PHOENIX -- How popular are the rules changes the NFL just made?
There was so little resistance among owners and coaches that owners voted early Tuesday and headed home ahead of schedule, concluding a meeting in which there were no surprises, but there were changes for the future of one franchise and the way the game will be played and officiated.
One day after the owners approved the Oakland Raiders' move to Las Vegas with just one dissenting vote, they had an even easier time deciding to centralize replay review in New York, with all 32 teams supporting it. Referees will no longer go under the hood, but will have a tablet brought onto the field and wait for officials at the league office to make the final decision. That proposal was the linchpin of Commissioner Roger Goodell's push to streamline stoppages in play and improve the pace of the game. The expectation is that reviews will take much less time -- and be more consistent -- with New York making the calls.
There will be three people -- officiating czar Dean Blandino and two others -- at the league office on Sundays to handle replay reviews. Last season, the group, which already was contributing to the review process without making the final decision, only rarely had three reviews at the same time, and never had four at once.
"We can handle that," Blandino said. "We feel comfortable with that early Sunday window."
Owners also unanimously approved a rule that disallows all leaping by defensive players on field goals and extra points. Last season, three kicks were blocked by leapers. But while coaches have extolled the extraordinary athleticism required for the play, it is considered dangerous -- particularly, competition committee chair Rich McKay said, after the kicking team learned to block the leaper, which caused him to land at a bad angle. The league also will have a new point of emphasis this year: the ejection and suspension of a player who commits an egregious hit to the head. Officials have always had the power to eject players for such hits, but they rarely have been called. The league wants the officials to be more proactive on obviously dangerous hits, although the hits will not be reviewable by replay. There were only a handful of such plays last season, but even first-time offenders will now be subject to a suspension, because the league considers that the ultimate deterrent.
The most intriguing proposal -- to reduce overtime to 10 minutes -- was tabled. The shortened overtime, an idea first formulated in a midseason conversation between former Colts president Bill Polian and McKay, had unexpected support from coaches, but it was tabled because of owner concerns that a team could win the overtime kickoff and sustain a long drive that ends with a field goal, effectively not giving the other team a chance to fairly possess the ball. McKay said that the competition committee plans to send data to those owners before the May owners meeting and he expects the rule to pass when it is voted on then. Even McKay was surprised at the amount of coach support the proposal generated. Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he thinks, after 10 minutes, players are just hanging on in overtime anyway. Harbaugh also believes the additional plays that come when a team plays a full overtime period represent a competitive disadvantage if the team is playing a Thursday night game the following week.
Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien thinks a shorter overtime would not result in more ties, because coaches would coach to the shorter clock and they would be encouraged to be more aggressive in their play calling to get extra possessions. And New York Giants owner John Mara, a member of the competition committee, is not bothered if there are a few more ties because they are preferred playoff tiebreakers to a statistical category like point differential.
Also likely to be on the agenda at the May meeting: celebration rules. Goodell clearly is interested in loosening rules to allow more player expression while walking the fine line between genuine celebration and taunting. Goodell asked that a rule proposal be tabled Tuesday to allow him time to consult with players about what should be allowed.
"We also want to do a little more work on just bringing clarity to the rule while allowing our players more ability to express themselves to celebrate," Goodell said. "We want to see that. We obviously want to put in reasonable safeguards against taunting and acts that we would think reflect poorly on obviously all of us. We believe we can do that, we believe there's a great deal of focus on that and I'm confident that they will get to that point."
Still, nothing the owners did this week will reshape the NFL more than allowing the Raiders to leave Oakland for Las Vegas. Goodell compared this spate of three relocations in 15 months to the 1990s, when the NFL also saw significant shuffling. The league hopes that relocation is over for a while, although, with a lucrative market like Oakland slated to be empty within four years, it is conceivable an owner could decide to leave his smaller market for the Bay Area's riches.
But in a sign of how unexpected this move would have been even five years ago, Goodell faced questions Tuesday about why gambling was no longer a roadblock for a team in Las Vegas (he said he thought society's attitudes toward gambling have changed), whether the league would ask Raiders games to be taken off the board for gamblers (they'll study it, but probably not), whether players would be allowed to visit sports books (already against league rules), and even what he thought of the idea of Raiders-themed brothels (lots of giggling in the press conference room).
As owners left this meeting, it was time to get comfortable with the team Al Davis used to command to "Just Win Baby" settling into Sin City.