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TAGLIABUE 3 VOTES AWAY FROM NFL POST

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Paul Tagliabue, one of Pete Rozelle's closest advisers, is three votes away from becoming Rozelle's successor as commissioner of the NFL.

The question now is whether Rozelle's implied threat to walk out of the job he had vowed to keep until a successor is chosen will be enough to break the deadlock among NFL owners.The owners met for 11 hours Tuesday and adjourned after four votes with Tagliabue three short of the 19 needed for election. He had 16 votes to 11 for Jim Finks, the New Orleans Saints president and the candidate of the so-called "Old Guard" owners. Finks had seemed to have the job locked up in July until a group of 11 insurgents blocked his election.

Now it's Tagliabue, who is about as old guard as can be after two decades working closely with Rozelle and old-line owners, who seems in position to get the job.

"Jim Finks' candidacy is dead," Philadelphia's Norman Braman, one of the leaders of the insurgent group, said.

It is blunt statements like that made by Braman which have kept the deadlock going through 40 hours of meetings and 10 ballots. What might eventually break it is Rozelle's implied threat to walk out. He announced his retirement on March 22 and has been living in a New York hotel suite since Aug. 1 while his wife, Carrie, prepares for their move to the San Diego area.

Even if Finks lacks the votes for election, he has more than enough to block Tagliabue. Wellington Mara of the New York Giants and Art Modell of Cleveland are owners who like Tagliabue, a 48-year-old Washington lawyer, but don't want to cede control of the NFL to newcomers.

The new commissioner will have to get 19 votes from just 26 voters. The Los Angeles Raiders' Al Davis left town on Tuesday and San Diego's Alex Spanos won't be present for today's meeting. Both were aligned with Finks.

"There's going to have to be a solution that provides an opportunity for everyone to save face," conceded one of those newcomers, New England's Victor Kiam, who has owned the Patriots for less than a year. "Right now, there's a lot of pride involved."

Rozelle wasn't interested in face.

Clearly exasperated with the delay - it is now 218 days since he announced his retirement - he left some strong hints that he might walk away if the deadlock continues.

"I indicated my patience was becoming very short," he said. "I didn't give them an ultimatum, but they understood how I felt."

Then he added:

"I feel like I've lost some of my retirement already."

Moreover, the core of the Finks support seemed solid.

"I'm still committed to Jim Finks and I'll stay with him until he's voted down," said Modell, who had hinted last week he might switch in the interest of harmony. "If I lose, I lose."

Asked about Rozelle walking away, Modell replied:

"He might. I wouldn't blame him if he did. I'd like to see him leave with his head held high, but if he does step down, we have contingency plans in our by-laws for an interim commissioner."

Rozelle said if the deadlock wasn't broken today, a third candidate would have to be brought in. Who that might be remains in doubt. In fact, owners on both sides have suggested that Tagliabue might have been a perfect third candidate.

"I think our mistake was to make Paul our candidate from the start," Dallas' Jerry Jones said. "He would have been an excellent compromise."