NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said today that flags will be lowered to half-staff and a moment of silence will be observed at stadiums around the country before Sunday's games to honor the memory of Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, who died Monday from cancer.
Payton's death provided a somber backdrop for a regularly scheduled fall meeting of NFL owners today that began with a special tribute to the Chicago Bears star and the NFL's career leading rusher.
The all-day session essentially provided an opportunity for Tagliabue to present a midseason state-of-the-league report to the assembled owners. They also began preliminary discussions on a variety of topics that will be taken up at the league's annual meeting in March in Palm Beach, Fla.
In another development, new Houston owner Robert McNair said former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly remains on his list of potential candidates to run his expansion team's football operations. McNair said he would meet with several owners before determining whether to hire someone right away, or wait until next year. Houston does not start playing until 2002.
"I told Charley when we're ready to talk, I'll be in touch with him," McNair said. "We want to visit all the qualified people out there and get the best person for the job."
Tagliabue, meantime, is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his tenure as commissioner this month, and he told owners today there was much to rejoice over. He cited a 10 percent rise in network television ratings, attendance on a record pace and competitive games, with 40 percent this season decided by three points or less.
He also indicated the league's newly instituted instant replay system to review controversial officiating calls has generally been well received by the membership.
"Two things I think are clear about replay, and they're both positive," he said. "We're not using it much, less than one a game, and two, it's an insurance policy. We've had a number of plays and reversals that changed the outcome of games. I think it's working."
Realignment likely will be the next hot issue for a league that is done expanding for the foreseeable future, has six years left on a $17.6 billion TV contract and has labor peace through the middle of the next decade.
There was no formal discussion of realignment on the agenda, but plenty of conversations about possible scenarios before the 2002 season, when Houston begins play. There will be four four-team divisions in each conference, and Tagliabue said today he is not totally in favor of regionalizing all the divisions.
He also indicated there is some support for a concept, proposed by Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney, that would have the last team to join a current division (either in expansion or because of a relocation) be the first candidate to move to another.
That likely will mean Arizona will be out of an NFC East that will include the Redskins, Giants, Cowboys and Eagles. Tagliabue also indicated he was opposed to another concept that would lump Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee in the same division.
Tagliabue and a number of owners also paid tribute to Payton. Tagliabue described him as "indefatigable, a man who got knocked down and always got up. For 13 years, you just couldn't stop him from competing. His gentleness and his sweetness both came from the inside. You have to be that kind of person. The desire and urge to be the best is something that drove them internally.
"He played through thick and thin, through the bad days and the good days. That was his commitment to the fans. No matter how tough it was, he was going to play for the Bears."
Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis recalled meeting Payton for the first time after Payton came out of Jackson State in 1975 and inviting him to sit in his box during a Super Bowl, "knowing I'd probably never have a shot at drafting him.
"He inspired others to be great," Davis said. "Greatness is a word I hold for just a few people. He certainly was a great talent, and a great man."