INDIANAPOLIS – As NFL owners, coaches and players meet to talk about ways to change and improve the game, there are two people conspicuous in their absence.
And they are perhaps the two most important: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith. From a positive perspective, one league source said Goodell and Smith were trying to meet privately in Washington, D.C., to iron out their lingering differences.
But the concern among some is that not having Goodell and Smith here is a problem when they are the two leaders in the best position to help push through any agreements that may ultimately happen.
"It's a fair point," New York Giants owner John Mara said.
As players such as Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, Pittsburgh quarterback Charlie Batch and Kansas City offensive lineman Eric Winston went over ideas with coaches such as Marvin Lewis and Mike Tomlin and owners such as Mara, there were plenty of interesting ideas to consider.
Hasselbeck wants some of the hardware in the coach-to-quarterback radio system reduced. Batch asked for a better definition of the time period within which players can be fined for hits deemed illegal by the league. NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth asked for a change in blocking schemes on field goals and extra points to protect individual blockers from being attacked by as many as four defenders.
While league officials such as Jeff Pash and Ray Anderson were around to listen to players, and Foxworth was there to communicate what the players think, at the end of the day there was a sense of disappointment among many in the meeting.
"I think the players weren't as sharp with their points because Roger and De [Smith] weren't there," one coach said. "I just think it creates a different atmosphere when they're in the room. I remember when Roger and [the late] Gene [Upshaw] were in there. I feel like the players spoke with more authority because they knew the big decision-makers were there. We need to have that."
The problem is that an air of distrust continues to permeate the relationship between Goodell and Smith, and, in a larger sense, between Goodell and the players. In January, USA Today conducted a poll of players that indicated 61 percent disapproved of how the commissioner is performing in his role.
On Tuesday, Foxworth piggybacked on that poll by saying: "It's pretty obvious that there's a gap in what would be a reasonable amount of trust. … There've been a number of events to lead players to believe they cannot trust the league. There was a bridge beginning to be built and then there were some recent events that kind of broke that bridge again."
Goodell's move then to not be here to face some of those players, including Foxworth, is hugely disappointing to some. On the flip side, those in management were disappointed that Smith continues to keep the league at arm's length rather than develop relationships that further the business interests of both sides.
Or, more simply, lead to smoother resolutions of the bigger problems, such as HGH or situations like the New Orleans bounty scandal.
"[The bounty scandal] could have been wrapped up in a couple of weeks if they could work together," a league source said of Goodell and Smith. "That was stupid, on both sides. You need to have an open, trusting dialogue between them to settle issues."
But that dialogue is best served when developed in face-to-face meetings, Hasselbeck said.
"Sometimes there's a point that the owners bring up and you sit there and say, ‘Why are we doing that?' But I was sitting there next to [Dallas vice-president) Stephen Jones, and he'll say, ‘Look, here's where we're trying to get to,' and you understand that. You can work that out," Hasselbeck said.
In the bounty scandal, for instance, one of the great disconnects was that Goodell and Smith didn't have a good enough working relationship – or league insight – to reach a quick resolution.
"Neither of them understood the real pressure that the Saints players, or any player for that matter, faced in trying to say no to a coach," an NFLPA source said. "You have two guys who didn't play, don't understand the locker room very well, and don't know what they don't know."
When asked if someone like Upshaw would have been better at explaining the situation to Goodell, the answer was clear.
"Obviously, because Gene played. But the bigger issue is that Gene actually talked to Roger," the union source said. "He worked with him, not against him. There's always stuff you're going to fight about, but you still have to work it out."
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