ABOARD THE MADDEN CRUISER – NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is a man with plenty on his mind, of course.
Leaning back with legs crossed while sitting in a green paisley bench aboard the 45-foot-long bus owned by John Madden, Goodell addressed a variety of the topics facing his league during an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press:
— Negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement ("We have a lot of work to do").
— An 18-game regular season ("Every day that you don't have an agreement on a lot of those issues is one more day to prepare; it's a lot of planning and a lot of preparation so it becomes more challenging").
— Persuading players to agree to blood testing for human growth hormone ("It is about the integrity of the game").
— Concussions and other on-field safety issues ("We want to make sure that everyone is aware of the risk. ... Awareness is clearly at a high level").
Rarely, though, was Goodell more animated during the 1-hour, 45-minute ride from Baltimore Ravens training camp in Westminster, Md., to Washington Redskins training camp in Ashburn, Va., than when one of the Madden Cruiser's five televisions aired an update on the "will-he-retire-or-won't-he?" Brett Favre saga.
"You see that report?" Goodell said, shifting forward and turning to Madden, who was seated across a diner-sized table cluttered with newspaper pages, black notebook binders and a coffee mug overflowing with pens.
Yes, Goodell is among the millions keeping tabs on the Minnesota Vikings quarterback.
"There is a lot of interest in whether he comes back," Goodell said. "He's a great player. People really admire the way he plays the game, so I understand" all the attention to the story."
It's the sort of thing Goodell insists fans are far more interested in than, say, the particulars of labor negotiations. He repeatedly refused to characterize the nature of those talks with the NFL Players Association. He declined to say whether he is optimistic or pessimistic that a deal can get done before the current contract expires in March.
Asked what he'd tell fans who want to know whether the NFL will have a full season in 2011, Goodell replied, "All I can tell anybody is we're going to work our tail off to get something that works for everybody."
He frequently travels to training camps, but this is the first time he got a lift around the country from Madden, the former NFL coach and TV analyst who last flew on an airplane in 1979 and has been using a personal bus since the mid-1980s. Sleeping in the not-quite-queen-sized bed in the back of the bus — his gold-colored Hall of Fame jacket hanging in the bedroom closet in a black garment back with red lettering of a "Big & Tall" store — Madden set out from his California home on a 52-hour drive across the U.S. to pick up Goodell in New York.
Their five-camp road trip began Tuesday at the Philadelphia Eagles, continues Thursday at the Pittsburgh Steelers — where Goodell plans to meet with suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — and wraps up Friday at the Cleveland Browns.
At each stop, Goodell meets with the entire team, then also chats with smaller groups of players.
"You get exposed to a lot of things," Goodell said. "That's what we wanted to see. We wanted to see what was going on."
Madden waved those meaty hands of his in the air while that familiar voice described what he's enjoying about the trip.
"Seeing players. The smell of it. The action," he said. "It's great for the commissioner because he's so good with all of it. He's good with the players. He's so natural. That's the thing that impresses me."
Asked what topics players broach with him, Goodell declined to get into specifics or rank what the most popular issues are. He did mention player health and safety and "the right kind of labor agreement."
Goodell's most forceful statements Wednesday came with regard to testing for HGH, which is banned by the league — although players are not tested for it. He wants blood testing for that drug, something the players' union long has opposed.
"It's about making sure that we're doing everything to protect our players and to protect the integrity of our game," Goodell said.
"We think it's important to have HGH testing, to make sure we ensure that we can take performance-enhancing substances out of the game. Unfortunately, the only way to test for that, on any reliable basis right now, is through blood testing," he said. "And if your objective is to take it out of the game, that's the only way to do it. ... That's why we proposed it."
At his stops in Maryland and Virginia on Wednesday, Goodell spoke about Roethlisberger ("He is doing what he's been asked to do — and frankly more"), Redskins defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth ("Albert wants to play football and he wants to get out there and he needs to be able to do that, but he needs to get himself in proper shape to be able to do that"), and labor issues such as the possibility of a rookie wage scale ("The system is broken and we've got to fix it").
Goodell said he'd like to do this sort of bus tour again. The Madden Cruiser certainly has its perks, including the granite kitchen counter crowded with cookies, chips and pretzels, fruit and other snacks, let alone what resides in the fully stocked refrigerator.
Then there's respite from the heat. The temperature topped 90 Wednesday, but that was tough to tell thanks to the full-blast air conditioning monitored by a bus thermostat set to 60 degrees.
Goodell did have to make one concession to his host.
"Someone asked what I like to eat, and my assistant said I have a salad for lunch every day. So they got me a salad with salmon on it, which I have frequently, and (Madden) said, 'We don't normally have that on this bus. Needless to say, I did not eat it. We had some good turkey sandwiches.'"
Noted Madden: "Never in the history of the bus have we had a salad."