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For NFL it's new boss, same style

Goodell expected to pick up where Tagliabue left off

NORTHBROOK, Ill. -- The handoff couldn't have been much smoother.

Moments after Roger Goodell was anointed the NFL's new commissioner, the man who started in the league clipping newspapers for the Jets' public relations department cracked a few jokes to put the room at ease.

He lowered the microphone on the podium -- "My first adjustment," Goodell joked, as his taller predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, loomed just over his shoulder. Asked where he was when news of his election arrived, Goodell said old-guard owner Dan Rooney knocked on the door of his room several floors above the hotel ballroom where the vote took place.

"I was not watching the NFL Network," he said, then added a moment later, "Thankfully, I had my pants on."

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Goodell should have been no more surprised than anybody else who follows the inside workings of the NFL.

As Tagliabue's chief lieutenant during one of the greatest runs any sports has ever enjoyed, he was intimate with, and instrumental in, building every corner of what is now a $6.5-billion-a-year business. Goodell negotiated TV deals, collective-bargaining agreements and expansion fees, had a hand in marketing and licensing deals, and helped secure financing for the construction or renovation of 23 stadiums.

The only reason the 32 owners needed five ballots to come up with a unanimous one, said Colts owner Jim Irsay, is because, "It's tough in terms of filling shoes of the commissioners in the last 50 years. There are a lot of high-water marks already on that wall."

How high?

Consider that in 1989, when Tagliabue took over from Pete Rozelle, Dallas owner Jerry Jones paid $180 million for the Cowboys. Last year, Forbes magazine valued the franchise at a cool $1.06 billion -- more than five times what Jones spent. The Cowboys were still looking up at the $1.24 billion price tag attached to Dan Snyder's Washington Redskins.

Consider that in 1993, when the NFL tried on a salary cap for the first time, every team's payroll was maxed out at $34.5 million. Under the CBA signed in March, that figure will be $102 million this season and $109 the next -- more than three times what the first one was. No wonder the NFL has been a model for labor peace during Tagliabue's tenure.

Consider, finally, that when Tagliabue took over, the league was in the final year of a three-year, $1.4 billion TV contract. The package that begins next month runs for six years and will pay out $9.7 billion.

So while the owners mixed in plenty of football references to cement Goodell's credentials, what appealed to them most was his experience, all those years spent watching, learning and ultimately carrying out Tagliabue's plans.

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"Roger hasn't just been playing preseason games, he's played in a some playoff games and Super Bowls," Jones said.

"I believe in continuity. It's a lot like with head coaches," said Irsay, who came into the league in 1982, the same year as Goodell. "And that's what Roger brings us."

As much as Tagliabue and Goodell are intertwined in the minds of the men who hired them, their elections couldn't have been much different.

In 1989, Saints general manager Jim Finks was a favorite of the old guard and considered a lock to succeed Rozelle. Tagliabue was then the NFL's outside counsel and his name didn't emerge until the sixth ballot. Another half-dozen ballots later, with Jones leading a vanguard of new owners saddled with debt and looking to open new revenue stream, Tagliabue was the commissioner.

This time around, the holdouts during the first four ballots were believed to be members of the small-market cadre, worried that the disparity between their revenues and those of the Cowboys, Redskins and Patriots was widening at an alarming rate.

But given the way the tsunami that Tagliabue set in motion has lifted all boats -- the Vikings, the 32nd-ranked franchise in the Forbes list were sold last year for $600 million -- even the small-market teams provided no more than token resistance.

"I think it's a credit to Roger," Jones said, "that the high-revenue clubs were worried about him and the low-revenue clubs were worried about him, too. When you spend 25 years in the league and you've got that, then you're pretty crafty."

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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