IRVING, Texas – As Roger Goodell stood at the podium on Wednesday and tried to keep his message focused on the next and possibly final contract as NFL commissioner, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stood in the background listening intently. Off camera but completely in the spotlight, Jones occasionally smiled, nodded or pursed his lips. He mostly just stared at Goodell, standing far from the podium but clearly in control of a commissioner whose power he is beginning to wrestle away.
It made for awkward theater, fitting for a 2017 season that has been nothing if not disjointed. At one point, Goodell faced a direct question about the health of his relationship with Jones, the one owner who embraced his existence as a piercing thorn in the side of talks to extend the commissioner’s contract. Goodell reacted to the question by pivoting his attention away from his audience and looking directly at Jones – the way a marionette might look at the puppeteer who is affixing new strings.
“Jerry, do I look like I take it personally?” Goodell asked a grinning Jones “No. That’s the answer to that question.”
It’s not the entire answer to the question, mind you. There’s a lot of context inside that answer, particularly for those who buy that Goodell walks away from this extension negotiation with no scars. The fact is, Goodell will end up making somewhere between $100 million and $200 million down the stretch run of his career as NFL commissioner, which is expected to conclude in 2024. But he’ll do so under an immense bonus structure that is controlled by the owners on the compensation committee, a group whose chairman, in a significant change, will now be installed by the owners and not the commissioner.
In essence, Goodell will no longer have the power to name the chairman of the committee that holds his salary in its hands. With that tweak, Goodell’s paycheck will be a year-to-year bonus bonanza completely resting in the hands of owners on a committee that he can’t influence. When only 10 percent of your contract is guaranteed and the rest relies on you proving your worth, that’s a massive deal.
It’s exactly what gives Goodell the incentive to listen and implement whatever Jones and his fellow owners want. Which means all that talk about Goodell being commissioner “of the game” and not “for the owners” just went out the window. At the end of the day, Goodell’s money will be tied to the health and performance of the NFL. And the health and performance of the league will be dictated by the owners, who will lean on Goodell to make changes and decisions the group sees fit.
That’s exactly what Jones wanted. An infrastructure that puts more of the influence over the commissioner’s paycheck in the hands of the entire ownership group. That’s why Jones was grinning Wednesday. He won the battle. He went at Goodell and a majority of the other NFL owners with a singular message: To move more control of this league into the hands of the billionaire fraternity and put the commissioner into a space where he will feel pressured to answer to the franchises that make his job possible. It’s a campaign that is getting underway, from the sound of it, with changes coming to the NFL constitution and an open debate about some of the commissioner’s powers. That may very well mean some cuts in the league office, too, with senior-level positions being eliminated by the dozens.
The NFL has already extended more than 80 retirement packages to a swath of highly paid employees in an effort to cut back a bloated balance sheet in the league office, according to one league source who spoke with Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. That movement for a slimmed-down executive branch is expected to continue in the coming years, the source said, adding that portions of the disciplinary budget could also take a hit. More specifically, the league is expected to review the NFL’s role in player investigations – with special emphasis on the commissioner’s involvement – and potentially curtail some of the efforts in hopes of beating back the massive legal billing that has mounted in recent years.
As the source framed the focus, “There needs to be fewer ‘lawyer layers’ ” in the league office.
Jones seemed to relay part of that message. Though he seemed to take issue with the Ezekiel Elliott suspension being his sole reason for striking out at Goodell, Jones instead painted it more as a problem with the investigative process as a whole.
“We all know that we’ve had problematic aspects to our discipline [and] our investigations,” Jones said. “We all know that those have been there. What is a misnomer is that I’ve known Zeke the better part of two years. I’ve known Roger Goodell for 30. I’ve known the rest of the people in that [ownership] room for 30 years. I know them a lot better than I do [Elliott], and we all know I wasn’t there [when Elliott was accused of domestic violence]. And you weren’t there. Nobody was there. Roger wasn’t there when that happened with Zeke. … The thing that I probably had the biggest issue [with] was how we got to the point to where that kind of decision could be made [by Goodell]. It’s how we got there and the circumstances were there that I want to talk about. We’re going to get to do that in that period of time when we’re talking about the commissioner’s responsibility and the constitution.”
When Jones uses the phrase “commissioner’s responsibility,” he’s referring to the commissioner’s power. Specifically, the power to unilaterally act on issues without the dialogue of owners. Whether that’s discipline or protests during the national anthem or marketing or hiring a slew of executives, Jones is trying to pull back on the ability for the league office to operate a fiefdom that doesn’t fully answer to the owners. And that’s where this entire campaign will go next.
At one point Wednesday, Jones even praised the entire schism over Goodell’s contract for the one thing it provided: an entry point to change the league’s structure. As Jones put it Wednesday, the NFL is going through some turbulent times with players and fans and viewers. The politics and debate around the game are changing. Now the league – and its constitution – have to change with it. And in Jones’ mind, the people who need to shape that change are the owners. Not the commissioner.
The owners are “the most qualified people I know to set the course … for the future of this league,” he said. “That’s going to take some constitutional changes. One of the things that we’ve agreed to – and this process did or didn’t influence it – but we’ve agreed to really address this league for some constitutional changes. … There’s nobody that doesn’t see the need for changes in the NFL in several areas. We’re doing a lot of things good. But there’s some areas we need to change. It’s an antiquated constitution, an antiquated situation as to the power of the commissioner – this will address that.”
Time will tell how many constitutional amendments are realized and how much power Goodell ultimately loses. But one thing can’t be denied – the commissioner’s paycheck is now anchored to his performance, and his performance and decisions will be more directly dictated by Jones and the owners.
In the end, Goodell might win all the money, but he won’t do it without sacrificing something along the way. And that something is the only thing Jerry Jones ever wanted in this whole dustup: the power to control the commissioner – whether Roger Goodell takes it personally or not.
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