A Business Meeting … Monday Cup O’Chiefs

The NFL’s annual March owners meetings are usually held at opulent resorts in places like Hawaii, Palm Springs, Laguna Beach, Palm Beach and Orlando. These are generally four or five-day events with swanky cocktail parties, golf and tennis tournaments, and the VIP treatment billionaires expect with their extra-large bank accounts.

This year, the NFL owners have ditched the beach, golf course and parties in favor of the Crescent City of New Orleans. It’s going down at the renovated Roosevelt Hotel just across Canal Street from the French Quarter. It’s actually a hotel where a room can be found most days for less than $200 a night.

Don’t think the league is suddenly slumming. They’ll still be throwing around their wallets at places like Commander’s Palace and Galatoires, but it’s a league get-together with a different feel. Certainly a good time can be had in the French Quarter, but these are troubled times in pro football and with the labor situation in the toilet, it would not be good to taunt the fans with piña
coladas around the pool and late night strolls down Bourbon Street.

The 2011 March meetings began on Sunday and the topic at the head of the agenda every day will be labor and the current stalemate with the players. The future, both immediate and long-term will dominate the action and attention of the owners, executives and even the head coaches. All clubs will be represented, although New England’s owner Robert Kraft will miss the red beans and rice because of a family medical matter.

“The whole focus is going to be on labor,” said Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy. “There are a number of issues related to the health and safety of the players, but the whole focus is going to be how we are going to resolve our labor situation.”

There are other things to speak of and take action on during this session; in particular some rules proposals that have come up from the Competition Committee involving the first play of every game – the kickoff.

Speaking for the Competition Committee last week, Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay outlined the changes the group has put together and he said the driving force behind the alterations is the safety of the players.

“The injury rate on the kickoff remains a real concern for us and for the players, so we will propose what I think would be a pretty major change to the play itself.”

The changes would be:

  • Moving the yard-line for kickoffs forward from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line.
  • If a kickoff went for a touchback, the ball would be placed at the 25-yard line, rather than the 20 where it’s placed now.
  • Players on kick coverage could not line up more than five yards away from the kickoff line; if the kick was from the 35-yard line, no cover man could lineup deeper than the 30. That does not hold true for the kicker.
  • Blockers could not form any type of wedge, even if it’s just two players. A wedge of more than two players was outlawed last year.

“The idea was to change the play but don’t disadvantage either side,” said McKay. “One of the major points was moving the touchback line to the 25-yard line. Today, the average start line is about the 27-yard line, so what we are saying is if you do have the ability to create a touchback, you are not gaining any great advantage by putting them back.”

McKay listed concussions and other major injuries as those that are continuing to happen on kickoffs. Generally the team kicking off suffers more injuries than the receiving team.

These are the suggestions of the Competition Committee and must be approved by ownership. More than a few coaches are going to be against these changes, maybe because they have a great talent returning kicks.

“I don’t ever speak for counting votes but I know this: the play is such and the injury data is such and the video is such that it needs revision,” said McKay. ”That will certainly be the message we will try to send.  I also know that coaches can be sometimes resistant to change.  This is a change that we think needs to happen.”

It appears one vote has already lined up against the changes – the Chicago Bears.

“I don’t want to say anything definitively before we have gotten in the meetings,” Bears president Ted Phillips told the Chicago Tribune.  “So I would say that we’ll listen to the arguments, but we’re a little surprised by the proposal and we’ll probably be against it.  With our return game being such a big part of our offense, I would tend to think we would vote against it.  There are some aspects to the proposal, including the elimination of the two-man wedge and having all the players except the kicker no more than 5 yards behind the ball, that would be more acceptable than moving the kickoff to the 35.”

McKay and the league’s executive vice-president and discipline honcho Ray Anderson agreed that the league will continue to look closely at hits on defenseless players. Anderson promised suspensions for repeat offenders.

“There will be strong support in the 2011 season for making sure that players understand that, when warranted, suspensions will be an effective discipline for us,” said Anderson. ”We don’t want to go there, but if we must we’re prepared to do that because these rules are meant to protect everybody on the field and all are accountable to those player safety rules.  So discipline, and aggressive discipline, for these player safety rules and violations, particularly the ones that we all know can be devastating, will be an emphasis in 2011.”

The Competition Committee has also proposed a change in instant replay rules and regulations. All scoring plays would be reviewed by the replay booth, whether the coaches asked for the extra look or not. And, the third challenge would be eliminated. In the past, a coach could get an extra challenge if he was successful in his first two challenges. The proposal would take that off the books.

Other items that could come up for discussion with the owners this week:

  • Final approval of compensatory draft picks that will come from free agent signings.
  • Announcement of prime-time games on the opening weekend and possibly the pre-season schedule as well. The regular season schedule likely won’t be released until the middle of April.
  • Possible re-seeding of the teams for the playoffs.

With no big soirees and most of the wives and families left at home, it figures to be a quiet time around the old Rosey. A quiet, but important time for the league.

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