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Football Notes

This is the week to tweak

At meetings, owners consider rule changes

By Christopher L. Gasper
March 22, 2009
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Starting today, NFL owners will arrive at an opulent Orange County hotel, replete with a Pacific Ocean view, as they convene for their annual meetings. The main purpose of the meetings, which run through Wednesday, is to take an all-inclusive view of the state of the game, including potential rule changes and other tweaks to the NFL operation.

Among the items up for discussion and possible vote are a few that have ties to the Patriots.

The Competition Committee, which studies and recommends potential rule changes, has seven proposals it will brief owners on, among them one that would prohibit hits similar to the one that Steelers safety Ryan Clark delivered on Wes Welker last season. The rule would be an extension of a rule passed in 1995 that allowed for protection of a defenseless receiver.

After a pass was tipped, Clark blasted a defenseless Welker, who had no chance of catching the ball, hitting him under the chin with a shoulder/forearm. Clark received a 15-yard penalty but was not fined. The NFL's vice president of officiating later said the hit was legal.

"We're going to propose to expand that protection and include that there can be no initial contact to the head area of the defenseless receiver," said Falcons president Rich McKay, who is co-chairman of the Competition Committee.

"What that basically means is you cannot hit that receiver with your forearm or with your shoulder as that receiver has yet to catch the ball - in other words, have two feet on the ground with possession of the ball - so, we're just trying to expand that protection.

"There have been an awful lot of hits in the last couple of years that have been legal but have been very tough on receivers, and we're trying to expand that protection for that player."

While it won't be in time to help the Patriots, the committee has also recommended a change in the way the NFL devises the draft order. Currently, teams are slotted in order of regular-season record, with slots 31 and 32 in the first round reserved for the Super Bowl loser and winner.

The committee is suggesting that slots 21-32 be filled by the 12 playoff teams, in the order those teams exit the playoffs.

The Patriots, who didn't make the playoffs last season despite an 11-5 record, own the 23d pick in the draft and are forced to pick behind three playoff teams that finished with worse regular-season records.

The idea of expanding the playoffs, as proposed in 2003 by the Chiefs and Patriots, was not brought up, according to McKay.

The proposal that will probably garner the most focus is one that expands the scope of replay to include whether a play that is ruled an incomplete pass was a fumble. This would be similar to the down-by-contact review rule, where teams are now encouraged to play until possession because the ruling of down-by-contact can be overturned by video replay.

This proposal is rooted in part in referee Ed Hochuli's controversial call last season in the Broncos' 39-38 win over the Chargers. Jay Cutler had a ball slip out of his hands as he cocked it to throw, and San Diego recovered. But Hochuli blew the play dead, ruling it an incomplete pass. Replays showed it was a fumble. Two plays later, Cutler threw a touchdown pass that set up the game-winning 2-point conversion toss.

"We've had some high-profile plays this year," said McKay. "We think we would propose that would be reviewable and think that is a play in which people play right through the fumble recovery, so we would like to treat it like down-by-contact."

Replay expansion would also allow for review on the recovery of a fumble that is ruled out of bounds.

The other proposed rule changes would prohibit the bunch formation on kickoffs, limit kickoff-return wedges to just two players, make helmet-to-helmet blindside blocks (think Hines Ward) illegal, and eliminate the automatic re-kick on on-side attempts that are called back for illegal procedure, a rule that already exists for the last five minutes of games.

One area where there is not a proposed rule change is the overtime format. In 2008, the team that won the coin toss won two-thirds of the 15 games, and games were decided on the opening possession 46.7 percent of the time. Since the NFL adopted sudden-death OT in 1974, the coin-toss winner has won 53.7 percent of the time, and 30.1 percent of the time the game has ended with just one team having a possession.

McKay said players were overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the current format.

"I think overtime still achieves its major goal, which is to break ties," said McKay. "We think it achieves a second goal, which is it is extremely exciting.

"There are some statistics that concern some of us. By the same token, I think there's not enough support at this time to change it, and I would say when you talk to the players and when you talk to our membership, there's great support for our current system."

Wright can't go wrong here

"Sought-after" is not a term that has been attached to the football career of New England defensive end/nose tackle Mike Wright, who was a walk-on at the University Cincinnati and joined the Patriots in 2005 as an undrafted rookie free agent.

However, Wright was in demand this offseason as a free agent, drawing interest from the Cardinals, Browns, and Broncos before he re-signed with the Patriots. Wright agreed to a four-year, $7.5 million deal ($1.8 million signing bonus), with playing-time escalators that could increase the value of the contract by $10 million.

"It was neat to experience [free agency] and know what my value was, but at the same time I knew I was still wanted here," said Wright. "That felt better than everything. It was awesome."

After visits to Arizona and Cleveland and contact with Denver, Wright said, he realized there was no place like home.

"All of those places are great and trying to head in the right direction and I feel they are, but when it comes down to it, everybody is trying to do what the Patriots are doing," Wright said. "I don't blame them, and to know I had an opportunity to go back to that, I'd be a fool to leave this place.

"To have Bill Belichick and Pepper Johnson and Dean Pees guiding me, I felt it was best for me and my career to stay here."

With Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork free agents after this season, the Patriots were interested in bringing back Wright, who had a career-high 2.5 sacks last season. But Wright said the status of the rest of the line didn't affect his decision.

"My decision was based off the interest of Coach Belichick and his staff," he said. "I felt I was wanted."

Making most of no-win situation

How would you like to be winless as an NFL player? That's the status of Lions offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus, the former Boston College star. The 17th overall pick in the 2008 draft, Cherilus was a member of the NFL's first 0-16 team.

"It was just tough. We just couldn't finish games," said Cherilus. "At the end of games, a lot of them, it just didn't come our way, so that was tough.

"But deep inside I learned so much from the season - my character, who I am as a person - because when you're talking about rock bottom, we were there last year.

"Somehow, I still found a way to come to work with a smile on my face every day and still find the motivation to come out there and compete and have fun doing it."

While there was a lot of back-biting and finger-pointing at coach Rod Marinelli and his staff, Cherilus, who was benched by Marinelli in October, said it wasn't all the coaches' fault.

"At the end of the day, you can't go 0-16 and blame all the coaches," he said. "You got to blame from top to bottom, from the administration people, to players, to coaches; everybody was to blame at some point."

Cherilus said he's looking forward to a fresh start with new coach Jim Schwartz.

"I spoke with him over the phone, and everything he said he had planned for us was great," said Cherilus.

Etc.

Some growing to do
An issue to be discussed at the owners' meetings is expanding the regular season, though NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said there will be no vote taken on it. The league is expected to eventually expand to 17 or 18 regular-season games, but Aiello said the overall 20-game format would not change. Right now, there are four exhibitions and 16 regular-season games.

Labor pains are likely
The NFL Players Association selected a new executive director last Sunday during its meetings in Hawaii, voting in Washington lawyer DeMaurice Smith to succeed the late Gene Upshaw. Smith's election concluded what had been an acrimonious process. Smith has no labor law or pro sports experience and now must engage in what are expected to be rancorous collective bargaining negotiations. Next year is the final season of the current CBA, after owners exercised an opt-out last year. Smith wasted no time letting owners know he won't be bullied. "There isn't a day where I don't hope for peace," he said. "But at the same time, there isn't a day where we won't prepare for war. So, as we move forward, I hope that our discussion with the owners is both early and fruitful."

Running afoul
Buffalo's Marshawn Lynch is a great running back, but it appears he can't outrun trouble or the NFL's player conduct policy. Lynch met with commissioner Roger Goodell last week after his second brush with the law in less than a year. Lynch recently pleaded guilty to having a concealed firearm after he was arrested in Los Angeles Feb. 11. Police found an unregistered, loaded semiautomatic handgun in Lynch's trunk. Last May, he was involved in a hit-and-run accident with a pedestrian and ended up pleading guilty to a traffic violation. Lynch said after his meeting with Goodell that he expects to receive a suspension. The 22-year-old has vowed to change his behavior. "I know pretty much that there will be some people looking forward to me messing up again, but I just want to let them know they shouldn't hold their breath," he said.

Sharp words
The Saints continue to reshape their secondary. Last week, they signed four-time Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper to a one-year deal. The 12-year veteran is the NFL's active leader in interceptions with 54. Sharper told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that the presence of new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams influenced his decision, while also taking a dig at the Vikings. "He's excellent," Sharper told the paper. "I talked to guys around the league, and they loved playing for him. He doesn't get caught up in, 'This is my system.' He utilizes his players to the best of their ability, and that's something I've been looking for the last couple of years."

Airing it out
After not throwing at the NFL Combine, Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick, showcased his arm for scouts at Georgia's Pro Day last week. Stafford threw 50 passes and was pleased with his workout. "I wanted to be able to throw a bunch of balls," Stafford said. "In Indy, you get to throw 10-15 balls. It was a good chance for me to get out here and throw 50 and let people see. I can't give a grade on it, but I felt pretty good. I missed one or two that were just too high, but other than that it went well."

Line change
New Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris obviously thought his defense needed an upgrade at linebacker. After releasing 11-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks and linebacker Cato June last month, the Bucs signed former Buffalo 'backer Angelo Crowell last Wednesday and announced the same day that they were moving starting safety Jermaine Phillips to linebacker.

Number crunching
Falcons president Rich McKay, co-chairman of the league's Competition Committee, offered a few interesting numbers from the 2008 season. Teams combined for 44.06 points per game, the ninth-highest mark in league history and the highest since 1970, the year of the NFL-AFL merger. Teams combined for 654.5 yards per game, eighth-highest all-time, and average time of game was 3 hours 2 minutes.

Did you know?
NFL placekickers connected on 84.5 percent of their field goal attempts last season, the highest success rate in history.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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