Did Roger Goodell, when he took the job in 2006, envision all of…this? The controversies? The ugliness? The misreads? The good reads? The bad decisions? The smart ones? Did he envision it all?
Goodell laughed. "No. I have to admit, I couldn't have imagined some of the things that have happened over the nine seasons," Goodell said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "I don't know if there was anyone who had a better insight having been in the league for over 25 years.
"But you never know until you're in that seat, you have that responsibility and you feel that responsibility to everyone. It's challenging, it's exciting, it's an opportunity to really have an impact on something that we know so many millions of fans care about. And we have that opportunity, and that's the inspiration for all of us."
As popular as the league was when Goodell first became a part of it decades ago, and as popular as it had become a decade ago when he was named commissioner, it's gotten even more so. Insanely so. People care so much about the NFL that the bar has been raised to an almost unrealistic place, where athletes are asked to be moral examples—and Goodell to be flawless.
"But we like that and we embrace that," Goodell said. "That's an opportunity. I'd rather have it that way than they don't expect a lot from you or they have lower standards for our organization. I think we've helped establish that and we have to meet that. That's a good thing to me."
I asked Goodell if he's ever seen a time when fans cared more about the NFL than they do now. He answered the question knowing what I meant to ask, which was: Has he ever seen the NFL held to a higher standard than now?
"No, I haven't," he said. "But that is what I meant when I said people hold the NFL to a higher standard. Yes, maybe that has a negative when you don't hit that bar. But we embrace that. We don't want to have it any other way. People expect a lot from us, and we have to deliver on it. That drives us. That inspires us. That is why we continuously look to see how we can improve the experience for our fans and improve the game for our players and coaches. And do everything we can to get better."
If you are expecting to read a column bashing Roger Goodell, well, these aren't the droids you're looking for. There are plenty of those rip jobs out there. Use the Google machine to find them.
This is about nuance. I guess I'm supposed to hate Goodell, but I don't. One thing that has always been amazing to me is how some blame Goodell more than they do the players who actually committed the crimes. Goodell didn't beat his kid. Adrian Peterson did. Goodell didn't knock his fiancee out in an elevator. Ray Rice did.
(And by the way, someone lay out for me exactly what the union has done to combat domestic violence in football other than blame Goodell. I'll be over here waiting. Mmkay, thanks.)
Goodell isn't evil. Goodell isn't an angel. He's a commissioner. And despite his portrayal at times as a comic book villain, there remains his most important quality: his resilience.
Let's be clear: Goodell's handling of the Rice situation was a case of epic fail. When it comes to the Mt. Rushmore of epic fail, Goodell-Rice is up there along with New Coke and Jar Jar Binks.
But as Goodell puts the year from hell behind him, I also see a new Goodell. I see a man who has changed for the better. This is where the resilient Goodell comes in. As the new year begins, I think we will see a comeback Goodell.
Now, from everything I hear, Goodell will get dinged in the upcoming report from former FBI head Robert Mueller. The report will be critical but not fatal. My guess is it will be released sometime soon after the New Year.
When you look at Goodell's track record, the totality of it is actually far more...nuanced. There's that word again. There are people who would even say positive. I'm one of them. Oh no. Forgot. Can't say anything nice about the man. Yet some of the accomplishments under Goodell, even hardcore NFL followers like myself have forgotten or overlooked.
Via the NFL:
• The personal conduct policy has been revised and improved.
• Television viewership continues to grow. No, this isn't directly because of Goodell. This is due to the very nature of what's happening in the sport now. But if ratings were dropping significantly, Goodell would be blamed.
• The DirecTV Sunday Ticket contract was extended in September, and Thursday Night Football on CBS—even with the crappy games—checks in as one of the 10 highest-rated shows on television. No Goodell credit, but again, if ratings fell, he'd be faulted.
• There are no local TV blackouts for the first time ever.
• NFL Now was launched as part of growth in the NFL digital media properties.
• There were three games in London for the first time ever. All were sold out. Again, not directly tied to Goodell actions, but if they were a flop, people like myself would be critical of him.
• Officiating has improved (13 new zebras, wireless communication, replay control in New York).
• The technology is advancing, with tablets for coaches, better headsets and testing of NextGen stats.
• The pace of games has improved, and the average time of games is down.
• The Buffalo Bills organization has been stabilized with the sale of the team to the Pegula family.
• Over a billion dollars has been spent in stadium improvements and new stadium construction.
• The league has adopted HGH testing, along with other improvements to both drug programs.
• The draft will be held in Chicago in 2015 (one of the best moves the NFL has made recently).
• The playoff ticket policy has improved, so fans pay as you play.
• The game is slightly cleaner, as unnecessary roughness penalties, hits to defenseless players and possibly even concussions are down.
• There's momentum in Los Angeles, with an eye toward 2016.
The NFL also diversified its upper echelons with powerful women. Dawn Hudson was brought in as head of marketing, and Cynthia Hogan as head of its government affairs department. And Lisa Friel was hired as outside adviser on domestic violence issues. I also believe Troy Vincent was one of the best hires of the Goodell era.
This will also sound absolutely crazy to say, but according to Pro Football Talk, which tracks player arrests, we are now over 40 days since a player was arrested. That's the first time since PFT started tracking arrests in 2007 that it's hit 40 days. (Now watch a player go and get arrested in three, two, one...). My belief is that the league's tougher policies—along with the public humiliation that correlates with the increased media attention after a player arrest—is having an effect. At least, for now. Some of that credit goes to Goodell.
I asked Goodell what would be his biggest takeaway from this past year.
"It's a learning year," he said. "We stress that in our organization all the time, about learning and getting better. That's a focus that we always have. As I look back at this year, I continue to see the game get better, get stronger, get safer. We're protecting our players from unnecessary injuries. We like the way we're integrating technology into the game. We saw it with instant replay this year, and we saw it with tablets on the sidelines, and I think that will continue to accelerate and bring technology into the game and innovate further.
"I think the way we engage our fans and the passion of our fans. Every one of our metrics is up again this year as far as fan engagement is concerned. More and more people are watching, whether it's on television or on alternative devices and platforms. And we're delivering on that experience. The last thing I would focus on is our organization and how we take that opportunity to learn and get better. While we've had challenges, we've learned from them and we are a better organization for it."
Was there something from the year Goodell wishes he did better?
"Sure. You always do that," he said. "I look back and I wish I did everything better. That's how we operate. I can't isolate it to one thing. Some of the things that we always have taken great pride in is having the right people at the table, having the right voices, having the expertise, having the kinds of discussions that are necessary to make sure we're staying ahead of the curve and we're looking to see what the next issues addressing us. Whether it's innovation, whether it's policies, whether it's technology, whether it's the game and how we deal with it, how we deal with the medical side of the game.
"We think we are making enormous progress on all of those fronts, but you can't let down on any particular area. I wouldn't call it learning, but it's something we've talked an awful lot about. The general public expects a lot from the NFL, and we have to deliver on that. We have embraced that. We don't run from that. We embrace it. And we have to deliver on that. When we fall short, we acknowledge it and we go and try to do better."
The one thing Goodell has to do now: communicate better with the union. Repair that relationship.
Before you say it, no, I'm not a Goodell lackey. I don't rely on the NFL for access or scoops, as I'm more of an opinion writer, and this is my damn opinion: It's time to calm down on the Goodell-as-Caesar stuff.
Just see Goodell as what he is: a man who made mistakes, corrected them and learned from them.
A man that is like his league: resilient.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.