Effecting substantive change in the NFL is a massive, multiyear, mountain-moving project. (Or, as they might say at league headquarters, it's a "deliberate" process.) So rather than pine for immediate implementation of the nearly two dozen changes to be discussed at next week's owners meeting, we should instead consider them a glimpse into the league's on-field priorities in the near future.
Based on what we heard on a conference call Wednesday, a clear focus has emerged: the kicking game and officiating (via instant replay).
A total of 21 rule changes, bylaw proposals and resolutions are on the official agenda for next week. None of them relates to an expanded postseason, which likely won't be enacted before the 2015 season. And there will be no formal change to address use of the N-word or other profanities. Instead, referees will enforce existing sportsmanship rules as "a very significant point of emphasis," according to competition committee co-chairman Jeff Fisher.
There are, however, three separate proposals concerning kickoffs, extra points and field goals, along with a fourth that will be proposed if one of the first three fails. There are also four proposals to increase and/or correct the use of replay to supplement officials after a series of high-profile mistakes in 2013.
Commissioner Roger Goodell foreshadowed the league's interest in enhancing the kicking game over the winter, when he noted the near automatic conversions of extra points. (Five misses in 1,267 attempts in 2013.) Following that lead, the New England Patriots have submitted a proposal to move extra point tries to the 25-yard line -- requiring a kicker to convert the equivalent of a 43-yard field goal to get the point.
Fisher said the competition committee would recommend spotting the ball at the 20-yard line, the same as a 38-yard field goal, during one week of the 2014 preseason if the Patriots' proposal meets its likely demise. In either scenario, the scoring team would still have the opportunity to go for two from the traditional spot at the 2-yard line.
These proposals bring the likelihood of a 1-point conversion from 99 percent to about 85 percent, based on success rates from those distances last season. (Two-point conversions were successful nearly 48 percent of the time in 2013.) The idea of making an extra point more interesting and difficult figures to get plenty of discussion this spring and perhaps for several more years to come before the league determines its next move.
Abolishing extra points altogether is another possibility, and competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay said he waded through a wide variety of proposals that included kicking from whatever yard line the team scored from. (Good luck after that 99-yard touchdown run.)
Field goals have lost much of their drama as well -- a development that has also caught the attention of league officials. Although there is no formal proposal this year, McKay said the committee talked "a lot" about narrowing the goalposts to make field goals more difficult. In 2013, as we've discussed, conversion rates for field goals between 18 and 49 yards neared 90 percent.
"We've looked at it, and I think it will be something that will be talked about going forward," McKay said.
Two other kicking-related proposals confirm that the issue remains at the front of many minds in the league. The Washington Redskins proposed moving kickoffs to the 40-yard line, a step that would in essence eliminate them as a live play, and the Patriots want to see the uprights extended 5 yards further in the air to allow for more definitive rulings when the ball elevates above them.
Higher uprights would make life easier for officials, which appears to be another priority in the NFL landscape. McKay was careful to avoid a full assessment of officiating in 2013, but he did provide this telling prediction: "You're going to see a real emphasis on on-field officiating and trying to be the best that we can be, and trying to be sure there is the necessary [structure in place]."
The most obvious example is a proposal to allow the referee to communicate with a New York-based league official, likely to be vice president of officiating Dean Blandino, during replay reviews. Implementing this addition, McKay said, would help ensure that "every single replay" gets reviewed accurately and hopefully faster as well.
I think this proposal has a good chance to be approved for 2014, at least much better than some of the other interesting but more far-fetched ideas hatched by the Patriots and Redskins. The Patriots, for example, want coaches to be able to challenge any type of call (still at a maximum of three per game) rather than continue with a rulebook that delineates what can and can't be replayed. The Redskins would like to continue with that list of distinctions but add personal fouls to the reviewable list, and the Patriots want the league to add six cameras to ensure a good angle for every replay.
I've long wondered why the NFL leaves it to television broadcasters to determine how many cameras are at a game, in essence leaving the success of replay in the hands of executives who assign equipment based on ratings. (Actually, I know why: It costs less.) How many times have you groaned when you realized there was no definitive angle to replay a call? Of all the proposals regarding instant replay this year, I think this one could have the most play-to-play impact.
Again, I would advise you to temper your excitement about these proposals. Most of them won't make it into the NFL rulebook after next week's debate. But many will return in subsequent years, probably in different forms. The kicking game and the tools of officiating figure to remain two of this game's most fluid components.