Yes, the league is closer to returning to Los Angeles than it has been at any point over the past 20 years. Yes, that means there's a better chance than not that some team will be playing in the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl or Dodger Stadium in 2016. And yes, that makes the ongoing NFL Annual Meeting in Phoenix a significant mile marker in the path back to the nation's second largest market.
We won't have a conclusion this week. But we already have a roadmap. And the dominoes have fallen quickly.
The league first looked at buying a 60-acre parcel adjacent to Hollywood Park in 2013. That prompted Rams owner Stan Kroenke to move on and ultimately purchase the land. That led to Kroenke linking up with Stockbridge Capital Group, which owns the 238-acre lot next to Kroenke's land, and developing the Inglewood stadium plan. That, of course, pushed the Chargers and Raiders to partner on their own joint project in Carson. All the while, St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland were put in the position of having to play catch-up.
On Monday, executive vice president of NFL ventures and business operations Eric Grubman will make a presentation to the owners about where the L.A. projects stand. He'll field questions, and Kroenke, as well as the Raiders' Mark Davis and the Chargers' Dean Spanos, will be free to (but not forced to) jump in and provide answers. This will be the first forum en masse for the newly formed Committee on Los Angeles Opportunities (made up of Mara, the Kansas City Chiefs' Clark Hunt, the New England Patriots' Robert Kraft, the Houston Texans' Bob McNair, the Carolina Panthers' Jerry Richardson and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Art Rooney).
This much is clear: The race is now on.
The NFL's dilemma is that the most advanced and attractive project is being run by the Rams, who are the team least qualified to move by the letter of the league's relocation criteria. Indeed, Kroenke's $1.86 billion football palace, which would anchor the larger 298-acre development, is shovel-ready and provides what the league long believed impossible: an L.A. solution driven by a single team owner. The flip side is that the Chargers and Raiders are far more capable of demonstrating the failures of their existing markets.
And that brings us to the other layer of this: the status of St. Louis, Oakland and San Diego. According to a league source, the NFL plans to visit all three cities in April as part of market assessments being done on each city (the owners will get an update on those Monday, as well). As things are now, the league is measuring each on how aggressive and specific they've been in their efforts to retain a team.
St. Louis, as the NFL sees it, has been both aggressive and specific. San Diego has been specific but not aggressive. Oakland has been neither. But all three cities have been more active as the tenor of the NFL's effort to return to L.A. has changed.
There is one condition that hovers over all of this: In order to protect the Chargers, the league prefers, at least in the short term, to look at having two teams total -- rather than three -- in Southern California. That means there will either be two teams in Los Angeles -- one being the Chargers -- or one in L.A., with the Chargers staying put in San Diego.
With that in mind, one of the 10 to 12 scenarios being looked at by the league is particularly intriguing: The Rams go to L.A., the Raiders replace them in St. Louis and the Chargers remain in San Diego. The Rams would get a head start as the first team in L.A. (a reward for Kroenke's investment), the Raiders would get a fresh start in a new stadium and the Chargers would potentially be able to jump-start their efforts to build in San Diego, with the city knowing the team could join the Rams in Inglewood.
At any rate, it's clear there's a spirited game of musical chairs playing out in real time now. And no team wants to be left standing up, knowing things could crystallize as soon as October or November.
That accelerated timetable -- along with the attendant competition -- is certainly a good thing as far as the league is concerned.
Here are five other things to watch for, in addition to the usual rules discussions, in Phoenix this week:
» Expanded playoffs. Mara said Sunday that expanded playoffs are likely to come about in the long term, and the topic is on the agenda for this week, but no vote is expected. The plan, for now, is to go forward with the usual 12-team field for 2015.
» Introduction of a new medical chief. Betsy Nabel, president of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, was named the NFL's first chief medical and health advisor in February, and she will make a presentation to the owners. Since her appointment, a number of young players have retired early, again bringing the topic of player health and safety to the forefront.
» International discussion. The NFL is ramping up efforts to test London's ability to be home to a team, with a divisional game (Jets-Dolphins in Week 4) added to the mix for 2015, along with games set for back-to-back weeks (Bills-Jaguars in Week 7 and Lions-Chiefs in Week 8), which will test Wembley's turf and logistics. The next steps could be to take the automatic bye away for teams visiting London and potentially adding a December game. NFL executive vice president of international Mark Waller told me in November he'd be "very disappointed if we're not playing more than three games there in 2016."
» Conduct Committee report. This is another newly formed committee that will have its first big forum at this set of meetings. And with the situations of Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson still unresolved, this nine-member group, which includes two women (Dallas' Charlotte Jones Anderson and Cleveland's Dee Haslam), will have a high profile.
» Team business. With the draft a month away, this gathering of so many power brokers under one roof can lead to news on the team level, and Peterson is the one to watch on that front. He still wants out of Minnesota, according to two sources close to the tailback, with the presence of Vikings COO Kevin Warren remaining the problem. Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman, coach Mike Zimmer and Peterson's agent, Ben Dogra, will all be in Arizona, but Dogra already turned down a meeting with Spielman. As I understand it, the reasoning on the player's side was that the Vikings' decision to not release Peterson leaves the parties with little to discuss.