Thursday February 21st, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS -- Spygate may be the story that never ends in the minds of fans and the media, but I'd say the NFL's Competition Committee is definitively over it. The league's governing body in terms of rules and regulations has been known to debate the most arcane issues for days or even weeks on end. The committee's attempts to define what constitutes illegal contact a few years back wound up just shy of involving forensic science.

So I guess while I wasn't expecting something on the scope of the Warren Commission, I was a bit surprised Thursday by what I heard from some high-profile members of the eight-man Competition Committee. They stood up before the media at the NFL scouting combine and declared that they heard everything they needed to hear about the Patriots' videotaping scandal in a 90-minute Thursday morning briefing from league commissioner Roger Goodell. As part of its regularly scheduled meeting at the nearby Westin Hotel, the committee heard the details of the league's investigation from a four-man contingent that included Goodell, league in-house counsel Jeff Pash, and Ray Anderson and Ron Hill, the NFL's top two vice presidents of football operations.

The committee's consensus after hearing Goodell & Co. explain their work? A rather resounding "Nothing to see here, folks. Let's move along.''

Competition committee co-chair Rich McKay, the Falcons team president, called Spygate "yesterday's news.'' Another committee member, Colts president Bill Polian, said: "I think it's fair to say we [as a committee] were satisfied with the explanation, satisfied with what was done. It's behind us. It's time to move forward.'' Giants president/co-owner John Mara, a relative newcomer to the committee, added his emphatic thoughts as well, saying, "I'm just tired of hearing about it at this point. It's been thoroughly investigated and thoroughly handled.''

Take that, Matt Walsh. Who needs your potential smoking-gun of a video tape collection? Take that Sen. Arlen Specter. Who needs you poking your Congressional nose in where it doesn't belong? Apparently no one on the Competition Committee. When a longtime Patriots antagonist like Polian has no appetite left for Spygate, you know which way the wind blows within the league office.

In fairness, Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher, co-chair along with McKay, did take pains to call Spygate "an ongoing investigation,'' in light of Walsh's role in the saga. When juxtaposing that with McKay's "yesterday's news'' characterization, it sounded like the committee was at least attempting to view any potential Walsh testimony as a separate entity compared to New England's taping of defensive signals in its Week 1 game at the Jets.

McKay told me later that there was no debate in the room regarding Goodell's decision to destroy the six video tapes and notes that the Patriots turned over to the league. He added that he "fully understood'' why the league did away with the evidence once Goodell gave his explanation for the move.

I've been saying this since mid-September, but it bears repeating once again: The NFL just wants this story to go away, and the sooner the better. Nothing about the controversy makes the league look good. The problem is, the lack of transparency in the league's investigation gave plenty of room for the inevitable conspiracy theorists and unwittingly kept the story alive. After listening to the Competition Committee members talk about their lack of interest in Spygate on Thursday, there's no doubt they have fallen in line with the league's thinking.

• My early read on the Competition Committee's debate about whether to re-seed the playoff field, with overall record outweighing the winning of a division title, is that a rule change to that effect has a real chance of passing later this year. I say that because a league source on Thursday told me that all eight of the committee members are said to be in favor of changing the seeding format, which is always a good start in selling the idea to the rest of the league's membership.

While the real discussion on playoff seeding will take place at the committee's pre-annual meeting session in Naples, Fla., next month, one source told me that there are teams within the league who feel that the NFL shouldn't adopt a system that doesn't reward division winners with at least one home game in the playoffs.

"It's very easy to argue either side,'' said McKay, who is thought to be strongly in favor of the change. "I do think there are clear benefits to re-seeding. But the other side of it is that our league has always given great importance to winning the division.''

In seeding wild-card teams with better records higher than a division winner in the same conference, the NFL is hopeful of avoiding as many meaningless late-season games as possible. Teams would have more to play for in the last weeks of the season if they were not locked into their playoff seeds as early.

• On another Competition Committee front, don't expect to see the league change its rules to disallow the calling of timeouts just before a kicker attempts a field goal. Despite several highly publicized examples of that move early last season, Fisher said the committee won't attempt to "legislate when to call timeout.''

"There were three or four incidents early in the season, but after that, it died off,'' Fisher said. "It was just a trend. An early season trend. You didn't see it happening after then.''

Fisher said while there was some suggestions that you shouldn't be able to call timeout when the play clock reached 10 seconds or less, there were complicating factors to consider. "What if it's a 12-men on the field situation and you just realize it?'' Fisher said. "There are too many factors involved. You can't legislate when people call time out.''

• Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long was the biggest name to make it into the media interview room on the first full day of the combine. He's expected to be a top-five selection, and the offensive linemen-hungry Chiefs -- who draft either fourth or fifth -- are praying he's still on the board when their turn comes. Long is this year's version of Wisconsin's Joe Thomas, who went No. 3 to Cleveland last year and was a stud at left tackle as a rookie.

I found myself very impressed with the 6-7, 313-pound Long, and not just because in his four years with the Wolverines he gave up just two sacks and got called for two penalties. Those gaudy numbers aside, his honesty was refreshing. Asked if he thought he could have been flagged for holding at times, Long said:

"Absolutely. I'll admit that I hold. I'll get my hands inside and hide it that I'm holding. I try to hide it so the refs can't see it. It's a skill if you can get away with it and not get caught. I try to make sure I get my hands inside every single play so that if I do hold a little bit the refs will not be able to see it.''

• Thursday was the deadline for teams to apply the franchise tag to players and effectively keep them off the free-agent market, and 11 clubs wound up making such a move (12 if you include Colts tight end Dallas Clark, who was franchised for a day before signing a long-term extension Wednesday). The biggest news was that New England did not feel the need to franchise Randy Moss, an indication that the Patriots feel very confident about their chances of signing him to a long-term deal (if they haven't agreed to one already).

Unlike past years, this year's designations have been virtually controversy free, with players generally accepting the tags well.

As the salary cap has grown dramatically in the past two years thanks to the most recent CBA -- from $85 million in 2006, to $109 million in '07, to $116 million in '08 -- teams have had more financial ability than ever to keep their best players rather than see them enter free agency.

"Players have come to expect the franchise tag now,'' said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, whose Ravens this week tagged outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. "They know that eventually they're going to get their long-term deals. Maybe not right now, but before July.

"And I just think we've all learned how to use the tag better, and how to use the salary cap. But that is why the franchise tag was put into the CBA in the first place, to give you a chance to keep your best players.''

The downside of all this franchising, of course, is that it weakens the crop of talent that makes it to unrestricted free agency. You think names such as Suggs, Albert Haynesworth, Jared Allen, Nnamdi Asomugha, Marcus Trufant, and Jordan Gross wouldn't have spiced up the marketplace?

"The whole market is just OK,'' 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said of free agency, which opens Feb. 29. "You're seeing a lot of good players get franchised with that extra money in the cap. But that just makes sense. That's what the cap room is for.''

• USC's Fred Davis is projected to be the only tight end drafted in the first round, and in listening to him on Thursday, he reminded me of an NFL veteran. No, I mean he really reminded me of an NFL veteran. Davis is a dead ringer for former Raiders receiver Tim Brown.

Asked if anyone had ever told him he looked like Brown, Davis said yeah, that makes it three times just today.

• Count Bears head coach Lovie Smith among those who doesn't buy that the Patriots might have taped the Rams' Super Bowl walk-through practice in February '02. Smith was Mike Martz's defensive coordinator on that St. Louis team.

"I'm having a hard time remembering last year's (Super Bowl),'' Smith said. "To think back to St. Louis, that's definitely harder for me. What I recall is that we were beaten by a good football team that year. It was an excellent football game. That's about all I remember.''

• A bit of speculation making its way around the combine is that former Panthers and Texans head coach Dom Capers might next surface in New England on Bill Belichick's staff. Capers was most recently Miami's defensive coordinator, but his two-year stint ended when Bill Parcells arrived. Though no announcement has been made by the Patriots, secondary coach Joel Collier is believed to have been let go.

• Too early to know if defensive players will join quarterbacks in being allowed to have a communication device in their helmets in '08. The Competition Committee is planning to discuss a new proposal that is very similar to the one that was narrowly defeated at last year's NFL annual meeting. Only one defensive player at a time could be designated to wear the helmet transmitter, but the problem that the committee is grappling with is how to deal with the higher rate of substitutions on defense.

"We're looking at a more practical way to handle the backup situation,'' Fisher said. "If you lose the defensive player, if the starter goes down, the backup has to have the capability to take over (the in-helmet communication). It's up to the defense to designate an every-down player to wear it.''

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