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Is The End Drawing Near For Roger Goodell?

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Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue–who vacated what remained of the Saints’ penalties after Goodell appointed him to hear their appeal–just criticized his former protege, in as great an internal shocker as has ever riven the league office.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Forbes.com says in an article today:

Move Over Deflategate: Tagliabue Rips Goodell In NFL's Worst Internal Rift

Forbes draws from a GQ article detailing why this has been "The Season from Hell" for Goodell and painting a picture suggesting his job may not be as secured as previously thought. Here's the juiciest part of the Forbes article:

This just in: It's no longer just the Patriots who are feeling the heat in Deflategate. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who's supposed to be their judge (and jury) has been moved into the dock, himself.

Finding the Patriots "guilty," will be the easy part for Goodell, since they have already been convicted in the court of public opinion.

The hard part is following his own Judge Dredd precedents, like suspending Saints Coach Sean Payton for one season in the 2011 Bountygate scandal-another commonly practiced "crime," but, unlike this, one that few knew or cared about-without messing up Sunday's ever-more-eagerly-awaited game.

Facing his highest profile case/dilemma, the last thing Goodell needed was what he just got: His predecessor, Paul Tagliabue-who vacated what remained of the Saints' penalties after Goodell appointed him to hear their appeal-just criticized his former protege, in as great an internal shocker as has ever riven the league office.

In an article in GQ, Tagliabue suggested that Goodell's focus on profit and his hard line with the players union have undermined his ability to lead the NFL.

"If [players] see you making decisions only in economic terms, they start to understand that and question what you're all about," Tagliabue told GQ's Gabriel Sherman. "There's a huge intangible value in peace. There's a huge intangible value in having allies."

Under Goodell, if it's high-profile, it's not a misdemeanor, leading a figure as measured and as close to the NFL as Fox commentator Troy Aikman to assert that the Patriots should be hit harder than the Saints.

"There was nothing that Sean Payton and the Saints did that was illegal. And they did not give themselves a competitive edge. I maintain, regardless of whatever was said in the locker room, and in that locker room, is not anything different than what's been said in any other locker room around the league....

"Now twice, under Bill Belichick and possibly a third time, they've cheated and given themselves an advantage. To me, the punishment for the Patriots and/or Bill Belichick has to be more severe than what the punishment was for the New Orleans Saints."

If this is overblown, it's because Goodell began over-blowing things years ago. If he had a point he deemed it necessary to make, he's overmatched by the real-life level of indiscretions of his best teams, the ones really want to win rather than merely make money, like the Patriots.

The GQ article has a little more on what certain NFL owners think of their current commissioner, which is the part that should and probably does concern Goodell the most.

In Goodell's defense, his job is an infinitely complex one. The commissioner of a pro sports league must be CEO of a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, fan ambassador, and player disciplinarian, all while serving at the pleasure of owners who elected him to maximize their profits. "Commissioners work for owners, and that shouldn't come as a shock to fans because it doesn't come as a shock to the players," DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, told me. "We are asked to be partners when it is convenient and-more frequently-told what to do when it is not. Owners ignored players when our union was founded, and our history has been one of forcing them to recognize players' rights. That paradigm will never stop."

And yet even some owners have been frustrated by aspects of Goodell's tenure. Bob McNair, who owns the Houston Texans and is a Goodell supporter, told me that when Saints owner Tom Benson resigned from three league committees in 2013, Goodell's pay package and his handling of the Saints' Bountygate scandal were two reasons. "Tom's a green-eyeshade accountant of many years," McNair said. "He's just not happy about what happened." (Through a spokesman, Benson denies this.) It's also an open secret in league circles that some owners, especially Woody Johnson of the Jets, resent the preferential treatment Goodell is perceived to extend to his inner circle. (As the football world waits for the commissioner's decision on whether to punish the Patriots for Deflategate, many are wondering how his relationship with Kraft will affect Goodell's ruling.)

Inside NFL headquarters on Park Avenue, a sense of siege fills the air. League officials feel victimized by a phalanx of enemies, from the media to the players' union to plaintiffs' lawyers. "The players' union wants to bring Roger down anytime they can," Bob McNair told me.

"Roger understood the business aspects really better than Tagliabue," said Bob McNair, the Texans' owner.

"Why does he get paid what he does?" Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, a member of the compensation committee, told me. "Because you try herding thirty-two cats. He does a great job of it."

But for Goodell, the union deal and mogul-level salary came with a steep price. It turned out that the more he tried to impose his will on the league, the less in control he seemed. By pushing the union to the brink, Goodell helped turn the players against him. And as the safety and other social issues of the game moved to the fore, he became the public face of the denial that gripped the league office in the face of mounting evidence that football was destroying the brains of its retired players.

Could the season from hell have been avoided? Or at least a lot less bungled? Goodell's predecessor thinks so. Tagliabue sees Goodell's laser focus on profit and his combative stance toward players as key parts of the problem. "If they see you making decisions only in economic terms, they start to understand that and question what you're all about," he said. "There's a huge intangible value in peace. There's a huge intangible value in having allies." As for his relationship with his protégé, Tagliabue says, "We haven't talked much since I left. It's been his decision. Bountygate didn't help." In our conversation, Tagliabue seemed disappointed, and a bit sad, about the sorry state of the game he ran for seventeen years.

Others feel it, too, and wonder if the commissioner even recognizes the fullness of the league's crisis. "The existential issues are, I would argue, issues that Roger just doesn't find interesting," says DeMaurice Smith of the players' union. With the NFL's shrinking youth audience, narrowing fan base, and player-safety issues that just aren't going away, Goodell's goal of growing the league to $25 billion by 2027 is starting to feel like a naive dream. Whether the commissioner finds these challenges to be "interesting" or not, it's entirely possible that the past few seasons will go down as the moment when the National Football League-the biggest, fastest, richest game in America-peaked and began to decline. The world changes, people's values change, and institutions get left behind, no matter how big and powerful and unstoppable they once seemed. It happened to boxing in the 1980s. Big Tobacco in the 1990s. Is football next?

As much as I hope the end is drawing near for Goodell and as much as I'd love to see him resign in disgrace, the more likely immediate outcome of Roger's "Season From Hell" is that the owners will decide to keep him in place for as long as what he is doing meets their overall profit expectations. They couldn't care less what people outside NFL headquarters or their little ownership circle think about Goodell and his public image as long as that image doesn't also bring down NFL revenue. Still, this Saints fan isn't ashamed to admit that he is greatly enjoying the strife and public derision Goodell has brought down upon himself. Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis probably feel the same way, but they could never say so publicly because they don't have a union to protect them from Goodell's megalomaniacal wrath.