NFL still tinkering under hood

One of my highlights of the recent NFL owners meetings was spending some time talking to Dean Blandino, the NFL's supervisor of officials.

Coming into the meetings, I thought Bill Belichick's idea of being able to review all plays was a long shot. Talking to Blandino, I learned the NFL is heading in that direction but will be calculating in the expansion.

Blandino said he sees a time in which coaches would be able to challenge most plays instead of just a limited list. If a coach wants to challenge an interference penalty, it might happen. If a coach doesn't like a personal foul call, he might have the ability to contest it.

Each coach has two challenges. If he wins both, he gets a third. That means a maximum of six stoppages a game via coaches' challenges. As long as replays are efficiently run, that's manageable.

That's why it's important for Blandino's staff in New York to be available to communicate with replay officials and referees at games to speed up the process. While the ref is informing the coaches of the challenge, Blandino's staff and the replay official can set up the video for a fast study by the referee, who has 60 seconds to make a decision.

Although Blandino didn't say this, I could see the league moving in a direction in which replays would be taken out of the hands of the referee. If the centralized operation works, the replay official and the New York office could make the right decision by the time the ref gets to the replay monitor.

Games in 2013 ran an average of 3 hours, 7 minutes, and the league doesn't want them getting any longer. Too many replays would add minutes and make games disjointed.

But let's say the combination of a replay official at the game and Blandino's staff can shave minutes off the replay operation? The door would be open for coaches to use their limited challenges as they wish.

Blandino warns that a move to include all plays has to be a cautious one. After the two-minute warning for each half, only the replay booth can initiate a review under the current rules. No one wants to see officials stopping and starting games with a multitude of replays when games are at their most exciting level.

The technology of football is amazing. Thanks to big screens and HD television, fans sometimes have better views of plays than officials.

"We're very mindful of where technology is going, and we've got to stay in front of that," Blandino said. "The scrutiny on officiating is so much more than it ever was because of that technology."

For officiating, this year's meetings were an eye-opener. Within a couple of years, I could see the league having replays in the booth and from New York, and Belichick getting his way and having the option of challenging any call at least twice a game.

Previously, I thought that would be bad. Now, I don't. The technology is there, so it should be used to increase efficiency and accuracy.

From the inbox

Q: Why move the placement of the ball around on extra points? I think they could slightly decrease the percentage of successful place kicks by narrowing the goalposts by 1-3 feet. The basic rules stay the same (which is what average fans seem to want), but it makes kicks less automatic (which is what some folks in the NFL seem to want).

Mark in Snowmass Village, Colo.

A: Mark, I'm with you. I don't like the idea of moving the spot of the extra point. The problem with your suggestion is that it creates a new problem: Field goals would become tougher. Why change the extra point and then negatively affect field goals? That would take points off the scoreboard. The NFL loves the fact it is coming off its highest-scoring year in history. Why change it?

Q: With the Jared Allen wait finally over, whom do you see Seattle targeting out of the remaining free agents? The Seahawks still have cap space to make another one or two signings before the draft without impacting next season, so unless they're extending Earl Thomas this year they still have room to make another move. Robert Ayers? It looks like they're OK with the O-line the way it is and they'll draft another future player, but they could still use a DE and WR to step in now.

Chris in Renton, Wash.

A: I think they will just bargain shop. They could sign Ayers, Will Smith or maybe even look at Anthony Spencer. If a good defensive end or tackle is released, they could go for him. They won't go too crazy in free agency. They have lost seven UFAs and signed two. That leaves them eligible for four compensatory picks next year. They can probably get a fourth-rounder, two sixths and a seventh. Signing too many unrestricted free agents would take away those gifts. I think they will take a tackle in the first two rounds of the draft. If a big receiver pops free, they could make a move on him. It's not out of the question for them to re-sign Sidney Rice.

Q: When extending a player such as Richard Sherman, it is assumed that he could get around $12 million to $13 million a year. With a cheap year left on his contract and the ability to franchise him the year after, would it be a possibility he'd take an extension now for about a $9 million to $10 million a year just to get paid sooner? Over the course of the contract, he would make less than by waiting, but doesn't losing that one year of a higher salary plus getting to a third contract sooner have value too?

Ryan in Monroe, Wash.

A: Sherman isn't in a position to take such a discount just to get the money now. He'll make out well on endorsements and sponsorships. He has put himself in position to get top cornerback money, which is $12 million a year at the moment. If he does take a discount, he would do it to help out the team in trying to keep the defense together. I would be surprised if he gets less than $10 million a year.

Q: Is the NFL posturing for cameras? Let me clarify. Nobody comes out in support of Richie Incognito, yet you get the Dolphins owner praising Mike Pouncey. Seems very hypocritical. If anything, slap them all on the wrist, including Jonathan Martin, and let them go on their merry way and bury this in the back pages like it deserves to be. Seems like a lot of hypocrisy from the NFL on this one.

Sam in Waterloo, Ontario

A: In the early part of the investigation, teammates praised Incognito. Plenty of people on the team came out in support of him. It's hard to do that now that the Wells report is out. It would be outrageous to do anything to Martin. He has suffered enough. The guy had a mental breakdown with what happened to him in the locker room. The Dolphins were nice about it and traded him to San Francisco, letting him move on with his life. Pouncey, Incognito and John Jerry face likely suspensions, but first they will be evaluated. Once the evaluations are done, the league will determine if they will miss games or not. It would be hard to believe they won't get some type of sanction.

Q: T.J. Ward and D'Qwell Jackson are the exact same player: great character, undersized, human tackling machines that makes virtually no "splash" plays (INTs, fumbles, sacks, tackle for loss, passes defended) and somewhere between below average and a liability in pass coverage. Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby make fewer tackles but create more splash plays and are great in coverage. What am I missing here? It appears to me that the Browns are getting ripped for getting older and paying a bit more, even though they got better.

Kovacs in Dallas

A: You raise a good point. None of the four players would be especially recognized for splash. All four are good football players. In this day and age, it's not necessarily good to get older at a position unless the team is close to being a playoff team, and the Browns aren't anywhere close to being contenders. I wouldn't rip them for the moves, but they still have me wondering.

Q: I liked your take on proposed NFL rule changes. However, in regard to replay, while agreeing that no one wants to watch officials go under the hood, I submit that this could be fixed with a college system that takes the on-field official out of the replay decision-making. Let a dedicated replay official in a booth with one of those big HD screens make the call. The referee just stops play, stays where he is, and gets told something via his earphone like, "Pass was incomplete, ball should be at the 42½-yard line, time on the clock should be 2:47," and he makes it so, and play goes on. Half of the wasted time is the official jogging over to the booth and then squinting at a tiny screen. This would eliminate that. As soon as a challenge was made, the official upstairs would already be checking it. Add in a hard time limit after which if the replay official can't the make a decision, the play stands as called on the field, period.

Mike in Pittsburgh

A: It may be heading in that direction. When replay first came into the game, I didn't like the idea of having a replay official in the stadium make all of the calls. At the beginning of replay, those replay officials were former on-field officials and weren't used to watching video to make decisions. The presence of experienced video viewers in New York assisting the replay officials may push replay in the direction you are talking about. Look at this season as being the experiment to see if the New York assist can make replay more efficient. If that works, I can see the league taking the replay decisions out of the hands of the referees. With two sets of eyes looking at the replays, I could go for such a system.