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Labor clouds on horizon


DETROIT -- Against a backdrop of impending labor strife, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue yesterday called the Super Bowl an "unofficial midwinter national holiday."

Better he should call it the calm before the storm.

One day after Gene Upshaw, executive director for the NFL Players Association, said the two sides are farther apart than when negotiations began on an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, Tagliabue acknowledged those positions are becoming entrenched.

"I don't think negotiations are going very well," Tagliabue said in his state-of-the-league address. "There needs to be an additional dose of reality on both sides of the table. I think to some degree positions are hardening when they shouldn't be hardening.

"We have some serious issues to address."

Those issues will only get worse with time. Although the current CBA does not expire until after the 2007 season, getting an agreement before then is imperative to keeping the salary cap. Without a deal in 2006, the 2007 season will become an uncapped year, and the fallout from that scenario could have dire effects on the league's competitive balance.

Tagliabue said he is not optimistic, but added, "A lot of things in life get done in the 11th hour, 59th minute."

Another thorny issue confronting Tagliabue is the league's lack of progress in minority coaching hires. Of the nine head coaching positions that have been filled since January, only one went to a black man (Herman Edwards), who moved from the New York Jets to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Even though teams apparently followed the so-called Rooney Rule, which mandates that each team with a vacancy must interview a minority candidate, the hiring record reflects a shortcoming.

Tagliabue proposed more changes, but was not specific on how to improve the process.

"I think the Rooney Rule is working," he said, "but I think a lot of additional things need to work. We need to continue to be aggressive on this issue of hiring, not just the head coach, but in the front office. ... We need to be measured by what we do and not what we say."

In a news conference that was short on substance but strong on perspective, Tagliabue offered these insights:

On the league's decision to have the New Orleans Saints play their 2006 home schedule at the Superdome: "We know this year is going to be difficult. We're working extremely hard to have all eight of the Saints' regular-season games played in the Superdome. But we have a very short period of time to get all the renovations done and we need to get working on that very quickly."

On the decision to put eight regular-season games in the Thursday and Saturday package on NFL Network next season: "I do think it gives us the ability to have greater control over how we present our game and what we present about our game, about our players and coaches. It's much the same as going back to when NFL Films gave us the ability to show the greatness of the athletes, that they were individuals and not just gladiators."

Tagliabue said one of those NFL Network games would be a third Thanksgiving Day game, with the idea of creating a new tradition. Unlike the traditional games in Detroit and Dallas, the third game would be moved around to different cities.

On the increase in assistant coaching salaries, spiked by recent Washington Redskins hires: "I think it is becoming an issue in terms of whether we continue to have a level playing field in terms of the resources some teams have in the league and some teams don't."

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