It’s easy to make fun of Roger Goodell. Everybody does it. I’m about to do it now.
Whenever you saw Pete Rozelle, you’d think, “There’s the smartest guy in the room.” This NFL commissioner inspires no such encomium. Goodell will forever seem the office intern who kept getting kicked upstairs until, by luck or osmosis, he was running the place.
There’s never a time when he’s handed a tempest that you don’t say to yourself, “Any other commissioner of any major sport — even Bud Selig! — would have handled this better.” Then again, Pete Rozelle never had to fret over what someone just tweeted about his halftime show.
» Read: AJC's complete coverage of the Super Bowl in Atlanta
On its face, Goodell’s league should be enjoying an era of relative good feeling. (Quoth the huckster commish: “There’s never been a better time to be a part of the NFL.”) The Super Bowl features the brand name Patriots against the hot young Rams. TV ratings rose after two years of decline. Both conference championships went to overtime. What’s not to like?
Well, from the tone of Goodell’s annual Super week press briefing, apparently everything. First question: How does the commissioner feel about the presumptive 50 percent decline in minority head coaches and the dearth of minority offensive coordinators/quarterback coaches? Third question: How does the commissioner feel about the real possibility of all three California-based teams playing home games next season in temporary housing?
Then came the fourth question, asked by Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which ran the already-legendary headline over Duncan’s column of Jan. 21: “Reffing Unbelievable.” This was what the massive gathering in Conference Room C of Georgia World Congress Center Building B had come to hear. Here’s what the commissioner said:
“We understand the frustration of the (New Orleans) fans. We talked to coach (Sean) Payton, the players, the team. We understand the frustration they feel.
Then: “Whenever the officiating is a focus, that’s not a good outcome for us. We also understand that the officials are human. The game is not officiated by robots.”
Then: “That’s a play (the unflagged-but-blatant example of pass interference committed against Tommylee Lewis by the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman) we want to have called.”
Then: “We will look again at instant replay. It does not cover judgment calls. This was a judgment call. Another complication was that it was a no-call. One of our concerns is having a replay official in New York throw a flag when there wasn’t a flag. That’s been a reason for opposition (to allowing review of judgment calls, or non-calls) for many folks.”
Then: “I think the (competition committee, chaired by Falcons president Rich McKay) will definitely consider this. But they also have to consider, ‘What are the unintended consequences to this?’ ”
Then: “We want to make sure that the competition committee understands that this is critical. Our rules do evolve. We try to get better. We try to learn.”
Someone asked if, as selective readers of the NFL rulebook believed he coulda/shoulda, Goodell considered ordering the Rams-Saints game to be replayed. Reading from Article 2, he shot that down: “The commissioner will not apply authority in cases of complaints by clubs concerning judgmental errors or routine errors of omission by game officials.”
At no time did Goodell say the words that some questioners were trying to pry from him: “I’m sorry.” As with all things Goodell, the knee-jerk response was to dub him tin-eared. But think about it: Had he said, “I’m sorry the Saints got jobbed,” wouldn’t the, ahem, unintended consequence have been to cast the NFC champion as illegitimate? Doesn’t the league still have a Super Bowl to stage?
Asked what he’d said to Saints people, Goodell offered this: “You know I never disclose my private conversations with anybody. It was a play that should be called. We’re going to address it going forward. I understand the stage. I understand the importance of it to New Orleans and the NFL.”
Shouldn’t he have spoken for public consumption sooner, as opposed to waiting 10 days? “We spoke to the team. We spoke to the coach. He reported the conversation (for public consumption). We talked with the officials. We followed our usual procedure.”
Again: No “I’m sorry.”
Eventually the barrage of Saints questions abated, which isn’t to say Goodell was free and clear. He was asked about the NFL canceling a scheduled press conference with Maroon 5, which will perform at halftime Sunday mostly because bigger names spurned NFL overtures for the league’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick. (The question was framed using the words “a stain on the NFL shield.”)
Goodell: “We have great artists performing all week here in Atlanta. We’re extremely proud of quality and the diversity. This is the biggest stage in the world. We have 200 million fans. We know there are going to be people who don’t agree with everything we do.”
Then, asked why Kaepernick has spent two years out of work: “Our clubs are the ones that make decisions about who they want on their rosters. … If a team decides Colin Kaepernick or any player can help their team win, that’s what they’ll do.”
Sitting in Conference Room C, I admit I felt Goodell’s performance wasn’t wholly satisfying. But then I thought: What’s he supposed to say? “You’re right -- the Rams are tainted champs”? Or, “Heck, even I don’t like Maroon 5”? Or, “Colin Kaepernick? The name doesn’t ring a bell”.
The snooty NFL makes a soft target. It takes itself too seriously. When it acts on something important, half of us feel it waited too long; the other half believe it still got it wrong. Artists have lined up in support of Kaepernick; the President ripped the NFL for not firing all kneelers. Good luck finding common ground on those slippery slopes.
An amusing moment came late in Goodell’s presser. It was mentioned that our tweeting President has expressed chagrin over the number of penalties in NFL games. Said Goodell: “We have a lot of fans, the President among them. I’m sure some fans do believe there are too many fouls.”
Then, pausing half a beat: “Ironically, that’s not the issue that happened in New Orleans.”