Tagliabue delays appointing successor committee

Updated: March 28, 2006, 12:41 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The search for Paul Tagliabue's successor may take awhile.

Taking the fun out of N-F-L
By Wednesday, NFL owners have to vote on an expansion of the taunting rules that penalize players for excessive end zone celebrations following touchdowns. Chad Johnson and Steve Smith aren't going to be happy about it.

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As the NFL meetings started Monday, Tagliabue postponed appointing a committee to begin a search for the next commissioner and was vague on when he might do it.

Nor did the owners seem in a hurry.

"It's not a race for speed, it's a race for success," said Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. "This is the CEO of a 32-team operation, so it's not the speed, it's the quality."

Houston's Bob McNair agreed.

"We need the input of all 32 owners, that is critical," he said. "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves and interview candidates before we define the position. It's difficult, it takes a lot of thought and effort to think about where you want to be in the future as a league."

The composition of the committee might not be determined by the end of this week's sessions here, and could carry over into next week, ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli reported. Tagliabue said that a corporate search firm likely will be part of the search as well, and that the firm might interview all 32 owners, seeking input into what the see as the major qualifications for the job.

Tagliabue was adamant that he will not make a recommendation to the committee on his successor. "That's not my function," he said.

One reason for the delay is trying to avoid what happened in 1989, when outgoing commissioner Pete Rozelle appointed a committee of insiders. That alienated outsiders, leading to a seven-month deadlock.

That could still happen again.

Despite a last-minute agreement on enhanced revenue sharing that resulted in an extension to the NFL's labor deal with the players' union, there is still considerable disagreement by low-revenue and high-revenue teams. Tagliabue is aware of that and will have to ensure the committee is balanced with the various factions among the owners.

Tagliabue, who has said he wants to step down in July, was asked whether he would stay on through season if he had to.

"Ask me in September," he replied with a smile.

But he also downplayed the differences in viewpoints among the owners.

"I've spoken to many owners already," he said. "I think there is a strong consensus. What is needed is a really effective leader who can be around for a good, long period of time. We need to look at what we want the NFL to look like five to 10 years from now. Whatever differences people have on particular issues will be submerged [during the search]."

That 10-year framework indicates that the new commissioner will be in his (or her) early 50s or younger. That fits the two men who have been mentioned most: Roger Goodell, 46, the NFL's chief operating officer, and Atlanta general manager Rich McKay, 47, who also is co-chairman of the league's rulemaking competition committee.

But there is a feeling that neither is close to a sure thing, in part because both are too familiar to the 32 teams and are bound to have alienated some. Goodell's 20 years in the league office may not help him with teams who sometimes look disapprovingly on edicts from New York, and McKay's position on the competition committee or as a team GM could put off others.

The day began with the last "state of the league" address by Tagliabue, whose association with the NFL dates back to 1969 when he was a 28-year-old lawyer. He took over as commissioner in 1989 after that long deadlock.

"I have been privileged to serve the NFL and its teams with -- by my count -- about 80 different principal owners," he told the owners. "Then, in recent months, my wife, Chan, pointed out that we now have head coaches in the league who were not yet born when I got started with the NFL."

Tagliabue said it was likely the owners would hire a search firm to help look for a successor, and several owners said the same about looking for executives who would fit as the next commissioner.

Several league officials and owners, however, suggested that the next commissioner would need to be familiar with the NFL's inner workings. Unlike other CEOs, he must oversee 32 teams who have common goals but are also rivals and are run in most cases by people with very strong personalities.

In other action, the competition committee recommended a series of rule changes and tweaks. They will be voted on later in the week and include:

• Getting tougher on end-zone celebrations to forbid players from demonstrating on the ground, such as doing sit-ups. They also can't use props, but can spike, dunk or spin the ball as long as they are standing up and are in the end zone.

• Modifying illegal procedure to allow receivers to flinch if they get back into position before the play and the defense doesn't react to the move.

• Toughening enforcement on pass rushers who hit quarterbacks below the knees. However, it wouldn't involve hits that defensive players can't avoid, such as the one in last year's playoffs on Cincinnati's Carson Palmer by Kimo von Oelhoffen, then with Pittsburgh, that severely injured Palmer's knee.

• Proposing that "down by contact" calls be subject to instant replay review, a proposal that was turned down last year. Currently, a play is dead once the whistle blows and the ballcarrier is ruled down by the officials. McKay said that last season there were 18 to 20 plays in which it was clear that the ball came out of a player's grasp before he was ruled down.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.