- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

It was a couple of hours after Scott Norwood’s field goal try had stubbornly stayed right, assuring the Giants’ Super Bowl victory over the Bills. In a corner of the big ballroom, over where the shrimp was stashed, I happened past Paul Tagliabue’s table. Tagliabue, finishing his first full season as NFL commissioner, wore a most pleased expression, and I remember thinking:

You lucky dog. Pete Rozelle waited 23 years for a classic Super Bowl that came down to a last-second kick — and you got one right out of the box!

That’s how I felt about Tagliabue then, and it’s how I feel about him now, as he prepares to retire in July. He’s the Luckiest Sports Head in History. Which doesn’t mean he hasn’t been very good at his job. It just means that, boy, was he ever in the right place at the right time.

These past 16 years — Pax Tagliabue, the era might be called — have been the 16 most successful years a sports league has ever had. Profits have soared. Franchise values have doubled. Attendance has climbed. Strikes and drug crises have been avoided. Oh, and the games haven’t been bad either.

You’d think following an icon like Pete Rozelle would have its quicksand, its trapdoors, but Rozelle, it turns out, was the ultimate table-setter. During his three-decade reign, he got most of the Bad Stuff out of the way — the battles with the three rival leagues, the early sparring with the players association, the addressing of the performance-enhancing drugs issue. This enabled his successor to concentrate on the Good Stuff, e.g. growth.

Rozelle even pointed Tagliabue in that direction by getting the wheels turning on NFL Europe before he left and setting up the first preseason game in Japan. Tags, who had been providing counsel to the league for years, learned at the feet of the master — and has put those lessons to the best possible use. He got dealt a winning hand, and he’s played it like Charles Goren.

But again, the timing had a lot to do with it. By the late ‘80s, the USFL had been routed and the NFL’s supremacy reaffirmed. By then, too, players and owners had come to the conclusion that cooperation was far preferable to contention. When those two things are eliminated — the enemy from without and the enemy from within — it simplifies matters greatly for a commissioner.

Some guys get all the breaks. Tags replaces Rozelle, and within a few years the Cowboys, America’s Team, bounce back with a vengeance under Jimmy Johnson. Then Reggie White signs with Green Bay — Green Bay! — and, wonder of wonders, the Packers win their first title since Lombardi (and nearly two). Weak owners exit (Victor Kiam in New England, Norman Braman in Philadelphia, Rankin Smith in Atlanta, Hugh Culverhouse in Tampa Bay, Robert Irsay in Indianapolis), and strong ones enter (Bob Kraft, Jeff Lurie, Arthur Blank, Malcolm Glazer, Jim Irsay). Instant replay unwisely gets voted out … and then gets voted back in. Come on, you don’t think stars have been aligned for Paul Tagliabue?

OK, now let’s give him some credit. While he may indeed have been in the right place at the right time, he was also the right man for the job (even if it took 12 ballots to elect him). The “lawyer” in him has been invaluable in finding a middle ground in disputes and avoiding costly division. Witness his deft handling of the recent CBA extension. He also has worked well with civic leaders to get stadiums built — and keep clubs from skipping town the way the Rams, Oilers and original Browns did earlier in his term. Almost every team in the league now has a new stadium, one under construction or one on the drawing board. It’s pretty remarkable, really.

As much anything, Tagliabue has kept the engine running. The NFL was the No.1 sports attraction in America when he ascended the throne, and in the years since it has only widened its lead. (And that’s with the league’s Internet and TV operations still in their infancy. Wait until those take off.)

There also seems to be more optimism lately about getting a franchise back in Los Angeles. In other words, Tagliabue is doing for the next commissioner, whoever he might be, what Rozelle did for him — leaving the NFL not on autopilot, maybe, but awfully close.

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