Over the next three days, the NFL will be examining its game on the field and off the field and considering rules that will affect both of those areas. Here is a quick look at some of the key issues that will be discussed.
The issue: Competitive balance.
The take: Owners are looking at a league that they feel is very competitive right now. Sure, there is the occasional 1-15 team and the once-in-a-lifetime 16-0 Patriots. But Rich McKay, head of the NFL's competition committee, pointed out that in head-to-head games between the NFC and AFC this year each conference won 32 games.
So how does that translate into the playoffs? The Giants were a sixth seed that won the Super Bowl this year. Two years ago, it was a fifth seed winning it all, so those two instances back the feeling of a competitive playoff field.
"I think we have a league that people begin every year with the idea that they can compete for a championship even though the odds-makers have said otherwise," McKay said. "I think that lends itself to fans having great interest in our game."
Under the revamped playoff proposal, the two division winners with the best record would receive the top two seeds in the conference and an opening-round bye. The other two division winners from each conference would also make the playoffs, but they wouldn't be guaranteed the third and fourth seeding; instead, the remaining four playoff teams in each conference would be seeded according to their regular-season records. Division winners would be given preference in the event of equal records.
The issue: The rules.
The take: The force-out ruling – when a receiver catches the ball and lands out of bounds but is deemed to have been forced out – may get overhauled. A proposal is on the table to allow the defender to push the receiver out of bounds when he is in the air. However, the defender wouldn't be able to hold and carry the receiver out of bounds under the proposal. How big of a deal is this? Not that big, as the force out was only called 15 times in 17 weeks of play last year – but that one critical time could make all the difference in a last-minute decision. The Vikings lost an 18-17 contest to Arizona in the final game of the 2003 season when Cardinals receiver Nate Poole was deemed to have been pushed out of bounds by the Vikings defenders. Under the new proposal, the Cardinals wouldn't have been given the touchdown. That could have changed the Vikings' record from 9-7 and out of the playoffs to 10-6 and in the playoffs – and Poole wouldn't have been given a key to the city of Green Bay.
Another proposal is to eliminate the 5-yard face mask and make all face-mask penalties 15-yard infraction.
Another proposal targets the communication systems from the sidelines to the field. Currently, only the quarterback is allowed to have a speaker in his helmet. A new proposal would allow one defender to have a speaker in his helmet to receive communication from the sideline. Incidentally, he league is also looking into changing the sticker on the helmet from a green dot to something else.
The issue: Tampering.
The take: The biggest off-the-field proposal involves the way free agency is handled. Currently, teams are not supposed to negotiate with players or agents until the start of the free-agent period. Still, there are numerous indications that teams at least talk with the agents about the possibilities of players coming to a new team before the start of the free-agent period. Under a proposal to be heard this week, teams would be allowed to negotiate with certified agents five to seven days before the start of free agency. Players wouldn't be able to sign a contract or visit a team until the free-agent period started, but the agents and teams would be able to negotiate.
"It is because we feel like there's too much contact that's coming from all different directions, a lot of it coming from the agent's direction," McKay said. "If you create this dead period, you're creating a much more level playing field for those that wait the entire period."
The issue: The statistics.
The take: The number of plays per game increased to 153.1. The number of points per game – 43.4 – was the highest it had been since 1983, thanks in good part to Randy Moss and the Patriots breaking several scoring marks in 2007. The 650.4 yards per game was the 10th-highest in the history of the league and the 428 passing yards per game was the second-highest in NFL history.
Touchdowns were up. Penalties were down. Game time was also down.
All things considered, it would appear the on-field state of the game is about as good as it gets.
Off the field is another issue, as labor strife could be on the horizon. That issue, however, isn't getting much comment, as coaches and administrators have been informed they could be fined heavily if they offer public statements on the possibility of owners opting out of the current collective bargaining agreement, making 2010 an uncapped season and putting the competitive balance of the NFL – an aspect of pride in the current state of the game – in jeopardy.
"There will be a presentation, discussion, review of the CBA. I wouldn't term it of the CBA negotiations, because we're really not in the middle of negotiations," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "… We're in the middle of a great deal of analysis and there will be discussion of the CBA after the meeting."
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