Dissatisfaction with replay rules a talking point at owners' meetings

Monday March 24th, 2014

Bill Belichick's proposal that more plays be up for challenge has support among coaches.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/Getty Images

ORLANDO -- Dispatches from day two of the NFL's annual meeting in the land of Mickey Mouse.....

• Of the 13 rule proposals being considered at this year's league meetings, there's a clear-cut favorite of the NFL's head coaching crowd, and it probably rates as the longest of the long shots to gain passage. That would be the Bill Belichick-led proposal to allow coaches to challenge any official's decision, except on scoring plays, which already are automatically replay-reviewed.

By and large, coaches believe the time has come to stop having any plays that are non-reviewable, and I'm hard-pressed to understand the logic of not fully utilizing the technology now available in the current replay system. One veteran head coach I spoke with Monday was particularly animated in his frustration with the league's thinking on the matter, knowing that the proposal is going nowhere in terms of gaining the needed 24 votes for passage.

"The whole review thing is backwards, the idea that we determine what plays can be reviewed,'' said the coach, who requested anonymity in exchange for his candor. "Because every year, when something happens, some crazy play, a new example of a hole in the replay rules, there's an uproar. How long are we going to go down this road and keep chasing our tail?

"Bill's [Belichick] on the right track here. You should start with everything, every play is reviewable, and then whittle back the other way. At least then the players can understand it, the fans can understand it, the coaches can understand it. Because nobody really knows what can be reviewed or not. The officials don't know in the heat of action, what's reviewable.''

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If getting the call right is paramount, won't the NFL eventually find itself struggling more and more to defend a potential game-deciding call that falls outside the jurisdiction of replay review -- but is clearly seen as a mistake by millions?

"Every time we bring it up, they just look at us like we have three heads,'' said the veteran head coach of the no-limitation replay review idea. "They just stick with these tired old lines like, 'We've got to keep the game in the referee's hands.'

"What does that even mean? It's already out of the referee's hands. When the viewing audience knows the answer better than the referee does, and the referee makes a mistake and it determines the outcome of the game, you've got a problem and your credibility is shot. This is just such a simple fix.''

A simple fix that the NFL, in general, doesn't seem to be ready to embrace. Expansion of instant replay has seemingly always moved at a snail's pace, and the league now has institutionalized the incremental approach to change when it comes to that system. But in time, many within the league feel replay decisions will ultimately be handled at a centralized location -- like the NFL office in New York -- and that any play or penalty call will be deemed reviewable. But I have yet to talk to anyone here this week who thinks the league is going to take such a leap any time soon.

• Mark Cuban and Bob Kraft can't both be right on this one. Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner, said Sunday that the NFL is getting "greedy'' and predicted the league was "10 years away from implosion'' due to a mindset of trying to oversaturate the television market with games three nights a week (Sunday, Monday and Thursday).

"Just watch,'' Cuban told Dallas-area reporters Sunday. "I'm just telling you: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they're getting hoggy. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. They're trying to take over every night of TV.''

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Kraft is the chairman of the NFL's broadcast committee, and just helped commissioner Roger Goodell negotiate a one-year deal with CBS to telecast a portion of the league's Thursday night package. Unsurprisingly, Kraft sees the NFL's expansion in terms of TV rights as anything but swine-like. Or "hoggy,'' if you will.

"Well, he's a very intelligent man -- I can only speak to what I know," Kraft said of Cuban. "We have pretty lucrative contracts going for another decade. We've doubled our income -- it's allowed us to have labor peace. We just did a Thursday night package -- the commissioner and I worked very hard on it. We had every media company work very hard to get a one-year deal, and the main thing they had to do was promote Thursday Night Football.

"We chose CBS because they're the No. 1 network with the most eyeballs. And that should hopefully allow us to double our ratings on the NFL Network. They'll be moving the Big Bang Theory from Thursday night, which is the No. 1 show on TV, to Monday night at 8 o'clock so they won't go against Monday Night Football again. And they'll move it back after our half-season package with them is over. I have great respect for Mr. Cuban, but I'm not sure I agree with his conclusion.''

And Kraft couldn't resist a final thrust of the dagger.

"If we have a problem, I hope it continues,'' he said, noting that 34 of the 35 most-watched primetime telecasts were NFL games in 2013.

I scored it Kraft, by TKO.

Jim Harbaugh was unusually chatty today, stopping to talk about several 49ers topics, even acknowledging it was "a high priority'' for San Francisco to finalize a long-term contract extension with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who enters the final season of his four-year rookie contract in 2014.

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But it was Harbaugh's comments about the presumed 49ers backup quarterback -- the newly acquired Blaine Gabbert -- that I found most interesting. San Francisco gave up a sixth-round pick for the ex-Jaguars starter two weeks ago, and Harbaugh sounds optimistic about helping the No. 10 overall pick in 2011 get a new lease on his failed NFL career.

"I think he's a very talented player and his career so far hasn't gone on to be what he expected, and maybe others expected it to be," Harbaugh said. "But I believe it can be a really powerful opportunity, powerful motivator for a player to say, 'It wasn't me, it was my situation.' And now he has that opportunity....He comes to a new opportunity, a chance to write a new chapter. I think that's really powerful, and I've seen it work with other players. There's evidence there, and that's what we're hoping for.''

• Disgraced former Dolphins offensive tackle Richie Incognito reportedly wants to be a Raider, figuring he'd fit right in with the franchise's long-running rogue image. But it doesn't sound like the offensive-tackle-needy Raiders want any part of Incognito. Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie on Monday just smiled and offered no comment whatsoever when asked if he had any interest in the player who was at the center of Miami's locker room bullying saga.

And Raiders owner Mark Davis wasn't much more expansive either. Asked if he'd consider signing Incognito, Davis said: "Ask Reggie.'' And if McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen were on board with the addition? "I'd have to think about that, at that time,'' Davis said. "That would be Reggie's decision.''

I wouldn't get that Raiders tattoo just yet if I were Incognito.

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• Incognito, of course, wasn't the only offensive tackle Davis was asked about. The strange tale of the team's courtship and then rejection of Rams free-agent Rodger Saffold also came up in the course of Davis's session with the media. Oakland signed Saffold to a five-year, $42.5 million contract on the first day of free agency, then failed him on his team physical about 24 hours later, claiming it saw a shoulder injury that required immediate surgery. St. Louis responded by almost immediately re-signing Saffold after the Raiders bailed on their deal with him.

The whole episode left Oakland with a bit of a black eye to go with that black eye patch on its logo, and some reports intimated that it was Davis who nixed the deal because he felt it was too rich (at $21 million guaranteed). The shoulder issue, Saffold's camp suspected, was something of a cover story.

"Reggie made the decision,'' Davis said. "I gave my opinion. My opinion was that he was an injured player and that I didn't know whether that was the best thing to do at that time.''

Then Davis attempted a deft little piece of spin.

"The thing about the Saffold thing, it was actually a positive for the organization that the medical staff caught something that possibly could have come back to bite us,'' Davis said. So the system worked, I asked? "That's exactly right.''

Then why did the perception arise that Oakland got out of the deal for reasons beyond just medical concerns? "Because it's the Raiders,'' said Davis, explaining everything.

• Not having Colts owner Jim Irsay here at this week's annual meeting is quite different. Irsay is usually a very accessible and almost ubiquitous presence at these functions, often holding court with the media in marathon sessions.

Irsay's absence is due to him undergoing substance abuse treatment at an inpatient facility after being arrested last week in suburban Indianapolis and charged with driving under the influence and possession of controlled substances. League commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to discipline him at some point via a fine and/or suspension, but this week, Irsay has engendered support among the league's owners, coaches and front office executives.

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"I love him to death, and I get emotional just talking about him, because of what he means to my family,'' said Arizona head coach Bruce Arians, the former Colts offensive coordinator and interim head coach. "I'm pulling for him, praying for him, and I know he'll come back strong. It's really weird not having him here.''

Irsay's oldest daughter, Carlie Irsay-Gordon, is representing the Irsay family among her fellow NFL owners, and taking her father's place on the league's finance committee, legislative committee and Super Bowl advisory committee.

• I have been laboring under the assumption that at some point in the near future, the NFL was going to get rid of its fourth preseason game, paring that part of its schedule down to three games. The expected move to a 14-team playoff field was seen as a way to make up the revenue that would be lost by axing the fourth preseason week.

But now I'm not so sure. A long-time NFL owner told me this week that the fourth week of the preseason may survive after all, with or without the 14-team postseason field.

"I'm starting to think it stays,'' the owner said. "The coaches really need and want that extra training and development time, so that fourth preseason game isn't necessarily on its way out. And with some teams now going to variable ticket pricing formats, it really helps offset our issue of pricing the preseason games the same as the regular season.''

• Another tidbit I picked up on Monday is that the five-foot extension of the goal post uprights is a rule proposal that does have a chance of being voted in at these meetings after all. I heard otherwise on Sunday from league sources, but someone clarified it for me, saying New England's original proposal to add 15 feet to each upright was never going to fly, but a five-foot addition is much more manageable.

The owners vote is expected on either Tuesday or Wednesday. Also, a league source who is privy to the competition committee's thinking said two new rule proposals could be tabled until the league's May owners meeting, in order to provide more time to consult with the players union regarding the moves. Those initiatives would be to increase the number of players who are allowed to be active for non-Sunday and non-Monday nights games from 46 to 49, and boosting the size of teams' practice squad from eight to 10 players. Both come under the heading of rules that require consultation due to the terms of the league's CBA.

A rule that won't get tabled or approved is Washington's suggestion to move the kickoff line up to the 40, from the 35, based on player safety. "That one makes no sense to me,'' said one NFL coach. "That will only encourage teams to pooch their kickoffs more often, rather than going for the touchback, and wind up increasing the amount of contact that kickoffs produce. I guess Washington proposed it because they had the worst special teams in the league last season.''

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