What Have We Learned (Part One)

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: March 28, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — Amidst Southern California’s flowing palm trees, the NFL Calendar turned it’s attention this past week towards Dana Point, California. The posh St. Regis Resort became the epicenter of the National Football League for a few days as the 2009 NFL Owners’ meetings came to town.

The NFL Owners’ Meetings used to be a quiet traditional off-season vacation type event where league officials, team front-office representatives, and their families could congregate without any fanfare to talk shop while also fitting in some relaxation.

Those days are long gone as the football hibernation period on the NFL calendar is no more. Now everything NFL related is eaten up as quickly as huge defensive tackle Grady Jackson can eat a plate of hot wings. People just can’t seem to get enough information from the world’s greatest sports league, so now this former sleepy event is a major sport’s story.

With over 200 media types heading home — What Economic Downturn for News Outlets?? — I thought it was time to go over what we learned over the event’s four days.

The Competition Committee carries some weight at this event – While everyone was waiting for Commissioner Roger Goodell to chime-in on different issues, the voices that matter most were those of the league’s Competition Committee. The Committee is comprised of co-chairmen Jeff Fischer and Rich McKay with the other members being Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, Giants co-owner John Mara, Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, Colts GM Bill Polian, Panthers Team President Mark Richardson and Texans GM Rick Smith. The group is tasked with being the NFL’s primary rule making body, maintaining the integrity of the game and competitive balance. Basically these guys rule over all aspects of NFL football – anything from game-play rules to player safety. Before the meeting certain issues are targeted by the committee after sending out a survey to the league as a whole.

NFL Economics the main topic at Meetings – The foremost topic at the NFL Owners’ Meetings was the challenges ahead for the NFL economically during these tough times. Yes even the ultra-rich National Football League (revenues reported over $6 Billion for ’08) is partially feeling the crunch of the economy — layoffs at the league office (125 jobs), NFL Network/NFL Films cut backs, teams like the Colts and Panthers cutting jobs of lower-tier employees, Commissioner Goodell taking a 20-25% cut on his $11 million salary, and NY Jets making some employees take an paid vacation.

Don’t let Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder handing big-ticket free agent defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth a seven-year, $100-million deal with a league-record $41 million in guaranteed money fool you, because the NFL maybe looking at a possible work stoppage in 2011. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is set to expire after the 2010 season, so trust me in order for all of the dollars to continue to flow around the league from the television networks to the owners to the players, it behooves everyone to maintain labor peace. However I don’t know about you, but there seems to be an air around the NFL that a lockout is very possible. New NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith is a known labor litigator so unlike former NFLPA head Gene Upshaw (noted NFL pacifier) he seems to be ready to fight the owners over issues such as maintaining the nearly 60% of football revenues that are paid to the players. Smith recently said about the impending CBA labor issues, “There isn’t a day where I don’t hope for peace, but at the same time, there isn’t a day where we won’t prepare for war”. If a new agreement is struck soon, the salary cap is set to expire after the 2009 season with owners threatening a potential lockout in 2011 — the league’s last labor stoppage the 1987 player’s strike.

There are some uncertain times ahead for the NFL economically as there are several big issues lurking, especially an uncapped year looming in 2010, that must be resolved for the league to maintain it’s current lofty status. It will be up to Goodell and Smith to not kill the ‘Golden Goose’ of sports (#1 sports league in America by far in terms of fan interest, revenues, television rating, and merchandising) while being mindful of an economy where NFL fans are losing their jobs at an increasing rate. I have to agree with Fox Sports analyst Jimmy Johnson who said of the situation, “I think there’s too much money at stake. Everybody involved, owners, players, everybody understands it’s in everybody’s best interest to get a new CBA done”. For fans’ sake, I hope Jimmy is right about a sense of urgency around the NFL as America’s Game will be tarnished by any labor unrest.

Changes Coming from the Meetings

The rules and changes that came from this Owner’s Meeting are listed below and before you ask…there will be no rules forcing long haired players to tuck their manes under their helmet. Thank Goodness the Kansas City Chiefs found some other worthy cause to worry about other than hair.

No More Bunches on Kickoffs – The elimination of the bunch formation on kickoffs. Kickoff formations must be evenly balanced ( Passed).

LV’s Take: This rule was specifically called out because special teams coaches were finding inventive ways to get around the league’s 2005 rule that called for balanced kickoffs (four players had to line up on each side of the kicker). I know the NFL is calling this a safety issue, but I love the scrum that ensues during onside kicks.

Slicing Wedges on Kickoffs — The elimination of the over two-man man wedges on kickoff returns. Going forward only two men wedges will be considered a legal wedge (Passed). LV’s Take: Though the NFL is denying it, this rule is basically the “Kevin Everett” rule. The NFL does not want any further injuries from guys trying to bust a large wedge (4 guys) on kickoffs. I will go along with the NFL on this one, though I loved guys like former Eagles special teams star Ken Rose flying into a wedge so their teammates could make a play.

The Hines Ward Rule – The elimination and penalization for helmet-to-helmet contact on blind-side blocks — Now 15 yards and a fine. Are you listening Hines Ward, because this rule is specifically target at you for your open field blow-up of Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers that caused the rising rookie to suffer a season-ending broken jaw injury ( Passed).

LV’s Take: Like anyone else I love a great open field block and players should keep their heads on a swivel, but much like a chop block there is a line (intentionally trying to injure a fellow player) that should never be crossed on the football field. When you see the live action replay of the Rivers hit, you can see the young linebacker was totally unaware of Ward coming and he was basically away from the play.

No more head hunting of defenseless WR’s – Expanding the protection of defenseless receivers by eliminating any kind of contact with a receiver’s head area while he is still in the air. A defender must have two feet on the ground before contact to the head – Now 15 yards and a fine (Passed).

LV’s Take: This is another rule directly linked to on the field incidents. In ’08 both receivers Wes Welker (Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark forearm) and Anquan Boldin were injured on non-flag head hunting plays. Boldin of course got the worst of any player as he had is face and jaw broke by a couple of New York Jets in the endzone. Though I am all about “Player Safety”, I think this rule is going to be too hard to evaluate in live action. You cannot blame a defender for making a play in a split second and trying to separate a receiver from the ball. I can still remember talking to former Falcons safety Lawyer Milloy after the Falcons-Eagles game in ’08 where he had been flagged for a similar play and he said, “It happened so fast that he could stop his momentum”.

The Ed Hochuli Rule — Expanding reviewable plays to include incomplete passes that result in fumbles (Passed).

LV’s Take: We all know this rule comes directly from referee Ed Hochuli’s gaffe during the Chargers-Broncos game in Week 2 of the ’08 season. Hochuli became public enemy number one, because he blew an inadvertent whistle and review could overturn an obvious fumble by Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler. Anything to help the poor referee is fantastic in my eyes. I can still see Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers seething over this missed call. My advice to the officials is to “Get the Call Right” the first time and the replay won’t be needed. Head of Officials Mike Pereira recently said that game day crews averaged 98.1 percent accuracy, down slightly from 98.3 in 2007.

Review of out of bounds plays near the sidelines — Expanding reviewable plays to include loose balls ruled out of bounds but recovered in the field of play. Formerly a ball ruled out of bounds was unreviewable (Passed).

LV’s Take: I can still hear Eagles fans yelling about their onside kick attempt in the NFC Championship that the Cardinals recovered despite their player being out of bounds and the officials doing nothing about it. Like the other reviewable change, anything to help the officials “Get it Right”, I am all for it..

No more re-kicks – Extending the rule that currently eliminates automatic re-kicks on illegal onside kicks in the last five minutes of a game so that the rule would be in effect the entire game (Passed).

LV’s Take: Good… another missed spot on a bad rule fixed. I always used to hate the many re-kicks on game closing kicks back in the day.

Defenders should forget about lunging — This wasn’t a rule change that was voted on, but the NFL decided that defenders who are knocked to the ground can no longer lunge into quarterbacks if the play is still going on.

LV’s Take: This will be forever be called the “Tom Brady” rule as everyone in the NFL community was heartbroken when Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard took out the league’s MVP in the first game of the 2008 season. You knew as soon as the Brady play happened that the NFL was going to protect their “Golden Boys’ even further. As former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan used to say, “They should just put flags on the quarterbacks and get it over with”. C’mon let the defensive guys play hard…can anyone tell me if the same kind of measures are taken on chop blocks and zone blocking knee diving blocks.

Waiver Periods re-worked – A waiver period during the first two weeks of training camp was established. Owners also reworded when the postseason waiver period begins — previously it was after the Pro Bowl and now it will be after the final postseason game.

LV’s Take: Total non-issue so I am fine with it.

New Draft Order — The Competition Committee passed a bylaw change regarding a new draft order starting in 2010. Draft positions 1-20 will still be determined by regular season records, but positions 21 to 32 will now be based on how the playoffs shake out.

LV’s Take: I like this rule as everything with the regular season should be thrown out the door when the playoffs start. I think it is terrible that the Chargers (8-8) beat the Colts (12-4) in the wildcard round and because they had a worse regular season record, they be picking earlier in the first round (16th to 28th).

Lateral Fumbles Will Stop the Clock - Now all fumbles and laterals that go out of bounds will stop the game clock. The clock will start when the referee sorts out how the lateral was fumbled/recovered and signals for play to resume.

LV’s Take: This seems like a minor rule change, so I am fine with the change. But watch somehow we will see a play in ’09 that requires pulling out the rulebook.

NEXT: Other discussion topics.