At halftime of Monday night's Patriots-Jets game, Gene Upshaw said he had someone in mind who could come in and make the deal to end the football strike. A mystery man.

And now we know who that mystery man is. And it certainly has been a mystery why he hasn't come forward sooner.

Pete Rozelle.

It's incredible how silent and how far in the background he has remained. Who was advising him, Greta Garbo?

It may have made sense to him to stay out of the way before the strike, in the hope that the owners and players could reach an agreement without pressure from the commissioner. But there's no longer a good reason for him to continue dancing alone in the dark, and he finally met with both sides yesterday in New York.

Baseball has shown us the different postures a commissioner can take during a strike. There's the Bowie Kuhn pose: supine, watching the wheels go round and round, sitting on a strike waiting for it to hatch. And there's the Peter Ueberroth pose: sleeves rolled up, hands on, let's settle this thing before the soup gets cool. Rozelle has been Bowie too long: bobbing up and down, going nowhere as the waves roll by.

The major impediment to Rozelle mediating the strike is that he's perceived by the players as standing squarely on the owners' side. Upshaw previously had said the only way Rozelle should enter the talks is as the owners' spokesman.

It was time for Rozelle to do something bold to show the players that he's acting in the best interests of the league: the whole league, the players, too. It's time for him to put his negotiating skills -- and maybe his job -- on the line.

With another meeting scheduled today, Rozelle should state his determined opposition to Scabism as the solution to labor-management problems, and indefinitely postpone the scab games on the grounds that they're detrimental to everything the league has stood for in the last 25 years.

Second, he should order the owners to open their books, like Ueberroth did. Let people see if owners are indeed losing money as they claim.

Third, noting that football players have an average NFL career of less than four seasons and often founder after being released into the real world, he should express sympathy with the players' aims for improved severance and pensions.

Fourth, having tilted towards the players in three critical areas, he should urge the players to settle for a modified compensation plan regarding free agency, because the owners are so adamantly against unfettered free agency and because the league has been so profitable for all without it.

Then Rozelle should appeal to both sides to throw down their guns. He should suspend all league activity, including the training of the scab teams, so that neither owners nor players have an economic advantage in maintaining their barricades. And he should scold them. "I'm sick of these strikes. They're ruining the game. You owners say you don't want them. You players say you don't want them. The fans don't want them. The sponsors don't want them. And I don't want them. And you are going to sit in a room for however long it takes, and you are not coming out until you have an agreement. We are through killing the goose that lays the golden eggs."

He should be the mediator himself, and to make that palatable he should offer to bring along somebody else upon whom both sides can agree, someone of character, with experience at compromise, someone beyond reproach, perhaps Gerald Ford.

To underline his good faith he should offer his resignation if this doesn't work.

Why should Rozelle do this?

For the good of the game, something he has always pledged himself to as commissioner. And because he's 62 years old, and he's been doing this job for 27 years, and the ignominy of the last six has threatened to eclipse everything he accomplished in the first 21.

He has been thrashed by Al Davis, beaten, however Pyrrhically, by the USFL, embarrassed by Robert Irsay, Leon Hess and Leonard Tose, and smeared as nothing more than a well-tanned figurehead on a short leash. It seems whenever we see him lately, he's on a witness stand being interrogated. Each successive time he looks more drained. Standing in place of a confident, aggressive administrator is a tentative, haggard bureaucrat.

This is Rozelle's chance to remind people that it was under his direction that the NFL became the preeminent sports league in the world, that the Super Bowl became something mythic, surpassing even the Olympics in sporting consequence, that the value of franchises skyrocketed as Rozelle successfully courted television as his partner. People have forgotten the crucial role Rozelle played in the marriage of sports and television. Rozelle's NFL is the model which David Stern's basketball and Ueberroth's baseball leagues strive to emulate. This is Rozelle's chance, and maybe his last chance, to reverse the revisionist thinking of recent years.

Why should the players want Rozelle at the table?

Because he is the best negotiator professional sports ever has known. And if he can't broker a fair deal, a deal that can benefit both sides, nobody can.