Roger Goodell reflects on a difficult 2014 season

PHOENIX -- The commissioner's annual state of the league press conference is usually a celebration of how the NFL dominates the American sports scene, with mentions of soaring ratings and competitive games and ways to improve an already wildly popular product.

On Friday, it seemed much more like a post-mortem, a way to mark the end of one of the most difficult seasons in memory -- except that the end won't even come on Sunday, no matter who the Super Bowl champion is.

Commissioner Roger Goodell struck a much more reflective and chastened tone on Friday than he did in the fall when he held a disastrous press conference as the Ray Rice scandal raged around him. Goodell admitted that the year -- which included calls for his job -- had been difficult on him personally as well as professionally. While he said he could not envision a scenario in which he would resign or be fired, he said he had done a lot of soul searching.

"It's been a year of what I would say is humility and learning," Goodell said.

But Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a regular attendee of this event and an ardent ally of Goodell's, was noticeably absent just four days after he made clear how unhappy he is with the way the league is conducting its investigation into whether the Patriots purposefully deflated footballs used in the AFC Championship game. Kraft demanded an apology if the league turns up nothing, a rather stunning challenge to a commissioner whom he supported through his worst days.

Kraft might never get an apology, in public or private, no matter what the league turns up. But his unusual statement -- he took the microphone straight off the plane, even before Bill Belichick got to it -- served at least one purpose. It successfully pulled the attention off Belichick and Tom Brady this week, freeing them to worry about the game, and put it on the simmering dynamic between the commissioner and one of his most important bosses. That is why this season will not end on Sunday, no matter whom the confetti falls upon. The investigation into underinflated footballs, being led by outside attorney Ted Wells, is likely to take several more weeks, dragging the league into a new season under the same cloud of controversy that shrouded this one. And this time with one of the league's most powerful owners seething.

That produced what might have been the most important moment for Goodell Friday, at least in the eyes of other teams who closely watch how the league office treats teams that are perceived as favorite sons, none more so than the Patriots.

"My thoughts are that this is my job," Goodell said. "This is my responsibility -- to protect the integrity of the game. I represent 32 teams. All of us want to make sure that the rules are being followed, and if we have any information where the potential is that those rules were violated, I have to pursue that and I have to pursue that aggressively."

So the NFL's sheriff is back, at least on this issue, although he is one who showed an unusual amount of vulnerability for most of Friday.

There are critical months and big issues ahead for Goodell. The Wells investigation will wrap up, presenting the NFL with a familiar problem: no matter what it finds, there will be those who doubt its veracity. Los Angeles has become a front burner issue, with Rams owner Stan Kroenke prepared to build a stadium in the city and the NFL trying to manage the situation to get their dream scenario -- two teams playing in Los Angeles, instead of just one. This offseason will include discussions about seismic shifts for officiating -- including making all penalties reviewable and mixing up officiating crews during the regular season. And perhaps a vote on expanding the playoffs by two teams, which Goodell said presented concerns including conflicting with college football's playoff games and diluting the NFL's regular season.

Perhaps then the NFL will finally be able to move on. If wishing could make it so, Goodell sounded ready.

"As an organization, and as an individual, it's been a tough year," Goodell said Friday. "But a year of great progress, and I'm excited about the future."

He has to hope it's better than the last six months.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.