(Editor’s Note: Joel Bussert is a retired NFL executive who was the leagues senior vice president of player personnel)
By Joel Bussert
Prior to retiring in 2015, I had been employed at the league office for 40 years. During that time I was privileged to work for three NFL commissioners, Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue, and Roger Goodell, and for the last 29 years I was a liaison to the competition committee, whose report I edited for 17 years.
Though Paul Tagliabue’s background was as a lawyer, I believe his contributions to the game of football rank with those made by Pete Rozelle, Bert Bell and Joe Carr, previous NFL commissioners or presidents who are already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
There are four that I wish to address.
- Amid growing concern about head injuries, the 1995 league meeting was a landmark in the history of player safety in the National Football League. Paul and New Orleans’ general manager Jim Finks, the committee chairman, created the agenda for the competition committee, which resulted in comprehensive rules designed to protect quarterbacks and other defenseless players from unnecessary exposure to injuries by regulating the use of the helmet and facemask, as well as placing restrictions on dangerous techniques such as “launching” and “dip and rip.” It is significant that this package of safety-related provisions was not submitted to the membership for a vote; instead it was implemented as a clarification of the existing and traditional prohibitions in the Playing Rules against Unnecessary Roughness and Roughing the Passer. This legislative maneuver was successful because Paul Tagliabue placed the power of his office behind the competition committee’s presentation to the membership. He participated in a vigorous discussion, and though there was pushback from traditionalists, there was little doubt about the outcome. The 1995 league meeting changed traditional thinking in the National Football League about the manner in which playing rules could be used to achieve safety-related goals, and its impact is felt to this day. A long line of safety-related rules has flowed from the 1995 league meeting.
- The 1993 collective bargaining agreement provided the National Football League with a new player system: Unrestricted free agency within a salary cap. The system created in the 1993 CBA has stood the test of time. It is still our system, and if the NFL exists 100 years from now, it will probably still be our system. It has not only preserved the traditional level of competition that helped to make the NFL the nation’s leading spectator sport; it has arguably enhanced it. The margin of victory of NFL games in 2016 was the smallest since 1935, a much lower-scoring era. For 26 consecutive seasons—every year since the 12-team postseason format was introduced—at least four new teams have qualified for the playoffs, and there has not been a repeat Super Bowl champion since 2005.
- A few months after becoming commissioner, Paul codified the procedure for a player entering the NFL draft through special eligibility. Previously, an increasing number of players had entered the league as underclassmen, but there were no formal rules, and, therefore, some uncertainty. Paul established a procedure by which players could enter the league three seasons after departing from high school. This system, too, has stood the test of time. It survived a legal challenge. Its principal beneficiary has not been the NFL, but college teams, though they may have never fully appreciated it. A formal process meant colleges could anticipate early departures, plan and recruit accordingly and rotate players through their programs with little or no negative impact.
- For many years, people within the NFL talked about the eventual possibility of a 32-team league. Paul made it happen. Not everyone was happy about the outcome, but it would have been impossible, of course, to satisfy everyone. A 32-team league, and the realignment that accompanied it, enabled the league to establish the best scheduling format it has had since the 1970 merger. Every team in the league plays every other team on a fixed rotation (every third year for intra-conference opponents, every fourth year for inter-conference opponents).
For these, and his many other contributions to the National Football League, I believe Paul should join his predecessors in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.