Monday March 22nd, 2010

ORLANDO -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as the NFL Annual Meeting cranks to life with all its accompanying overtime-inspired debate...

• Sources I've talked to say it's a bit too early to divine whether the league's modified sudden death overtime proposal has a real chance to be voted in at this three-day meeting of owners. But I do know the key demographic that competition committee proponents of the new playoff rule have to sway, and that's NFL head coaches.

"The coaches are going to nitpick this to death,'' a league source said. "They don't want to have to make another decision on game day, that's what it comes down to. If it was just the owners, they'd go for it. But it's the coaches who will fight making any change to the current system.''

Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis and Tennessee's Jeff Fisher are the two coaches on the league's eight-man competition committee, and they're on opposite sides of this debate. Lewis is on record as favoring the status quo when it comes to the NFL's sudden death overtime format -- "Play some defense'' is roughly his mantra -- and Fisher is a proponent of the rule change, having voted with the 6-2 majority to recommend the modification to the full ownership.

In typical NFL foot-dragging fashion, there's some speculation the league will wind up tabling any action on the overtime rules until its spring owners meetings in May, to allow further time for discussion and education on the issue. Being tabled usually means almost certain death for many rule change proposals, but I don't sense that this move to tinker with overtime is going away any time soon. I get the idea there're some open minds among the coaching set, and that some sort of momentum for change could be generated here once the competition committee starts laying out the statistics behind its case to lessen the importance of the OT coin flip.

"I'm excited to see what's involved with the proposal, because it's intriguing to me,'' Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt said Sunday. "I'm certainly not against it going into the debate. Using it only in the playoffs is the right course to go, but I think the coaches will give it a fair hearing because there's been enough discussion over the years about this particular component. I'm used to the [current system] because that's all I've known as a player and a coach, but I'm excited about seeing where this goes.''

Trying to take a temperature reading in the hallways of Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes, where these meetings are being held, I discovered there are pockets of support for the proposed OT format in places like New England, Dallas and Indianapolis, and pockets of opposition in Minnesota, Chicago and Pittsburgh. But mostly what I learned is a lot of folks will be making up their mind down here in the next 48 hours as the debate unfolds. It sounds like the Wednesday vote on overtime is going to be close, maybe far closer than many club executives expect. It faces an uphill fight to win passage, but it has a chance.

"Historically it's been tough to get 24 votes [and passage] for any first-time effort to change a rule,'' one competition committee member told me. "But I think the best thing about this issue is that not a lot of people have been talking about it yet, so they're not publicly committed and dug in when it comes to their position. That makes the education process that takes place the next two days pretty pivotal.''

Colts president and competition committee member Bill Polian, a longtime "status quo guy'' when it comes to overtime rules, changed his stance on the issue this year. The thinking goes if you can get the always-cautious Polian to reverse field, almost anyone can be brought around.

"The coaches are hesitant, and rightfully so, because you understand their point of view,'' Polian said. "But when you see the [coin flip] stats broken down, it's pretty obvious the rule needs some adjustment. This adjustment is one that makes perfect sense for everybody. It takes into consideration everyone's wishes. It's not two pure possessions [in overtime]. It's not pure sudden death. It's not the college system. It's still pure football. I think it's a good blend of ideas. It's a fix. Now, it may not be perfection, but perfection is not attainable.''

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made it clear Monday he likes the "blend of ideas'' the competition committee has built into the new overtime proposal, which allows the team not winning the coin flip to have a possession unless it surrenders a touchdown on the first drive of the extra period. In essence, Goodell told the owners Monday not to let the pursuit of perfection get in the way of bettering the overtime system. It's important to note that his opinion matters in league debates, but is far from all-important.

"I'm not sure there is a perfect overtime system,'' Goodell said. "I think the competition committee has come up with something here that's very much worth consideration. For one, it keeps the sudden death nature of the game, which I think makes our system unique and attractive. I love the idea that we're in a sudden death scenario. But I think it's responsive to some of the issues people have had in the past. It's getting a lot of thought and it's got the potential to be a better system.''

In rapid-fire style, here are some of the other reactions gathered Monday when I asked club executives about the overtime debate:

-- Jets owner Woody Johnson said his team will listen to the discussion this week, but he's "leaning toward'' keeping the current overtime rules.

-- Jets head coach Rex Ryan's predictable response: "We don't know yet how we're going to vote, but we just want to win. Period.''

-- Raiders head coach Tom Cable: "It seems like [coaches] don't like it too much. To have one set of rules in the regular season and another for the playoffs. Plus, it takes the kicker out of the game a little bit.'' (And the Raiders have a pretty good kicker, as I recall.)

-- One club executive who requested anonymity made an analogy right out of current events: "It's like health care. It's about 50-50 split at this point.'' Needless to say, that won't get it done for the OT proposal, which must generate the support of three-fourths of the league's teams.

-- Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan said his team has yet to consider the overtime proposal, but when told the competition committee voted just 6-2 in favor of it, he wasn't optimistic about its chances. "If it doesn't come out of the committee unanimous, the chances aren't very good,'' he said. "Even if it's 8-0, it doesn't always get passed.''

-- The head coach of an NFC team told me his organization is a strong no when it comes to modifying overtime. "If it's not broke, don't fix it, and it's not broke,'' he said. "Plus, we have a strong return game, so of course we wouldn't want to lessen the impact that can make in overtime.''

-- Lions head coach Jim Schwartz is undecided: "The statistics show something needs to be done. It's hard to deny the statistics. But if it's good for the postseason, why not have it the same in the regular season? To have a different set of rules in the most important games of the year, when no one has experience in them, I don't know.''

• It doesn't take a psychic to foresee a potential league suspension looming for Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, no matter the outcome of the investigation into him allegedly sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman in Milledgeville, Ga.

In his first public comments on Roethlisberger's legal issues, Goodell said he planned to meet with the face of the Steelers franchise, and he didn't mince words about reserving judgment until the matter has worked its way through the legal system.

"First, I think the most important thing is we take the issue very seriously,'' Goodell said. "We are concerned that Ben continues to put himself in this position. I have spoken to the Steelers. I have spoken to [team owner] Art Rooney directly about it. And at the appropriate time I will be meeting with Ben.''

The key word in that paragraph? "Continues.'' As in Goodell now sees a pattern of behavior from Roethlisberger, who was also sued last year by a Nevada woman who alleged he raped her in 2008. It's that pattern that could prompt Goodell to hand out a suspension that would sideline Roethlisberger for part of the 2010 season, even if no charges are ever filed against Big Ben.

Both Rooney and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin have admitted having concerns about Roethlisberger in recent days, but Goodell's message was a bit different. It was as much a warning as any expression of concern.

• Between the overtime debate and the tempest in the teapot that resulted from Goodell's method of deciding whether the Giants or the Jets get the privilege of playing the first game in the new Meadowlands Stadium, we sure are talking about coin flips a lot these days.

Goodell was peppered Monday by questions about his controversial and somewhat secretive coin flip, the one neither the Giants nor the Jets officials actually witnessed a week ago Friday. The Giants won the coin flip and will host the stadium's regular-season opener on the Sunday of Week 1. The Jets will be home on the Monday night of Week 1, and also had the league throw it a bone in that they will open the stadium in the first week of the preseason.

Jets owner Woody Johnson issued a critical statement expressing dissatisfaction with the lack of transparency in Goodell's coin flip, which some interpreted as Johnson questioning the commissioner's integrity. Goodell defended his decision again Monday to flip a coin without either team being present.

"There was a coin flip,'' Goodell said. "I did it myself, so I know.''

Who called the coin flip, a reporter asked Goodell. "We didn't call heads or tails,'' he said. "We used the head of the coin for the Giants because it says 'In God We Trust.' The 'G,' that's how I picked it. It's that simple.''

Goodell should know by now. When New York's two teams are concerned, nothing's that simple.

As for the speculation that Johnson's criticism of the commish could backfire and damage the Giants and Jets joint efforts to win the 2014 Super Bowl for the new stadium, Goodell shot down that theory resoundingly.

"I don't think it will have any effect at all,'' he said. "I have to make decisions repeatedly. I think we came up with a great solution. It's a win-win and we have moved on.''

As for his part, Johnson on Monday said none of his fellow owners have complained to him about his strong words for Goodell. I think I believe him, but then again, maybe that's just the owners' code. Or maybe they just considered the source.

• Sometimes you're just in the right place at the right time at these NFL owners meetings. One of the more interesting exchanges I've ever witnessed at one of these occurred Monday morning while I was interviewing Mike Shanahan. The new Redskins coach stopped mid-sentence in one answer to greet and meet second-year Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels -- his successor in Denver -- for the first time.

"Hey, Josh, how are you?'' Shanahan said. McDaniel quickly replied: "I didn't have the chance to meet you before. It's my pleasure.''

The past and present Broncos head coaches then stood and chatted amiably, comparing notes on neighborhoods in Denver, and life in the Mile High City.

"We're only 10 minutes from work, and the kids love [the neighborhood],'' McDaniels said. "Coming from Boston and New England, it's totally different, but they love it.''

Shanahan, who just opened a restaurant in Denver, told McDaniels: "I was there 21 years as an assistant and head coach, and of all the places we've been, and we've been in a lot, it was the best place to raise a family. We thought it was the best for the kids. Your family is going to love it.''

How many Broncos fans would have loved to capture that little snapshot on their cell phone camera?

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