(Philadelphia, PA) — 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.
Other Discussion topics
More Regular Season Games?? — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell seems pretty adamant that he would like to see more regular season games played (from 16 to 17 or 18) by 2011. There are many hurdles to the expanded game schedule (Player approval, Television Contract changes, Pre-Season length, playoff starting dates, playoff ending dates, the Pro Bowl, injuries, and much more) that will need to be worked out in CBA discussions before the league can move forward with this plan. Goodell said of the plan, “It’s possible that we could vote in May, but we want to have core discussions on this”. Goodell added, “Anytime you have change, there is some reluctance. But it’s clear we don’t need four preseason games anymore.” LV’s Take: It is clear that the new games would come from the existing 20 games (16 regular season and 4 pre-season games) with at least one or two meaningless pre-season games going away. Could the final week of pre-season games be in jeopardy, oh darn. If I don’t have to sit through another Eagles-Jets week 4 pre-season game where most the players will be cut the next day then I am all for it.
No Overtime Changes – Though there has been much discussion around letting both teams having a chance to score in overtime (see the Chargers overtime wildcard win over the Colts), the Competition Committee did not vote on any proposals to change any overtime rules. LV’s Take: I am okay with the current overtime rules despite the fact that the coin-toss winning team won 63 percent of overtime games in ’08. Most players do not mind the existing overtime format and want to fight it out in sudden death, so I am with them. And don’t forget my favorite players, kickers, are helping as they made 84.5% of overall field goal attempts in ’08.
Free Agent Tampering – Every year at the free agent start date (12:01 AM) there are already reports that deals were done much earlier — think Albert Haynesworth signing with the Redskins in ’08 and Asante Samuel signing with the Eagles in ’07. Some around the league are looking to make a hard-line regarding free agent tampering and this issue will be back around come May. LV’s Take: The league knows that there is free agent tampering, but they are not sure on how to implement a new “freeze” period. I still expect rules and a fine structure to come about around this issue, but you agents (Show-Me-the-Money) will find a way to circumvent the system.
No Playoff Re-Seeding – This item was not even discussed by the competition committee after everyone knew a fight was going to ensue. This may come up again if another team like the San Diego Chargers gets into the playoffs with an iffy record- won the weak AFC West with an 8-8 record and hosted a playoff game. LV’s Take: Sure everyone wants teams to play to the end of the season, but I am not sure if de-emphasizing Division titles is the way to go. When it comes to losing home playoff game revenues you know owners will always raise an eyebrow.
No additional playoff teams to be added – There was some discussion around going from 12 to 16 playoff teams, but nothing came of it. Commissioner Goodell said of the talk, “Some clubs believe we should expand the playoffs, I don’t think it’s required as part of the restructuring of the season to expand the playoffs. The opposing view is, let’s not water down (i.e. the NBA and NHL) something that’s tremendous. We still have 32 teams. We should keep it to 12 teams and it should be special to be able make that. It makes the regular season special, that you have to qualify to get into that postseason.” LV’s Take: I agree with Goodell that 12 teams is enough for now. But last year I did not like that the New England Patriots (11-5) became just the second team in 31 seasons of playing a 16-game schedule to miss the playoffs.
Possible rookie wage scale – Though not an agenda item, in talking about upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement discussions the issue of a rookie cap was brought by Commissioner Goodell. Older players and the Commissioner have called for more “sanity” when it comes to exorbitant guaranteed money awarded players at the top of the draft. Think about it Rookie of the Year and 2008 third overall pick Falcons QB Matt Ryan was the league’s fourth-highest paid player before even taking a snap (received $34.5 million guaranteed, the highest ever for a rookie player). LV’s Take: Something is greatly wrong when rookies are making more than three-time league MVP Peyton Manning. Please make these kids earn their $$$ before giving them huge guaranteed dollars.
NFL might look to adding liquor and lottery sponsorships – In the league’s ever present motto of “Chasing the Dollar”, the NFL is reviewing a proposal to loosen league rules against liquor and lottery sponsorships as new revenue streams. If the revenue streams are approved, the NFL would join the NBA and NASCAR in allowing both sponsors. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, a member of the business ventures committee recently said of the issue, “We have to be as innovative and creative as we can because these are difficult times”. LV’s Take: This proposal was not voted on at these meetings, but you have to think at the NFL Spring Meeting in May that a vote will be taken. I am okay with the NFL grabbing more sponsors, but the interesting part to me is that the NFL may finally be dipping it’s toe in the same waters as the NBA and NASCAR. I guess money is more important than pushing away some societal vices viewed as negative.
NFL might start another developmental league – If you can believe it…it has been nearly three years since the NFL scrapped their failed NFL Europe developmental league — reportedly was losing about $30 million a season. However with a huge void left from the Arena Football League not playing in 2009 and the possibility of younger players missing snaps from the removal of 3rd and/or 4th preseason games, there has been talk that the NFL might bring back a minor league product. Commissioner Goodell said of bringing back a developmental league, “The way we look at the developmental league would be mostly in the off-season where players could get those reps and then have the opportunity to play in the NFL as they work into the season”. Goodell added, “If (there) was a developmental league, it should be done for that purpose, for the purpose of developing players. So the commercial aspects, the international aspects, I think those would become secondary”. LV’s Take: I say having a developmental league is a great idea for the NFL. Minor league baseball has thrived forever so the NFL should try to find a way to put a smaller product out there. But please no more developmental games in Europe.
Major Announcements During the Owner’s Meetings
Compensatory Picks Announced – A total of 32 compensatory choices in the 2009 NFL Draft were awarded to 16 teams. Cincinnati and Tennessee received the most compensatory picks with four apiece. The 32 compensatory choices announced will supplement the 224 choices in the seven rounds of the 2009 NFL Draft on April 25-26. Here is how the 32 compensatory picks are broken down by team: Cincinnati 4, Tennessee 4, Chicago 3, New England 3, Seattle 3, Dallas 2, Jacksonville 2, San Diego 2, San Francisco 2, Arizona 1, Detroit 1, Indianapolis 1, Kansas City 1, New York Giants 1, Pittsburgh 1, Washington 1. For you Eagles fans out there, they got no extra picks for the upcoming draft
Season Opening Games Announced – For the sixth consecutive season the Super Bowl champion will open the slate as the champion Steelers host the Titans on Sept. 10 at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC. The Sunday night primetime game (8:30 p.m. ET) on NBC will feature a division match-up with the Green Bay Packers hosting the Chicago Bears — Green Bay and Chicago have won seven of the past eight NFC North titles. On Monday, Sept. 14, ESPN will host a “Monday Night Football” doubleheader that will be part of the NFL’s celebration of the 50th anniversary season of the American Football League. The four clubs competing that night began playing in the inaugural 1960 AFL season. The first game (7:00 p.m. ET) will send the Buffalo Bills to Foxboro to visit the New England Patriots, the decade’s winningest team (102-42 since 2000). The MNF nightcap (10:15 p.m. ET) will be an AFC West battle as the Oakland Raiders host the three-time defending AFC West champion San Diego Chargers.
Thanksgiving Day Games Announced — The early game (Fox, 12:30 p.m. ET) will be an NFC North meeting between the Green Bay Packers at the Detroit Lions. The second game (CBS, 4:15 PM ET) will feature the Oakland Raiders visiting the Dallas Cowboys in the Raiders’ first Thanksgiving game since 1970. The Thanksgiving primetime game will be at 8:20 p.m. ET on NFL Network with the defending NFC East champion New York Giants visiting the Denver Broncos, marking the first Thanksgiving contest in Denver since 1963. The rest of the 2009 regular-season schedule will be completed and announced in April.
AFL to be Honor in 2009 – Though the “true” 50-year anniversary doesn’t really occur until 2010, the NFL will be celebrating the birth of the American Football League (AFL) during the 2009 season. The AFL was an innovative rival football league that helped make the National Football League an ‘institution’ with their historic merger in 1969. Remembrances will begin during Hall of Fame weekend in August with the Buffalo Bills against the Tennessee Titans (Began in the AFL as the Houston Oilers). Following HOF weekend the NFL’s opening weekend will feature a Monday night doubleheader featuring four original members of the AFL as the Bills will visit the Patriots in a 7 p.m. EDT game and the Chargers will face the Raiders at 10:15 p.m. During the “Legacy Games”, the original AFL teams will wear their old historic uniforms.
Bonus Pay from 2008 Announced — Chargers offensive tackle Jeromey Clary was the big winner in the NFL’s performance-based pay system for 2008. Clary, a 2006 sixth-round draft pick from Kansas State, earned $405,859 in additional pay for his work with 8-8 San Diego. Nearly $105 million in performance-based pay was distributed to 19 players from the 2008 season. Created as part of the 2002 collective bargaining agreement extension with the NFL Players Association, the system gives financial compensation based on a comparison of playing time to salary. Other notables were Redskins safety Chris Horton ($342,197) and Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon, who led the list a year ago with $309,534, but was 16th this time at $267,422.
NFL to Stick with DirecTV — The NFL announced an agreement to extend DirecTV’s rights to carry NFL Sunday Ticket. DirecTV will continue to have exclusive television rights to air the package of Sunday afternoon games through the 2014 season. In securing the incredible rights fee from DirecTV to air games — $1 billion per year from 2011 through 2014 — the NFL got “lockout insurance”. It has been rumored that even if games are not played in 2011, the NFL’s deal with DirecTV calls for the league to collect their billion-dollar rights fee.
Condoleezza Rice addresses the NFL – The former aspiring NFL Commissioner finally got her chance to address the NFL. After accepting an invitation from Goodell, Rice spoke to the “NFL Family” about topics ranging from football to politics to the economy to the NFL playing in Europe and Australia. Rice must have done a good job as the former Secretary of State under the Bush administration received several standing ovations as she spoke to the group of several hundred people.
No Naming Rights for Cowboys new palace – To show the difficulty of today’s economy facing the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys will open their $1.1 billion stadium this summer probably without a corporate name on it. It is hard to believe that the Cowboys, who sit atop the NFL value list and are called “America’s Team” due to their popularity, can’t find a company to come forward. Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said of the situation, “We’re not naive to what’s going on in the country and the economic crisis”. “We’re very respectful of that now. Obviously, there are some factors when you’re opening a new building in this economy.” The Cowboys reportedly had AT&T lined up for naming rights last year, but that deal has been put on hold.
Bills may propose for more Canadian Games — There is a rumored proposal by the economically challenged Buffalo Bills to play more than one home game per season in Toronto. Roger Goodell said of the rumored proposal, “That’s something that would have to be approved by the membership, it has not been presented to me.” Just because Goodell has not heard of the proposal believe me the issue is out there and who could blame Bills owner Ralph Wilson (age 90) as he wants to earn some revenue now. Plus old Ralphie deserves hazard pay, because he has to deal with the NFL’s version of a time bomb called Terrell Owens.
Broncos’ head coach McDaniels wants to kiss and makeup — Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels reiterated at the NFL meetings that he wants to keep disgruntled quarterback Jay Cutler. McDaniels even told NFL Network, “He’s our quarterback, we want him to be our quarterback”. The desperate coach even tried to inspire Cutler to make-up by displaying the Broncos old-school jersey with the No. 6 jersey when the NFL announced that former AFL teams would where throwbacks in some games.
The Lobby was the place to be at the Meetings — The circular lobby of the St. Regis Hotel was the place to be as GM’s, coaches, owners, agents, players, and media types talked NFL Shop. Topics ranged from the “impending CBA battle” to “Where Julius Peppers and Jay Cutler would start the season” to “Who the Lions would take with the first overall pick”. Some of the bigger headliners holding court in the lobby were Raiders owner Al Davis , John Madden, and Troy Aikman.
Horse Collar Tackles are up – To the dismay of Head of NFL officials Mike Pereira, the NFL’s hot button penalty (horse-collar tackles) increased during the 2008 season. There were 24 horse-collar tackles called up from 12 in ’07 plus there were an additional 47 league fines handed out for the leg-breaking tackling method. Pereira said, “That’s just too high a number, we have not been effective in terms of stopping the tactic.” The head officiator added that crews will make them a point of emphasis along with holding penalties in 2009.
That’s a wrap for the 2009 NFL Owners’ Meetings and I am sure the league will be talking about many more hot button issues at NFL Spring Meeting (May 18-20) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)