Roger Goodell’s office made it official early Tuesday: The NFL commissioner is electing to attend the NFC Championship game between the Packers and Falcons Sunday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
In today’s corporate-speak, this is what’s known as “bad optics.’’
It looks as though the commissioner is afraid to come to Foxborough.
What a joke. Are we really supposed to believe that the NFL boss can’t sit in the back of a tinted-window limo that will take him straight into the underbelly of Gillette Stadium Sunday night?
He doesn’t have to go on the field or sit in the stands (Goodell did sit in the Foxborough stands when the Patriots played the Ravens in the playoffs two years ago). He’s worried about riding in a private and secure stadium elevator that will deliver him to the red level, where he can sit in a cushy corporate box and sip chardonnay while the Steelers and Patriots battle for the AFC championship?
What is the big deal, Roger? You are not Salman Rushdie hiding from the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Wells Report is not “The Satanic Verses.” There is no football fatwa in Patriot Nation. This is a sporting event.
Come to Foxborough, Commish. Take some abuse from the fans and the franchise you punished. The people of Norwood and Walpole are not going to shut down Route 1 and rock your limousine the way demonstrators did to Vice President Richard Nixon in Caracas in 1958.
Worst case: Maybe the Patriots will flash your image on the end zone videoboards. You’ll hear a few boos. Big deal. Fans booed an ad for an upcoming Justin Bieber concert during last weekend’s game. If Biebs can take it, so can you.
You are the commissioner of the NFL. You are the protector of the Shield. You won the Deflategate war. Come back to Foxborough and face the angry nation.
This wouldn’t even be an issue if Goodell had been smarter about his schedule. If he’d saved his trip to Atlanta, he could have announced that he needed to see the Georgia Dome one last time before it closes. He could have claimed that the Dome is sacred NFL space, like Lambeau Field or Soldier Field.
But he went to Atlanta last weekend to watch the Falcons and Seahawks. Then he went to Kansas City on Sunday. Now he’s facing championship weekend, and there are games at only two sites: Foxborough and Atlanta. And instead of coming to Foxborough for the first time since Deflategate, he’s going back to Atlanta for a second straight week. It’s obvious that he’s dodging New England.
“I don’t know how they pick where he goes,’’ Patriots owner Jonathan Kraft said on 98.5 The Sports Hub last weekend. “Owners don’t extend invitations.’’
When Tom Brady was asked about Goodell’s attendance during his (paid) WEEI gig Monday, the quarterback answered, “He’s the commissioner, so obviously whatever he wants to do, he can do. He can go wherever he wants to go. Whoever is at the game is at the game.’’
The last time Goodell was here was two years ago during AFC Championship week. Former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak (now the radio color man on game days), remembers mingling with Goodell at a Channel 4 “All-Access” Saturday night kickoff party at Bob Kraft’s house with league executives, network big shots, sponsors, and clients of the Patriots. Zolak moderated an informal Q&A session with CBS chairman Sean McManus and the commissioner.
It’s a little creepy when you realize that while Goodell socialized with Kraft and other Patriot folks at the owner’s home on the eve of the game, the commissioner “more likely than not” already knew that a cheating charge had been levied against the Patriots, and that there was going to be unusual scrutiny regarding game balls Sunday night.
According to Page 44 of the Wells Report, “the day before the AFC Championship Game, Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson sent an email to the NFL raising concerns about the air pressure of game balls used by the Patriots. Grigson sent his email to David Gardi and Mike Kensil, both senior members of the NFL Football Operations Department.’’
Asked for his recollection of Goodell’s demeanor on the night before the fire was lit, Zolak said, “The commissioner was great. We talked about the college he went to, Washington & Jefferson in Western Pennsylvania. A lot of my family went there.
“I talked to him for about 20 minutes. Everything was copacetic and normal. He was there that night knowing full well what was in store the next day.’’
And now Goodell won’t come back. He didn’t come to Gillette on the night the Patriots raised their 2014 championship banner. He has avoided Foxborough for two full regular seasons and two playoff seasons.
That Feb. 5 Lombardi Trophy presentation in Houston just gets more and more interesting. It could be the ultimate Big Bowl of Awkward.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org