Paul Tagliabue has become one of those guys we come to appreciate much more out of office than we did when he was in it. Part of that is because history has been kind, so far, in assessing his 17-year run as commissioner.
Some of it may have to do with his successor.
Tagliabue lacked charisma, but never smarts. Low-key and pragmatic to the end, he rarely made himself the story. He reminded us of that again this week by giving both sides in Bountygate enough to tone down their feud, even as it was about to get uglier. Instead of bluster or threats, Tagliabue used legal jujitsu to solve a problem quickly and quietly, so everyone could get back to the field and the real business of making money. The same principle he applied in that decision could have characterized Tagliabue's no-nonsense reign: It's the game, stupid.
Contrast that with Roger Goodell. While the current commissioner doesn't suffer in any comparison on the business side, he should learn to tone it down. The NFL has never been more popular and a look at this weekend's slate of games demonstrates why. There are so many matchups between contenders spread over a half-dozen towns that Week 15 looks like the playoffs have already begun. It would take considerable luck and scrambling for the postseason to come up with three games that look as entertaining as San Francisco at New England, Denver at Baltimore and Chicago at Green Bay.
But that wasn't enough for Goodell.
Speaking after an owners meeting Wednesday in the Dallas area, Goodell took issue with Tagliabue's ruling in Bountygate, contending his predecessor let the players off the hook too easy. Never mind that Tagliabue did the same for Goodell, shoring up the shaky scaffolding of an investigation that couldn't afford to take many more hits.
"My personal view is I hold everyone responsible," Goodell said. "Player health and safety is an important issue in this league. We're all going to have to contribute to that, whether you're a commissioner, whether you're a coach, whether you're a player, and we all have to be held accountable for it."
Considering the week he just had, and the two previous weekends trying to soothe grieving families and teammates following senseless tragedies, you would think Goodell would be laying low. So naturally, he went against the grain and let slip that the league will charge a committee with looking into expanding the playoffs to 14 or even 16 teams. Not surprising, it drew about as much support from players as an earlier proposal he floated for an 18-game regular season.
In a tweet, the Packers Tom Crabtree suggested that while Goodell was at it, he might as well lengthen the preseason, too, expand the regular season to 82 games "(like nba)" and turn the playoffs into a "like triple elimination?"
More to the heart of the issue was this from Sports Illustrated magazine's Peter King:
"The NFL has to stop thinking of ways to make more money, and start thinking of ways to keep the game the best game in America."
To be fair, Goodell has tried. He might have been reluctant to take on the concussion-related issues that cloud the game's future — the same ones that flew under the radar during Tagliabue's tenure, and those of his predecessors. But he's made a largely good-faith effort since. No doubt it's difficult striking a balance as both CEO of an enterprise that rakes in $9 billion a year while at the same time protecting the employees that make the game go. With mounting litigation over those very same player-safety problems, everything he says is likely to be parsed for its value in a court of law one day.
But the more he stubbornly defends every one of his positions — even the ones, as in Bountygate, where Goodell cherry-picked evidence and arrived at the wrong conclusion — the less of an honest broker he becomes. Not to mention a bigger distraction. The more headlines Goodell grabs, the less there are for the games themselves, which is where a commissioner's focus should be directed.
Besides, the league has plenty of high-priced lawyers to help it chart a course through what already resembles a legal minefield. And nobody rushes generals to the front in fights anymore. So maybe a few weeks in the background and away from the bully pulpit would do Goodell's reputation a lot of good right now.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.