Integrity, accountability are in the game plan for league meetings

On the docket

</center> A closer look at some of the rules proposals owners will consider during their annual spring meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., starting Sunday: 

» Implementation of coach-to-defensive player communication system: The quarterback's helmet has long been outfitted with an electronic receiver allowing him to hear plays from the sidelines. Why not a linebacker's? The same proposal fell just two votes short of passing last year. The New England Patriots' being caught for illegally videotaping the New York Jets' defensive signals at the start of the 2007 season could close the gap. So could a modification allowing for a second defensive player's helmet to contain a receiver, but only worn in the event the primary defender receiving signals is forced to leave the game because of an injury.

» Change in playoff seeding: Division winners would still automatically qualify for the postseason, with the top two of those four receiving first-round byes. But under the new format, the third through sixth seeds would be based on record. That means a wild-card team could play at home in the first round if it has a better record than the division champion it faces. If a wild-card has the same record as division winner, the division winner would play at home. Besides bringing more fairness to the playoffs, this format would theoretically discourage teams that already clinched a playoff spot from sitting starters in the final week or two of the regular season.

» Elimination of the force-out rule on receptions and interceptions: Although only 15 such calls were made last season, this would help promote greater consistency in officials' determining whether a catch or an interception has been made. No longer would they have to determine if both feet would have landed in bounds had he not been forced out of bounds while catching the ball. Either he has two feet in or he doesn't.

» Elimination of the 5-yard "incidental" facemask penalty: Merely grasping another player's facemask would no longer result in a penalty. If a player grabs and twists/turns another player's facemask, he will draw a 15-yard penalty.

» Implementation of deferral option on the opening coin toss: This would be an adaptation of a college rule. Currently in the NFL, the team that wins the toss decides whether to kick or receive, while the team that loses the toss makes that choice for the start of the second half. The new proposal would, like the college rule, allow the team that wins the toss to defer the decision to kick or receive until the third quarter.

» Expanding instant-replay reviews to include field-goal attempts: It took a bizarre play to cause this change to be considered, but that's what often happens. Officials were faced with a quandary last season after a game-tying, field-goal try by the Cleveland Browns' Phil Dawson appeared to have hit the crossbar and bounced back on the field. A review wasn't supposed to be allowed, but it was eventually (and correctly) determined that the ball actually hit the support stanchion behind the goal post and was good. The Browns proceeded to beat the Baltimore Ravens in overtime.

» Adjustment of roster size: There are multiple proposals concerning the size of rosters. One possibility is expanding beyond 80 in the offseason and the first cut-down in training camp, but this topic will need much more discussion before any change will even be considered.

» Banning players' hair from covering the name plate or number on the back or sleeves of his jersey: It isn't easy to get a real handle on this one, except that it would not require players to cut their hair. They just need to tuck excess hair under their helmet. It's also hard to gauge how strongly the NFL's competition committee is embracing this proposal. Atlanta Falcons president and committee co-chairman Rich McKay was quick to point out that the proposal came from the Kansas City Chiefs and made it clear that they should be the ones to explain the thinking behind it. "The committee as a whole is going to, you know, obviously endorse the position at some point when we get to that point," McKay said. "But I think I would defer to the Chiefs with respect to the proposal itself."

-- Vic Carucci

The NFL doesn't have an image problem. It still is tremendously prosperous. It continues to be enormously popular.

You want competitive balance? This is a league in which fifth- and sixth-seeded playoff teams have won two of the last three Super Bowls -- a league where, as Atlanta Falcons president and NFL competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay points out, "people begin every year with the idea that they can compete for a championship even though the odds-makers have said otherwise."

You want scoring? Last year's 43.4 points-per-game average was the NFL's highest since 1983 and touchdowns were up to nearly five per game. You want big plays? Last year's average of 428 passing yards per game was the second highest in league history. You want games that don't drag on forever? The average length of a game in 2007 was down to one of its lowest levels in 10 years -- three hours, two minutes and 59 seconds -- while plays per game increased to 153.1.

In short, the NFL offers the best for which sports fans yearn.

The challenge is keeping it that way.

That's where the league's proactive approach to addressing its problems, such as the New England Patriots' videotaping scandal, comes in.

"If there is an issue, if there are concerns, we're not going to pretend they don't exist," says Ray Anderson, the NFL's senior vice president for football operations. "We're also not going to pretend that we're perfect, but we're certainly going to try to get there ... We don't deny that we've got issues to deal with, so we go after them."

Getting after "Spygate" and other issues that pose a threat to the integrity of the NFL will be a top priority when owners, club executives, and coaches gather for the annual spring meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., beginning Sunday.

Certainly, the agenda includes other important items, not the least of which is discussion of looming challenges on the labor front.

However, the NFL's integrity will be front and center. And that's exactly where it should be.

"The main thing is accountability from top to bottom in protecting integrity and maintaining the confidence among our fans," Anderson says. "That's what we're looking to do."

In response to a March 6 memo from Commissioner Roger Goodell, the league's competition committee is submitting to owners a proposal that calls for teams to assume "several duties" aimed at keeping them and their competition in compliance with the rules.

"The first being that the owners, GM, president and head coach will be responsible for annually certifying compliance with the rules and policies," Anderson says. "We do that in a lot of businesses where you have to get audited and the senior person signs off on the audit that things are in truthfully good order. We think that will help with accountability."

The league and its teams also will consider establishing a process in which "whistleblowers" can report actual or suspected violations with the protection of confidentiality. In addition, the NFL is looking at altering its standard of proof to be more in line with civil court, where it's preponderance of the evidence (meaning it's more likely than not that something occurred), rather than criminal court, where it's proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

These are crucial steps toward helping to make sure that there isn't a repeat of the incident that took place during the '07 season-opening game between New England and the New York Jets, when a Patriots employee was caught videotaping the Jets' defensive signals. Goodell slapped Pats coach Bill Belichick with a $500,000 fine, while the team was fined $250,000 and made to forfeit its first-round draft pick.

But the commissioner didn't leave the incident's ramifications at that. He is well aware of strong speculation that similar rules violations have been going on for years throughout the league. The "everybody does it" defense simply doesn't cut it with him. Nor does it wash with numerous other coaches or team officials.

Fans understand competitive disparities, that some teams have better players and coaches than others. What they don't accept is unscrupulous behavior to gain an unfair advantage.

Nothing will damage the NFL's credibility -- along with its prosperity and popularity -- faster than the perception that some clubs play by the rules while others don't.

That also was the impetus behind the league's consideration of instituting a five- to seven-day period before the start of free agency during which player agents would be permitted to contact teams about their prospective free-agent clients. Neither signings nor contact with players would be allowed during that period. However, league and team executives are convinced it would go a long way toward preventing widespread illegal negotiation before free agency starts.

The San Francisco 49ers recently had to forfeit their fifth-round draft choice this year for holding such talks with Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs and violating the NFL's anti-tampering policy.

"We've taken the issues straight on (as a league)," said McKay, who discovered that first-hand when Goodell indefinitely suspended Falcons quarterback Michael Vick for his involvement in dog fighting. "The commissioner has come right out ... whatever discipline issues that we've had, he's dealt with them, dealt with them quickly, and moved to put them behind us.

"I think those factors certainly help our game."

The focus at the league meetings will be to keep it that way.

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