "It's not my job," Tagliabue said, "to establish the mores of America."

• Recent contracts to which the Washington Redskins have signed assistant coaches -- notably coordinators Gregg Williams and Al Saunders, each of whom received deals that average more than $2 million per year -- could force the league to examine coaching payrolls more closely. Tagliabue did note that there is no perceived correlation between the coaching salaries and a team's success. "The jury's still out," he said.

• A proposal by the Kansas City Chiefs to expand the current 12-team playoff field by two entries will be examined, but there seems to be little support for it. "I'd have to say I'm skeptical," Tagliabue said.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.