The Cowboys' Jerry Jones was a leading voice among 17 NFL owners on a conference call Thursday that discussed the possibility of halting commissioner Roger Goodell's pending contract extension, sources involved with the call told ESPN.
There is a growing difference of opinion among owners about Goodell's overall performance as commissioner, according to sources. The owners on Thursday's conference call are generally unhappy with Goodell and the NFL's front office for a variety of reasons, including the player protests staged during the national anthem, issues regarding the relocation of teams to Los Angeles and the league's handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case, according to sources.
"You don't get to have this many messes over the years like Roger has had and survive it," one owner said during the call.
Despite the unhappiness, this group of owners is skeptical that it will be able to outright fire Goodell, according to sources. The NFL would need 24 owners to approve Goodell's ouster. But one person involved in this past week's conference call compared the NFL's current situation with Goodell to Major League Baseball's situation with Fay Vincent in September 1992, when baseball owners voted 18-9 to ask him to step down and replace him with Bud Selig.
"There is, and was, something that is an issue," said a league source who was not on the conference call and didn't learn about it until Saturday night. "I'd be very surprised about wanting to change Roger. I'd be shocked about that."
Yet for all the prominent people who do support Goodell, a contract that was expected to be completed in September has not been finalized as November approaches.
"Maybe Arthur [Blank, the head of the compensation committee] and that committee think they're on track," an owner said about Goodell's extension talks. "But they have a lot more resistance than they counted on -- and maybe they don't know how the resistance is growing as we speak."
Goodell and the league are at a critical juncture, and those around the NFL have said they can sense that. And this was before Texans owner Bob McNair was quoted in an ESPN The Magazine story saying, "We can't have the inmates running the prison," causing some Texans players to leave the facility on Friday. Sources said they are discussing the possibility of staging a demonstration for Sunday's game in Seattle. Texans left tackle Duane Brown told ESPN's Josina Anderson on Sunday morning that he anticipates "up to 65 to 70 percent" of the team's players could kneel.
"We just don't have enough problem solvers," another NFL owner said. "We gotta get it right or we're just going to let it burn. Last time I felt like this was before the 1993 CBA settlement. That was just depressing, and Paul Tagliabue and Gene [Upshaw] stepped up and saved it in a spectacular way. We don't have that feeling right now."
During the owners' most recent meetings on Oct. 17 and 18 in New York, much was discussed but little was decided, as Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta reported in their ESPN The Magazine story. It led owners to last week's conference call that detailed some of the issues they have with the league and Goodell.
"That was our recurring theme, that there's no leadership," said another executive familiar with Thursday's conference call. "Everyone [in the league office] is trying to win the latest news cycle, and there's no long-term vision. It's just, 'How can we minimize the bad headlines, maximize the revenue and move on to the next day?' And there's an increasing frustration to that approach."
McNair also expressed frustration with the league's leadership when he sought to clarify his "inmates" comment in a statement released Saturday.
"I was referring to the relationship between the league office and team owners and how they have been making significant strategic decisions affecting our league without adequate input from ownership over the past few years," McNair said in an excerpt from the statement.
Despite the criticism McNair has received for his comments, his statement put a prominent name to previous stories in which anonymous sources said there is unhappiness with the league office under Goodell's leadership, although he did not specifically name the commissioner in his statement.
Jones, asked after Sunday's Cowboys victory over the Redskins about last week's conference call, said, "Anything about the content of any of our meetings . . . I wouldn't get into nuances, I wouldn't get into the content." But he added that with regards to Goodell's contract, all owners were asked for their input, "and so this was a part of leaving there and continuing to do your homework."
Sources have previously said that Jones has tried to stand in the way of any extension for Goodell. Last month, ESPN reported that Jones was impeding the progress of contract negotiations aimed at an extension for Goodell. "If not for Jerry," one owner said last month in regard to the contract negotiations, "this deal would be done."
Blank, who is the point man for negotiations on Goodell's extension, said he invited Jones as an ad hoc committee adviser. Blank said there remains "details to complete" on the extension for Goodell's term, but he continues to express optimism.
A source said Blank was neither aware of nor invited to participate in last week's conference call, as was the case with at least three other owners contacted this weekend.
Sources declined to identify the specific teams represented on the call but pointed out that the number of participants was further proof of the growing unrest after the previous week's meetings in New York.
"There was good communication that we were going to have this next discussion ... it was an appointment among owners who have serious concerns, " one owner said. "Just because the league office isn't involved or certain other owners, that doesn't mean these things don't happen."
When asked whether the NFL is at the edge of a cliff with its mounting troubles and the uncertainty regarding the future of Goodell's commissionership, the owner countered that it was a "great opportunity."
"We're not on the edge of destruction," the owner said. "It's an opportunity. It creates real energy, and it creates a great opportunity to get our leadership right going forward. You watch. We will come out of this as a stronger league, and our popularity will come back and increase."
There was no firm appointment made for another call among the group, the owner added, but he said he had little doubt that the discussion would continue.