Next commissioner will face many challenges

The NFL's unprecedented success as a sports league was no accident.

The NFL has had the right commissioners in place at the right times. Pete Rozelle was a visionary. He saw the bright lights of television and propelled pro football into an age of growth that made Sundays and Monday night a permanent fixture on fans' schedules.

Paul Tagliabue was the right man to replace him. He emerged from more than a decade of labor fights and found a way to preside over 17 years of peace. Owners strive for control. That trait is what made most of them the money they needed to buy their franchises. But Tagliabue's strength was making owners accept the previously unacceptable thought that players are indeed partners.

Rozelle's legacy was marketing the sport. Tagliabue's strength was managing an operation that grew and kept up with the technology that came with the times. Whether it was satellite television of all games, Internet content, interest in fantasy football or digital imaging of football, Tagliabue had the right people working for him to keep the NFL at the forefront.

So what will be the challenge for the next commissioner? Does he have to be a marketer and visionary like Rozelle? Does he need the labor background and negotiating skills of a Tagliabue? The problem facing the next commissioner is that he has to have all of those skills and more.

Roger Goodell, the league's current executive vice president and chief operating officer, probably has the best shot because he's been hands-on in all the league's major initiatives over the past decade. Goodell has worked on expansion, and he's been at the forefront of the NFL's efforts to get new stadiums built.

What people forget, though, is how difficult it is to form a consensus of owners to select a commissioner. Where Goodell has an edge is that he has the support of the original family owners who founded the league. He also should have plenty of support from many of the newer owners who built stadiums with his help.

But these are changing times, and it's hard to handicap how the search process will go. That search process will officially start next week in Orlando at the owners' meeting. Though the meeting isn't too far from Disneyland, the environment might not be described as the happiest place on the planet.

Finding a new commissioner will be a grind unless owners join together and follow the Tagliabue legacy of promoting someone from his current staff. Goodell is a natural. Eric Grubman, the league's vice president of finance and strategic transactions, is a strong candidate because of his background in finance. He was a former partner and managing director at Goldman Sachs.

But it won't be that easy. At their recent meeting, the owners extended the league's collective bargaining agreement through 2011 and gave everyone a glimpse of the new era the NFL is about to embark on.

The league has two distinct groups of owners. The old guard are the families such as the Rooneys, Maras, Bidwells, Browns, Wilsons, Hunts and others who were sportsmen first, businessmen second. They believed in the principles of sharing revenue and promoting the game. Because most of them got in when the league began, they are not burdened by the heavy debt that new owners who have entered the league in the past 15 years have been forced to take on.

The new breed of owners are deal makers by trade, and they speak a different language. Wisely, the NFL stays away from corporate ownership. Big corporations such as Sony and RCA can't buy in. Rozelle and Tagliabue made sure that a team owner had to be a businessman backed by partners, not a corporation obliged to its stockholders.

With this commissioner hiring, the new guard will have a big voice, and that was pretty clear in the way things came down during the CBA extension. Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, Dan Snyder of the Redskins, Robert Kraft of the Patriots, Jeff Lurie of the Eagles, Bob McNair of the Texans and Woody Johnson of the Jets banded together to form a block of votes that put off revenue-sharing issues until the final minutes before a deadline set by union chief Gene Upshaw that would have meant the disappearance of a salary cap in a year.

Watching the scene in the hallways of the Dallas-Forth Worth Airport Hyatt was fascinating and revealing. As the deadline approached and revenue-sharing didn't look like it was going to happen, the movers and shakers among the new guard of owners did their magic. Remember, these are deal makers. To acquire the money to purchase what are becoming billion-dollar corporations, they must have the timing and skills to put big deals together.

Snyder would go to Stephen Jones (Jerry's son) with an idea. On the eve of the CBA extension vote, most of the high-revenue owners sat together in the lobby bar mapping out their strategies.

The plan moved forward at one point when Stephen Jones, Lurie, Jonathan Kraft (Robert's son), Johnson and McNair huddled outside the meeting room and figured out what was acceptable to them. Then the negotiations began.

Huddled on a big couch in the lobby were accountants and lawyers for the Jets, Cowboys, Texans and other teams. As offers were being proposed in the main meeting room, someone would come out to this brainstorming group for its thoughts and calculations.

Once the numbers were crunched, their concepts were taken back into the room for a counterproposal. Before long, members of the league and the old guard of owners would come out to check their figures and offer more solutions.

Though no one completely understands the new revenue-sharing deal yet, a compromise was reached, and the league kept labor peace and passed the CBA 30-2. Still, watching these new owners do their business shows how the new commissioner must adapt to a changing style of negotiations.

Jerry Jones knew solving revenue-sharing issues would be a painful process because he knew it was going to cost his team profits. He had to share the riches he had created from hard work and new revenue streams with low-revenue owners, and he didn't like it. Still, for the good of the league, he and the other owners cut a deal, and the league, as a whole, profited.

The new commissioner will see a changing of the guard among the owners as far as power. This year, the league lost an anchor with the death of Wellington Mara. Many of the other family members who made this league great will be letting their children take over the businesses.

Fortunately, Tagliabue leaves with a league that is in great shape. Labor peace is there until 2011. The television contracts are in place until 2010. The league is proceeding in its efforts to get a franchise in Los Angeles.

For this commissioner hiring, the NFL has to find the right man because it will be harder to get things passed with such a diverse group of owners. Tagliabue leaves tired and worn-out. It was time.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.