This is the week to tweak
At meetings, owners consider rule changes
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 situationHow 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.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.