Nearly four months into the formal search process, but less than one month now before commissioner Paul Tagliabue's targeted retirement date of Aug. 18, NFL owners will meet near Detroit on Monday, ostensibly to whittle the list of potential successors to a more workable number.
The session, which will be followed later in the week by a meeting of the search committee, is believed to represent the first time that all 32 owners will review the ponderous roster of commissioner candidates. The search committee has met, and there have been conference calls among other owners, including one within the past 10 days. But to this point, owners are holding their cards pretty close to their vests.
"[The committee] has done a good job of keeping things under wraps," said one AFC owner who is not on the committee. "Maybe too good. We might be a little too much in the dark."
Even Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, co-chairman of the search committee, acknowledged that there has not been much discussions among his brethren about who they will support. And New England owner Bob Kraft, a search committee member, allowed to The Boston Globe that the characterization of NFL chief operating officer Roger Goodell as the front-runner could well be "a kiss of death."
One thing about which there is no question is the thoroughness of the search for Tagliabue's successor, who is expected to be elected during a meeting in Chicago scheduled for Aug. 7-9.
In addition to the eight-man search committee, the league retained the firm Korn/Ferry International to aid in identifying candidates. Representatives from the corporate search firm met with all 32 league owners in an effort to discern what they felt were the traits that viable candidates had to possess.
The original list of candidates, which numbered close to 200, has been pared to about 90 now. The goal of this week's sessions in Detroit is to cut the list to about four finalists. Those finalists would then meet with all the owners, probably in groups determined along division lines, in Chicago.
As Tagliabue's top lieutenant for the last several years, and a man who has played a prominent role in most big decisions during that period, Goodell's status as early-line favorite is probably well deserved. But it is believed that other high-profile staffers from the league office, such as executive vice president of finance Eric Grubman and in-house counsel Jeffrey Pash, will have strong advocates. Two team presidents, Rich McKay of Atlanta and Baltimore's Dick Cass, have also been mentioned as potential candidates.
There is considerable speculation that at least one "outsider" -- perhaps a corporate CEO with experience in digital technologies, the catch-all category the NFL loves to toss out at the likely source for emerging new revenue streams -- will be included in the lists of finalists.
It requires a vote of two-thirds of the membership, or 22 of 32 owners, to elect a new commissioner.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.