NFC North: 2013 NFL owners meetings

PHOENIX -- After spending about 25 minutes Wednesday morning with Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, I can tell you at least one thing: Schwartz is just as excited as you are about the acquisition of running back Reggie Bush.

Bush
Bush
We've discussed the favorable run schemes the Lions routinely face when receiver Calvin Johnson is in the lineup, and we've noted the slam-dunk fit of Bush's skill set. Wednesday, Schwartz used an extended and self-deprecating baseball analogy -- utilizing the Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, of course -- to further explain the potential we all see.

"If the Tigers had Cabrera and they had Schwartz batting behind Cabrera, how many intentional walks would Cabrera get?" Schwartz said. "A lot. A lot. I might be able to move the runner across. I might be able to hit behind the runner. I might be able to foul one off. I might be able to bloop one over the first baseman's head. But I can't clean the bases. That's my skill set.

"But Reggie Bush can clear the bases. … Calvin's the kid in little league that the other coach … intentionally walks four times in a row. Well, along with the other guys, we need to make more explosive plays when teams choose to play us that way. I think Reggie will be a big part of that."

In that analogy, 2012 tailbacks Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell were the guys batting behind Johnson. They combined for 1,212 yards, but only three of their 297 carries went for at least 20 yards. They rarely cleared the bases even when given consistent opportunities. If Bush doesn't capitalize on open space near the line of scrimmage -- er, the loaded bases -- then maybe it wasn't meant to be.
PHOENIX -- Chicago Bears tailback Matt Forte called it "absurd." Leslie Frazier worried that his MVP running back would be subjected to an increasing number of hits to his knee. The NFC North generated as much opposition to the NFL's proposed crown-to-helmet penalty as any other division, but in the end -- as we discussed Sunday -- the nebulous "player safety" tag has once again carried the day.

All four NFC North teams voted for a rule that passed overwhelmingly Wednesday. Frazier and the Vikings produced a notable about-face; Frazier had reiterated concerns as recently as an hour before the vote, during the NFC coaches breakfast here at the NFL owners meeting. After the vote, however, Frazier said: "The overriding factor regarding player safety kind of overrode [our] concerns."

Look, we all know what happened here. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made player safety a priority, both for the long-term health of players and the long-term viability of the game. Creating "safer" rules puts those efforts in writing and creates a paper trail, in both a practical and legal sense. I'm pretty sure the NFL doesn't want coaches or other employees publicly questioning its efforts to do so, regardless of the issues at play. The league is making a macro movement in spite of whatever micro issues it might cause.

The rule makes sense in the abstract -- a player shouldn't be allowed to, as the rule is worded, "deliver a blow with the top/crown of his helmet against an opponent" -- but there are practical ramifications that make you wonder how it will be enforced.

Forte noted that running backs naturally lower their shoulders to protect themselves from contact and to break tackles. As a result, the head lowers as well. Will officials recognize the difference between that and an intentional lowering of the head to initiate contact? Frazier wondered if defensive players would go low on tailback Adrian Peterson to avoid the 15-yard penalty of hitting his helmet with theirs.

In the end, those issues won't dissipate. We'll probably have some questionable calls to discuss this season. But go ahead and book it: Anytime a rule change is attached to "player safety," its chances of passing is excellent. It's a sign of our times.
PHOENIX -- Very few of you appreciated my afternoon tweet from the lush grounds of the Arizona Biltmore resort. What? You didn't like my view of paradise as you dealt with a Winter Wonderland in NFC North territory? I'm sorry to hear that.

Rest assured, however. As I took in some natural vitamin D, I also was working diligently alongside NFC West blogger/legal analyst Mike Sando, scouring the fine print of the NFL's 2013 bylaw-change proposals for possible impact in our respective divisions. We found at least one that could affect our 2013 season.

Among other things, Bylaw Proposal No. 2 would add two weeks to the return window for players who open the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. If it passes, the rule would allow a player to return any time between his team's sixth and 11th games (it currently requires a decision after the ninth game).

Technically, then, a player could miss the first 14 games of the season -- an 11-game PUP stay plus three weeks of practice -- and still be eligible to play the final three games. It's debatable whether a coaching staff would judge a player to be ready for live game action after that long of a layoff, but in the right situation it could provide a late-season boost.

In the NFC North, for example, the Green Bay Packers could give defensive lineman Jerel Worthy -- who suffered a serious knee injury in Week 17 last season -- an extra two weeks to rehabilitate. Wednesday is the final day of these meetings. I'll let you know if the final wording of this bylaw and if anything else changes.
PHOENIX -- So the main media attraction Tuesday at the NFL owners meeting was the AFC coaches' breakfast. There isn't much to be gleaned about NFC North teams from that group, so I decided to circulate among the AFC North coaches -- whose teams are on our collective 2013 schedules -- to check in on their offseason progress. A few snippets:

Baltimore Ravens
Issue: The team has been gutted by free-agent departures and is awaiting word on a decision from free agent safety Ed Reed. As a result, this team belongs to quarterback Joe Flacco like never before.
Coach John Harbaugh: "Joe’s going to do a great job of just continuing to get better in everything that he does and rallying the guys around him. He’s going to take those young guys under his wing and he’s going to push those guys forward. He’s going to be a big part of building our offense. We're going to build it around Joe, but you also build it around your offensive line. You've got to have a great offensive line. You've got to have playmakers outside who can make plays for Joe and you’ve got to have a great running back, so it's still a team game."

Cincinnati Bengals
Issue: The team is in a contract stalemate with offensive lineman Andre Smith, leaving the Bengals in a precarious spot with an important player.
Coach Marvin Lewis: "I'm not in charge of contracts. I don't think it's unsettling for me. It'll happen when it happens. If not, we'll move on and get another guy. I think Andre would have preferred to have this done by now, most importantly."

Cleveland Browns
Issue: The Browns have yet to follow through on plans to add a competitor for the starting quarterback job currently held by Brandon Weeden.
Coach Rob Chudzinski: "I see it as creating competition. That can be from a number of different places that you create competition. We have some guys there and we're going to coach them all and coach them all hard. We're going to give them all opportunities to show what they can do. … Competition comes from within, too. As coaches, we have to bring that out in them. I have no doubt we'll be able to bring that out."

Pittsburgh Steelers
Issue: Safety Troy Polamalu missed nine games because of a calf injury last season, a year after the team encouraged him to participate in all of its offseason program.
Coach Mike Tomlin [In response to a question on whether the team wants Polamalu to change his offseason regimen]: "I want him to be ready, and I think he wants to be ready, like everyone. I'm not going to make more out of that than what it is."
PHOENIX -- In January, the Minnesota Vikings picked up a one-year option on coach Leslie Frazier's contract rather than negotiate a long-term extension. When the move was announced in February, Frazier didn't hide his surprise and disappointment before pledging to push forward into the 2013 season.

Frazier
Here at the NFL owners meeting this week, I got a chance to speak with Vikings owner/president Mark Wilf about a number of topics, including Frazier's contract. I asked Wilf if he felt compelled to speak with Frazier or otherwise reiterate his support in light of public discussion about the implications of the decision.

Wilf said there has been ample communication on the issue, made clear the team's expectation is to win the NFC North in 2013 and strongly downplayed the possibility of opening negotiations during the season.

"We have a great relationship with coach Frazier," Wilf said. "We've had a lot of communicating back and forth on that. But now we're turning the page to the 2013 season and our focus is on, first, winning our division, which is a very tough division, and we want to get back to where we were a few years ago, and that's the top of our division. We know it's competitive, but that's our No. 1 focus. From there, hopefully it's our best opportunity for our ultimate goal, which is to win the championship."

I don't think that means an NFC North title will be required for Frazier to keep his job in 2014, but it's clear the Vikings want to see more than they saw last season. Asked if there was a possibility of addressing Frazier's contract during the season, as the Vikings did in 2009 with former coach Brad Childress, Wilf said: "Once the season goes, we're not discussing any contractual relationships or anything of that sort."

So one way or the other, the Vikings will face a franchise decision next offseason. There are no more options in Frazier's contract, meaning he is signed through 2014. Given most teams' reluctance to enter a season with a "lame duck" coach in the final year of his contract, the Vikings almost certainly will give Frazier an extension after the 2013 season or fire him. The stakes are as high for this franchise as they have been in a while.

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Sunday, 9/21
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