NEW YORK (March 20, 2006) -- Paul Tagliabue is retiring as NFL commissioner in July after more than 16 years on the job.
The 65-year-old league leader has been in charge since 1989, when he succeeded Pete Rozelle, and agreed last March to stay to complete the television and labor deals.
He finally got that done 12 days ago, finishing the most arduous labor negotiations since the league and union agreed on a free agency-salary cap deal in 1992.
"I believe that now is a positive time to make the transition to a new commissioner," Tagliabue said in a statement.
"We have a collective bargaining extension in place, long-term television contracts, and have undertaken many other strong elements in league and club operations," he said. "I am honored to have been commissioner since late 1989 and to have been heavily involved with the league, its owners, clubs, coaches, players, fans and media since 1969."
Roger Goodell, the NFL's chief operating officer, and Atlanta general manager Rich McKay are the two leading candidates to succeed Tagliabue. Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass is considered to have an outside chance.
Tagliabue has said he wants to avoid the kind of seven-month deadlock that occurred between him and the late Jim Finks after Rozelle stepped down in March 1989. Owners will begin the search for a new commissioner at their meetings next week in Orlando, Fla.
Tagliabue first phone call with the news went to Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney, the NFL's senior owner. The other owners learned of his retirement by email.
"We've got the best labor deal in sports. We've got the best league. He's been our leader. The whole way he's done this has been wonderful," Rooney told The Associated Press.
Tagliabue will stay on with the NFL as a senior executive and a consultant through 2008, part of the contract extension he signed last July.
His term will be remembered most for labor peace following strikes in 1982 and 1987. His close relationship with Gene Upshaw, the union's executive director, finally led to a long-term agreement after five years without a contract.
But the bargaining was hard this time, with three straight deadline extensions needed. The agreement avoided the prospect of entering free agency this year with the possibility of an uncapped year in 2007.
It came at the expense of revenue sharing among the owners, an issue that had divided high-revenue and small-revenue teams and contributed to the deadlock. He did it with what has been considered his greatest skill as commissioner, patching together a coalition of nine teams with differing viewpoints to reach a compromise considered satisfactory by all but two teams.
He also oversaw a massive stadium building program. More than two-thirds of the NFL's 32 teams are either playing in or building stadiums that didn't exist when he took over as commissioner in 1989.
Before taking on this job, Tagliabue was a league lawyer who spent much of that time as the NFL's representative and unofficial lobbyist in Washington.
"He has been a tremendous asset to our league and the direction we have taken," New Orleans owner Tom Benson said.
"We have experienced very positive growth in the area of revenue sharing and broadcast contracts, we have secured long-term labor peace and have also even encountered some of the worst of times following 9/11, but through it all Paul has been a leader, a friend and a voice that many others within our league and other leagues have followed."