DALLAS -- After a year of negotiation, a few months of bitter infighting and even a last ditch attempt by Jerry Jones to stall the completed contract, Roger Goodell now has the deal that will keep him commissioner until he is expected to retire from the league in 2024.
Now comes the hard part.
Owners emerged from their winter meeting with their dirty laundry mostly back where they like it -- behind closed doors -- and with a fight over the terms of the contract and the amount of ownership input into future contracts largely behind them. They insisted that they were again unified behind Goodell, and Goodell said his relationship with Jones was great, adding that they don't always agree.
"I know how much Roger Goodell loves the National Football League," Jones said. "And he should love it even more right now."
That positions Goodell for the significant tasks ahead of him and the league before his term expires: negotiating the next round of media contracts and another collective bargaining agreement. The other headline item on his agenda does not draw as much coverage, but is at least as important to the future of the league. Goodell and the owners have to identify and begin to groom a successor sometime soon.
When league spokesman Joe Lockhart announced Wednesday that this would be Goodell's final contract, he added that succession planning would take place in the interim. Goodell himself would not confirm to reporters that he would leave when this contract is up, but the expectation among owners is that Goodell will lead the league through the big round of negotiations, but bow out soon after. That means that in the next few years, attention will turn to who will take his place. It has become apparent in the last few months, as Jones agitated to stop Goodell's contract, that part of the reason most of the owners wanted the contract to go through is because the NFL has no ready-to-go, fall-back option.
Finding Goodell's replacement may not be easy. When Paul Tagliabue announced his retirement in 2006, Goodell had already been preparing for the job for years as Tagliabue's right-hand man. It had been Goodell's dream as a young man to be the commissioner and he had spent his entire career building to the job, starting as a public relations intern and rising to be the chief operating officer under Tagliabue. When it came time for the owners to select Tagliabue's successor, the only question was whether they would opt for a Tagliabue-like lawyer in Gregg Levy, or for a more business-oriented chief executive in the person of Goodell. With the business of the league booming, the owners opted for the business man.
As the league has grown even more lucrative and more complex -- it is a sprawling media business, for instance, as much as it is a football enterprise -- the challenges that will face the next commissioner have multiplied.
Compounding them is that the league could be structured differently by the time a new commissioner takes over. Jones, in a press conference that immediately followed Goodell's -- they embraced as Goodell ceded the microphone to Jones -- indicated that he will pursue changes to the league's constitution, or at least will act as an obstructionist if he cannot sway enough owners to his side. Jones appears to be intent on diminishing the power of the league office and the commissioner, placing more of it directly in the hands of owners.
That highlights the odd dynamic of the league -- the owners hire the commissioner and he technically works for them. But he has extraordinary power over their teams. Jones wants to change that. The first step is expected to come in March, when owners are likely to consider a proposal that would allow the owners to choose the chairman of the compensation committee rather than let the commissioner do it. Jones, still stinging from the year-long investigation and six-game suspension of Ezekiel Elliott, also alluded to potential changes to how the NFL investigates transgressions and how discipline is meted out -- almost certainly taking the nearly absolute power over investigations and discipline the league office currently has and putting some oversight into the hands of owners.
Goodell himself indicated a willingness to cede some control over discipline.
"We've discussed this with our [NFL] Players Association," Goodell said. "I told the ownership earlier today I could remember the first meeting in May or June of 2012. It was less than a year after we completed our collective bargaining agreement. Let's address the way we're dealing with discipline because there are better ways to do this. And we just haven't come to an agreement on that. Unfortunately, there's a lot of focus on that. But the reality of it is there are very few circumstances that get a lot of attention. I understand that. That's something that I'm sure will come up in the context of the next collective bargaining agreement. But we've always been willing to consider that."
Perhaps that will be part of an overture to the union. The league has already had very preliminary conversations with the NFLPA about whether it would be possible to extend the collective bargaining agreement before it expires after the 2020 season, conversations that are in such an early stage that one owner said he would not even call them negotiations.
After enduring his own contentious negotiation, Goodell now will lead the league into what figures to be another. His first 12 seasons have been marked by a stretch of frequent turbulence, a period for which, until recently, Jones said he would rate Goodell a 10 out of 10. Jones, who threatened to sue the other owners over Goodell's contract, admitted his rating might have changed recently. Goodell's most critical responsibility now is to usher the league into its future. But whoever the NFL picks to succeed Goodell will inherit a league that may be fundamentally changed by the fallout of the negotiation that will send Goodell into retirement.
"They have a term in business called a MAC -- material adverse circumstances -- that happened between the time that you shook hands and the time you did the deed," Jones said. "It's a very valid change. Anybody that says we haven't had some changes since last spring would be an exaggeration. But more importantly than anything, I really felt that something as explicit, something as sensitive as the owners giving their vote to a group to make these decisions need to have a ... a ... clarity. It needed to have specificity."