Smith brings a fresh approach

For years, the NFL Players Association operated successfully because it kept its leadership within the family.

Ed Garvey put the union on the map in the 1970s and 1980s and tried to become partners with NFL owners despite the unpopularity of the notion. Owners thought he was crazy, but it was Garvey's successor, Gene Upshaw, who took major strides. He held out long enough to eventually gain more than 50 percent of the league's revenues.

The selection of Washington, D.C., attorney DeMaurice Smith as NFLPA executive director may have been a surprise, but in many ways, the union decided it needed a fresh approach.

Despite being a perceived outsider, Smith should work out well for the NFLPA.

It's not that former players Trace Armstrong, Troy Vincent and attorney David Cornwell weren't strong contenders. Armstrong and Vincent were former presidents of the union. Cornwell has worked in the league office and been one of the most active litigators in player grievances.

The problem, though, was Vincent gave some of the current union leadership angst because he took a run at Upshaw's leadership last year. An investigation was launched by the union into whether Vincent gained and disclosed private information about agents' financial dealings to a colleague who did not work for the union. Vincent was accused of contacting politicians regarding his concerns about the executive director's selection process.

Who knows what's true or not true. It appeared that there might have been a split union had Vincent or Armstrong been selected.

Though insiders within the NFL don't know Smith yet, he is considered impressive. His legal skills are praised. His presentations are lauded. He demonstrates good leadership.

The key coming out of this process was to make sure the NFLPA is a union. Storm clouds are ahead. The salary cap could go away in 2010 and a lockout could occur if no collective bargaining agreement is set before 2011. Even though he enters the process as an outsider, it is Smith's new job to unite, which is why the selection process swung toward him.

Senior NFL writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.