Jeff Pash’s Retirement From NFL Leaves a Big Void at Roger Goodell’s Side

The commissioner has succeeded in a role typically filled by lawyers because his general counsel has taken on so much.
Roger Goodell speaks to media at an NFL podium.
Roger Goodell speaks to media at an NFL podium. / Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
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To say Jeff Pash, who is now retiring from the NFL, was “only” the league’s general counsel, would be a disservice to his prominence and importance to the league over decades. He was so much more than that.

In a world where—you know my phrase—there will be lawyers, Pash stood out among the many in the industry working for leagues, owners and teams. Pash was a guiding hand not only for Roger Goodell, but also for the “members,” as owners are sometimes called in meetings. Goodell would often charge Pash with the responsibility of talking to owners—a group that never likes hearing they can’t get their way—about subjects that the owners just wanted to go away. Pash handled those difficult conversations professionally and tactfully.

Speaking of Goodell, he is the only commissioner among the four major American sports leagues—NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball—who is not a lawyer. Of course, there is a reason the other leagues have chosen a lawyer to lead them, amid this changing legal landscape. And there is also a reason Goodell thrives as commissioner despite not having a legal background. Some of that is Goodell’s skill in building consensus among ownership, but it was also the presence of Pash at his side. In some ways, Pash has been the “legal” commissioner, doing many of the things that Adam Silver (NBA), Gary Bettman (NHL) and Rob Manfred (MLB) are doing, just without the title.

There have been too many uncomfortable issues in which Pash has steered the league to list, but a few stand out.

A decade ago, the league faced a potential existential threat as thousands of concussion lawsuits alleged post-career brain trauma. Pash led the global settlement with more than 20,000 retired players, staving off litigation that could have cost billions. While it continues to surface from time to time, the concussion issue is no longer a threat to the NFL’s continued prosperity and popularity.

In another uncomfortable litigation, Pash encouraged settlement of a troubling case brought by the city of St. Louis, alleging the league was fast and loose with its own relocation guidelines in moving the Rams to Los Angeles. Pash knew what the owners would not like to hear: The facts were not good. It cost them $790 million, but could have cost many multiples of that after a jury trial that was set to begin.

And, of course, Pash led the league through countless player litigations, some involving many of the biggest names in the sport: Tom Brady, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Ezekiel Elliott and more. The upshot of all of those cases? The power of Goodell was strengthened.

Beyond his professional abilities, my lasting impression of Pash is that he treated everyone he met with the same respect and dignity as he treated owners. I remember times at NFL meetings when, as other senior NFL executives looked past me to find someone more important, Pash was happy to engage, to talk about our families and interests. He was so approachable that I remember thinking, That’s the NFL general counsel? That kindness is rare among leaders of a $20 billion a year business.

Pash’s retirement will not receive much attention in the everyday swirl of NFL news, but it leaves a big void at Goodell’s side. There will be lawyers, but there won’t be many like Jeff Pash.

Here are five more quick thoughts on recent developments in the business of football …

The Falcons took Michael Penix Jr. with the eighth pick / Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

1. The Falcons are not the Packers

The Atlanta Falcons made the biggest free-agent splash of 2024, signing quarterback Kirk Cousins to a contract containing $100 million guaranteed. And six weeks later, they made the most surprising pick of the draft, selecting quarterback Michael Penix Jr. No. 8. My initial reaction was that this is the Packer Way: The Falcons were copying the successful Green Bay strategy of drafting Aaron Rodgers when they (we) had Brett Favre, and Jordan Love when they had Rodgers. In thinking more about it, though, it’s not really the Packer Way at all.

Rodgers and Love were drafted 24th and 26th; Penix was drafted eighth. Favre and Rodgers starred for the Packers for over a decade when their replacements were drafted; Cousins has yet to play a snap on a new contract. While it is the same premise of a succession plan, this is different. And I don’t get it.

No one will feel too bad for Cousins, an inaugural inductee in my Business of Football Hall of Fame, who will add at least $100 million from the Falcons to his $300 million in career earnings. However, Cousins will almost certainly be replaced by Penix in 2026, after receiving $90 million for two years (the Falcons will likely eat the remaining $10 million guaranteed), something certainly never mentioned in the Falcons’ recruiting pitch to him. That would have to make him question trust in the team.

I know how hard this situation is to manage. I used to hear from Favre’s camp all the time, saying “Andrew, do you know what it’s like having to come into work every day and sit next to your replacement?” This is now the situation for Cousins.

Again, no one is feeling sorry for Cousins, who received a $50 million bonus just to sign, but this is not exactly what he signed up for.

2. The Inevitability of 18 games

During a predraft interview on The Pat McAfee show, Goodell said the NFL may extend the regular season to 18 games, playing the Super Bowl on President’s Day weekend. He spoke casually about imposing another game of an already violent sport on the workforce after adding the 17th game just three years ago.

Goodell seemed not to care that the added game needs to be collectively bargained and approved by the NFL Players Association, as if he felt that any player resistance was only a minor speed bump toward accomplishing the goal. And, I suppose, he had good reason for thinking that.

In the last lead-up to the CBA, the 17th game was once thought to be a non-negotiable for the players before somehow becoming a non-negotiable for the owners, who pushed it through. The next CBA bargaining is not for several years, but we can already see where it is going. We’ve gone from 16 to 17 games—and we’re never going backward—and now an 18-game season seems inevitable for future players in a league that continues to get younger.

3. Three teams trying to socialize cost, privatize profit

While the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans secured immense amounts of public funding within the past couple of years to build new stadiums, public officials and taxpayers in a few other NFL locations do not seem as generous.

The Chicago Bears have an ambitious project that includes a stadium with a translucent dome that will cost $4.6 billion. The good news for taxpayers is that the Bears will pay half, $2.3 billion. The bad news? The Bears want someone else to pay the other $2.3 billion.

The Cleveland Browns also want taxpayers to foot half the bill for either a proposed $2.4 billion domed stadium or a $1 billion renovation of their existing stadium.

And the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs lost a referendum for a sales tax by a resounding 58%-42% “no” vote as they seek $500 million in public money to renovate Arrowhead Stadium.

Will these teams get their funding? Well, Illinois governor J.B. Priztker has called the Bears’ proposal “a nonstarter,” the Browns don’t have public support and the Chiefs have already lost one vote.

You know what may happen next: The teams may subtly—or not so subtly—mention the possibility of moving. The Chiefs have already said “all options are on the table.” It is part of the playbook. Please, they are not going anywhere. But it has worked before and will probably work again.

Socialize cost, privatize profit. That’s the playbook.

4. Fifth-year options: no sure thing

Teams had to make decisions by last week on exercising the fifth-year options for the 2021 draft class, and the results do not bode well for the group as a whole.

Of a possible 32 first-round players, only 18 had their options exercised. And of the five quarterbacks, only one option was picked up (Trevor Lawrence), with the other four no longer on their original teams and declined by their new teams (Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones).

Exercising the option does not require the team to guarantee that fifth-year amount. Before the 2020 CBA, there was only an injury guarantee required in the fifth year, meaning there’s very little risk in exercising the option. Now there is some risk with the guarantee, but obviously it’s dependent on the value of the player.

The surprising thing here is that first-round picks are supposed to become starting players and potential stars for NFL teams. But, based on these results, almost half the teams decided that those players were not even worth having around for another year under contract come February. 

5. The “real deals” for A.J. Brown and Travis Kelce

As readers know, massive deals are never what they appear to be in the media. While these two stars certainly received upgrades, here are the real deals:

Brown was reported to be receiving a $96 million extension, but in the next three years of the deal—where the guaranteed money is—the number is $80 million. Brown was already scheduled to make $68 million over that time frame. Thus, Brown will make an additional $12 million over the “real” part of the contract.

Kelce had the two remaining years on his contract upgraded. His 2024 pay came up $5 million; his 2025 pay came up $1 million. It is nice he received a $6 million “gift” over two years, but it was not what it was reported to be (a $34 million extension). As with Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs rectified a contract that was overly team-friendly (Mahomes’s deal still is, but that’s for another column).

Andrew Brandt