Roger Goodell's three big challenges

I'm guessing that when Roger Goodell sat down for his formal four-hour job interview with NFL owners in 2006, nobody presented him with this hypothetical:

Owner: "Rog, what would you do if, say, one of the most popular and accomplished players in NFL history reportedly e-mailed photos of his, uh, 'Coach Johnson,' to a team employee? And then supposedly sent some racy messages with it?"

Goodell: "Coach Who?"

Owner: "You know what? Never mind. It'll never happen."

But four years later, here we are: it happened. The iconic Brett Favre is under investigation for allegedly sending inappropriate messages and photos to Google Image favorite Jenn Sterger (1.4 million results and counting). And the non-iconic, first-term commissioner is faced with a possible disciplinary decision.

What must Goodell be thinking these days: I graduated magna cum laude with a degree in economics for this?

There's no way around it. The NFL that Goodell happily inherited in 2006 is showing age spots and worry lines in 2010. And unless Goodell knows a good dermatologist, it's only going to get worse.

For all of its many strengths -- an array of TV contracts worth more than the combined net worth of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Nike's Phil Knight and Apple's Steve Jobs ... a love affair with corporate America ... unprecedented national popularity -- the league seems surprisingly fragile right now. It isn't ill, just vulnerable.

The Favre situation (and player conduct, in general) is simply the leadoff hitter in a Murderers Row of issues facing Goodell. He also has a looming cage match fight with the players' union over a new collective bargaining agreement. And he can't watch Boomer do a highlight without someone dropping to the turf with a concussion.

These are legacy-defining days for Goodell, whose NFL career began more than 25 years ago as a league intern. We know he's fluent in the language of TV rights fees, but can he speak to Joe Fan? Will he eventually be remembered with the same fondness as the legendary Pete Rozelle, or semi-forgotten like Paul Tagliabue, whose 16-plus-year reign failed to secure him a bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Tagliabue is the only retired NFL commissioner since 1946 not to have been elected to Canton.

If nothing else, Goodell is decisive, which is usually a good thing. He was a one-man HR program in 2007, instituting an NFL Personal Conduct Policy that had a full set of teeth. Not that he had much choice, what with his players and coaches involved in dog killings, weapons stockpiles, Spygate, banned substances and sexual assault accusations.

That's why this Favre situation is more than just punchline material for Bill Maher. It's serious stuff. Personal reputations are at stake. The league's image could be compromised. A team's playoff fate might be affected.

Depending on the results of the inquiry, Goodell could conceivably suspend Favre and by doing so, cripple the Minnesota Vikings and alter an entire NFC playoff chase. Of course, unless Sterger cooperates with league officials, this thing could hit the investigation equivalent of the Williams Wall. But if there is actual proof of Favre e-mail creepiness, then Goodell has to apply the same standards he used when determining the punishment of Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger.

The Favre mess will eventually go away. But the images of concussed players wobbling off the field like drunks out of the French Quarter is a weekly -- and nauseating -- sight. Fines for headhunting are a joke. Rodney Harrison, the former New England Patriots defensive back, said so himself on NBC's "Football Night In America" studio show. His studio partner, the respected Tony Dungy, added another football truth: coaches care only about a player's availability, not the size of a fine. After all, it's the not the coaches' money going to the NFL.

Goodell has to walk a line as thin as a first-down chain. He knows a major part of football's appeal is its brutality and violence. But if the Dunta Robinsons of the world keep trying to decapitate wide receivers such as DeSean Jackson, somebody in Congress is going to propose legislation, not just hold hearings.

Goodell has pushed for more aggressive diagnosis protocol and tougher reinstatement standards for concussed players. That addresses the result, but not the cause. The only way to get the players' and coaches' attention is by suspending the helmet-to-helmet cheap shotters. Goodell is going to do just that. But this should be the rule of thumb: If a headhunter blatantly violates the rule and injures another player, the offender should be suspended until that injured player recovers and returns to the lineup.

But no issue will determine Goodell's legacy more than his role in the labor negotiations between owners and players. Will he be a shill for management or a consensus builder? Will he preside over a work stoppage of arguably the most successful sports league in the world, or distinguish himself as a peacemaker?

If nothing else, let's hope he understands how ridiculous the owners sound when they insist they're the ones taking all the risks, financial or otherwise. After all, that wasn't Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie sprawled motionless on the turf Sunday.

After he was elected commissioner on the fifth ballot in 2006, a grateful Goodell told reporters, "The game of football is the most important thing. You can never forget that."

The game and the league need help. Now we see what kind of memory Goodell has.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.