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Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Tagliabue's July retirement might be pushed back

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Near the top of the post-retirement "things to do" list compiled by outgoing NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is his quiet plan to move to Shanghai for a year.

His wife, Chan Tagliabue, has been bargaining ardently to reduce the overseas adventure to six months. Chances are, based on what transpired here this week, Mrs. Tagliabue will have plenty of time to pursue the negotiations, and that the couple won't soon need their passports or a Chinese-English dictionary.

During what likely was the final press conference of the last annual league meeting over which Tagliabue will preside, the commissioner said Wednesday afternoon he will almost certainly move aside by the July retirement date he set last week. There is, Tagliabue insisted, little chance that he will still be commissioner when the NFL kicks off the 2006 season.

But Tagliabue has promised to remain in office until a successor is elected and, his Wednesday protests aside, it might be a while yet before he gets around to the chore atop his wife's "to-do" list, unpacking the boxes in their new home in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.

Fact is, moving cardboard cartons around might be as close as the Taglibues get to true feng shui for a while.

"I don't see someone new being in place real quickly," said Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay. "The job is to choose the absolutely right person, no matter how long that takes. And a lot of [owners] definitely have a lot of ideas on the profile of that person, or who it should be. If I was Paul, I wouldn't be planning much travel for the next few months. I don't think he's going anywhere yet."

Officially, the annual league meetings adjourned here without Tagliabue having settled on the committee that will lead the search for his replacement. Tagliabue said Wednesday the committee and its composition might not be announced until next week. But there were rumblings from some key owners Wednesday that the committee has, indeed, been formed, and could be announced by Friday afternoon.

The makeup of the committee, not surprisingly, has been much debated. And, coming on the heels of the recently concluded labor negotiations, there is some bilious carryover from that process. Some of the same elements that slowed the extension to the collective bargaining agreement, especially the intramural battle between the NFL's high- and low-revenue franchises, are yet festering. There are a lot of disparate groups seeking representation on the committee, because they want their causes championed in the process that will ultimately conclude with a new commissioner.

Tagliabue denied on Wednesday that the residual undercurrent of unrest will enter into the process, but some of the owners weren't so sure.

"There's still some infighting," said one high-ranking official from a low-revenue franchise. "Everyone sees the [search] committee as their chance to have a voice in the future. It's a chance to have their interests advanced, to have a sense of advocacy, so the makeup of that committee is going to be key."

Certainly, Tagliabue comprehends the sensitive nature of the committee's composition, a group that he said Wednesday will be made up of 6-8 owners. But no matter how diligent Tagliabue is in formulating a search committee that he feels addresses everyone's agendas, there is no guarantee of success. And no guarantee his exit strategy will follow his blueprint.

Among the items addressed by the commissioner in closing the meetings on Wednesday afternoon was the likelihood that the NFL will play a game in China, probably in Beijing, in 2007, as part of the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in the country. Scheduling such a game might be the closest Tagliabue gets to Shanghai if the search for his successor takes as long as some owners think it will.

Said Irsay: "I know it's not Paul's preference, but it could be a long good-bye."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.