Tight leash on Goodell strangles NFL owners

WASHINGTON – NFL owners got a harsh dose of reality Thursday when it became stunningly apparent that the players are fully behind DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association.

And it's apparent that the owners aren’t behind commissioner Roger Goodell to the same extent.

On Thursday, Goodell cobbled together a 24-hour extension to the end of the collective bargaining agreement, giving the union and the league another day to work. Sadly, everyone who was in the room at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services building knows that one more day is not enough to get a new deal done. The best the sides can hope for when they reconvene Friday is another extension.

An overtime Goodell didn’t have the authority from his constituency to request.

“Every time we deal with Roger, he doesn’t have the power to say yes or no to anything,” a union source said Thursday night, echoing a sentiment made by several other sources over the past month of talks between the sides. “He always has to go back and check with his people if something is OK. We’re negotiating, but we’re not negotiating with somebody who can make the call. It’s frustrating.”

Meanwhile, it’s becoming apparent that Smith is a guy who can make the call. As Smith and the rest of the union's entourage of players and lawyers waited as Goodell scrambled to get enough support for the extension, the NFLPA was ready to drop a series of hammers.

The most important of which is a class-action lawsuit that features the names of Peyton Manning(notes) , Drew Brees(notes) and Tom Brady(notes). It's ready to go as soon as the clock strikes midnight on the CBA. The fact that Manning, Brees and Brady are among nine players who will be named plaintiffs in the case can’t be understated. Their presence is a powerful statement about the state of the union, that the players aren’t prepared to fold anytime soon.

And it was completely unexpected.

On Wednesday, for instance, one owner basically chuckled at the idea of Brady putting his name on a lawsuit. “That’s not something Tom would do,” the owner said, implying that Brady is not the type of guy who would get his hands dirty or his reputation soiled over a contentious legal issue.

But in less than two years, Smith has created a powerful following among the players. Twenty years ago, the idea of getting the three biggest quarterbacks in the league to back the union was unheard of. Players of that stature didn’t want to take the risks associated with taking on the NFL.

Now, the three biggest faces of the league are flanking Smith as he leads the fight for the players. All the while, Goodell is struggling to lead a group of owners who seem less unified by the day.

Of course, this is not Goodell’s fault. While Goodell has done an exemplary job of leading the NFL in most ways during his four-plus years on the job, he still hasn’t earned the trust of enough owners when it comes to handling their money. That kind of bond comes over time and requires repeated good decisions at crucial moments. Unfortunately, Goodell has yet to face a moment as crucial as this one.

That said, the owners need to start trusting Goodell’s judgment. They should have trusted him in 2008 when they went against his judgment and opted out of the CBA. That was a gigantic tactical error that ultimately gave the players more time to get on the same page.

Beyond that, Goodell and league attorney Jeff Pash have repeatedly tried to get owners to understand that a battle with the players was likely going to end up in court, a place where the owners have an extremely bad record of success. To this point, the owners have thought that the players would fold at the first sign of labor strife.

Instead, the players have become only more resolved. Goodell expected that and the owners need to recognize his vision. Instead of making Goodell check back with them every time a decision needs to be made, the owners need to empower him the way players like Manning, Brees and Brady have empowered Smith.

That way, perhaps an equitable deal can be reached. If not, even the extension that’s expected to come after Friday's talks isn’t likely to be fruitful.