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We've devoted plenty of virtual ink in recent months to the likelihood of an expanded NFL postseason and/or a substantive change to extra points. We've discussed the possibilities for growth in instant replay and wondered if the league could adjust its "process" mandate to align the rulebook with the naked-eye view of a catch.
None of that appears likely for 2015, however, at least based on the NFL competition committee's public preview of proposals for the upcoming owners meetings.
The committee endorsed no change to extra points, indicating instead it will continue preseason and Pro Bowl experiments. Individual teams offered 13 proposals to change to replay, but without endorsement from the committee, none seems likely to pass. Committee co-chair Rich McKay said it was possible that a tweak in the language of the "process" rule would clarify its intent; it seems doubtful that would force a philosophical shift away from requiring a receiver to maintain control of the ball en route to the ground.
And while McKay confirmed the committee sees "no negatives" to a 14-team postseason field, the issue appears stalled at higher levels of the league, according to a Washington Post report.
So what issues and rules will be addressed next week in Phoenix? Replay will get some attention, given the sheer number of replay proposals. But the competition committee's endorsed proposals are relatively minor, most notably putting guidelines on the ineligible-receiver formation the New England Patriots used in the 2014 playoffs. For the most part, the league appears set to focus on some of the larger off-field issues it faced during its tumultuous 2014 league year.
That doesn't mean we have to do the same, of course. Let's fill the substantive void by offering five common-sense rule changes that one day could and maybe should find their way into the NFL. The league has studied many of the issues below, of course, and could always revive them next week.
1. Add third-party timeouts. The NFL's enhanced concussion protocol, established in 2013, placed an athletic trainer in the press box and an independent neurologist on each sideline to spot and help treat potential brain injuries. The system is admittedly imperfect and relies on players to take themselves out of a game -- or to be removed by a coach -- before examination.
Under this idea, publicized earlier this month by NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent, one of the independent medical officials could stop play to remove and examine a player who is displaying symptoms. The timeout wouldn't count against either team's allotment and would reduce the medical burden on people -- players and coaches -- whose in-game focus and expertise are elsewhere.
2. Expand replay. We too often see plays upheld on review because no camera angle provided a definitive view of the play. Available technology suggests that should never be an issue.
The NFL should install cameras on the goal lines at least, and perhaps further up the sideline as well, to ensure that replay officials can at least see what they need to before making a ruling. (The New England Patriots have made a similar proposal.) As far as anyone can tell, the primary obstacle here is the financial investment required.
Meanwhile, improving technology and a more centralized replay system should allow for a wider swath of reviewable plays. The Detroit Lions proposed that all penalties be reviewable, a dramatic change that would have, say, officials watching replays to determine whether the center or nose tackle was the first to jump.
The primary objection to a significant expansion, according to St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, is that "your head coach is going to be the eighth official on the field." The competition committee doesn't want to burden coaches with a responsibility to "determine whether or not these are fouls or not fouls," added Fisher, who is also co-chairman of the competition committee.
As Fisher said, it's the responsibility of officials to ensure the best possible calls are made. But perhaps there is a less obtrusive way to provide recourse to coaches when an unavoidable but obvious mistake is made. One idea is to limit coaches to one penalty-based challenge (out of their total of two or three) per game. Pride and tradition shouldn't limit the goal of getting the obvious calls right, even if it requires a change in convention.
3. Incentivize two-point plays. The NFL experimented with 33-yard extra points in the 2014 preseason and narrowed the goalposts in the Pro Bowl. The Indianapolis Colts have proposed an "extra-extra point" if a team successfully converts a two-point opportunity, one that is so batty it makes you wonder if owner Jim Irsay is mocking the entire discussion.
How about something more simple to increase the entertainment value of the point after: Moving the ball from the 2 to the 1-yard line, which would likely prompt coaches to consider two-point conversions more often? NFL kickers made 99.3 percent of extra points last season, but according to ESPN Stats & Information, the conversion rate of two-point plays from the 1-yard line (after a penalty) is 69.7 since the start of the 2001 season. (The overall conversion average of two-point opportunities in 2014 was 47.3.)
Only time would tell if coaches would seek to capitalize on a near-70 percent chance to get two points. But the shift seems a simpler and more organic way to nudge the game away from automatic point-after kicks.
4. Expand game-day rosters. The NFL allows teams to put 46 of its 53 active players in uniform for games. The idea, I presume, is to ensure that each team has the same game-day resources. Many teams carry a few injured players on their 53-man roster, but from a competitive standpoint, it might not be fair if one team had 52 players in uniform for a game and another had 49.
Raising that limit, even if it's just to 49 or 50 of the 53, would have a positive impact in two ways.
First, it would reduce the possibility of teams running out of players at a position, or forcing players to play out of position, when in-game injuries strike. This is especially relevant when the current trend is to put only seven offensive linemen in uniform. It doesn't seem appealing to watch a team lose a game because its backup guard is playing left tackle, or while a rookie backup safety is manning left cornerback.
Second, it would at least partially reduce the external pressure on players to continue playing after an injury. It wouldn't alleviate those situations, and players apply their own internal expectations, but in some cases it would provide a better option in an era when the NFL seems more cognizant than ever about player health and safety.
5. Allow video replay on sidelines.
With great fanfare last season, the NFL allowed teams to replace sideline photographs with digital versions on a customized tablet. (A $400 million sponsorship deal with Microsoft didn't hurt, either.) That seemingly seismic shift drew some chortles from tech-savvy players.
Most recently, Cleveland Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins said: "We use tablets on the sideline, and we still look at still photos. So all you did is pay a lot of money to save paper. Why not look at the video? Eventually it will get to that point."
How about now? Why not give teams an opportunity to study video of plays -- the same video that will soon be available to fans on-site via enhanced in-stadium wireless service -- to make adjustments? The same video is available to both teams, and quality of play could only be enhanced with quicker coaching responses to schematic wrinkles.