Stacking the NFL's offseason agenda

The NFL managed to get through the 2015 season without causing an outsized fiasco, which was no small feat considering what happened a year ago. Its strengthened domestic violence rules stood up, no players were accused of child abuse and if any team was caught with underinflated footballs, the league kept it under wraps.

Still, the NFL has a stacked offseason agenda in both a micro and macro sense. With Super Bowl 50 now behind us, let's run through a list of priorities -- at least how I see them.

1. End the Deflategate era

Yes, Deflategate has grown from an event -- the Jan. 18, 2015, discovery of underinflated footballs at the AFC Championship Game -- to an era. The NFL is now in its 13th month of pursuing justice in a case it proved to no one's satisfaction but its own. Barring an unlikely settlement, it will extend at least until March 3 before the next installment of court hearings.

If the league has its way, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will be suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season -- some 20 months after the initial accusation -- for being generally aware of a scheme to deflate footballs below the NFL's range of 12.5 psi to 13.5 psi.

The league views the exercise, estimated to have cost at least $10 million, as defending the integrity of the game. In reality, the entire episode has embarrassed the NFL, dented its credibility and come to be viewed as delayed punishment for the Patriots' 2007 Spygate saga.

None of the eventual outcomes will serve the league well. Either one of its marquee players will miss a quarter of a season for reasons that a host of scientists have found to be misapplied, or the NFL will have been confirmed to have run afoul of its own policies in attempts to nail him. We can only hope that Deflategate's ultimate demise carries with it the end of the NFL's yahoo justice system, one that has crumbled in proceedings brought by Brady, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy, among others.

2. Take catch rule complaints seriously

No matter how often NFL officials insist that there are no viable alternatives, the league is faced with a clear reality: A significant cross section of fans, media members, players and coaches simply don't understand -- or don't accept -- what should be a simple rule.

Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said last week that the solution is to continue explaining intent and mechanics. But no rule in a mass-consumed game should require such effort. The league's top official shouldn't need to make weekly appearances on the NFL Network to explain controversial catch rulings, arguing his point in frame-by-frame fashion.

To be fair, I've been frustrated by what seems sometimes to be willful attempts to avoid accepting the basis of the rule -- that possession requires a receiver to take multiple steps and then maintain control through the process of going to the ground, if applicable. But at some point, perception becomes reality.

It's one thing to get angry complaints on social media. It's quite another when a Super Bowl-winning coach says, "I don't know what the hell a catch is anymore," as Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last month. Even officials struggle at times to find balance on what is supposed to be a bright line. The two most-challenged plays in replay last season were incomplete and completed catches, representing 39.3 percent (163 of 415) of all reviews. They represented 41.5 percent (73 of 176) of all reversals.

The NFL shouldn't give up on finding a solution that merges the perception of the naked eye with the requirements of the game.

3. Get a grip on the QB shortage

Quarterbacks make the football world go round, and the NFL has hit an undeniable shortage. Navigating this personnel crisis should be the league's highest on-field priority after player safety.

Half of the league's top 10 quarterbacks, as measured by Total Quarterback Rating, will be 32 or older when 2016 starts. And that list doesn't include aging starters Tom Brady (39), Tony Romo (36), Eli Manning (35), Philip Rivers (34), Ryan Fitzpatrick (33) or Jay Cutler (33).

All told, half the league is either looking for a 2016 starter or will have one that will be at least 33 years old. Demand, both in the short and long term, is outweighing supply.

The 2015 quarterback class was so barren that teams drafted just seven of them, the lowest total since 1955. The 2016 class, meanwhile, is so uncertain that an untested physical specimen from the Missouri Valley Conference -- North Dakota State's Carson Wentz -- seems likely to be a first-round pick.

How to address the aging population relative to the ongoing shortage? For the moment, teams are committing to their incumbents until their bodies give out. (And occasionally beyond that point, as in the case of the Denver Broncos this season with Peyton Manning.)

Moving forward, however, the league might need to take a more active developmental role. It has been reluctant to jump-start discussions on a developmental league, but perhaps an offseason quarterback academy would represent a financial compromise. Because if it doesn't, well, see No. 4.

4. Evaluate the league's parity

As ESPN baseball columnist Jayson Stark is fond of pointing out, the NFL doesn't offer as much parity as it might suggest. Statistically, a Major League Baseball team that misses the playoffs in one year has a better chance of making it the following year than an NFL team in the same situation. That might run counter to the thinking of NFL fans who consider baseball success a function of payroll and football parity a byproduct of the salary cap.

The most notable number from Stark's recent analysis: Five AFC teams -- the Patriots, Steelers, Colts, Ravens and Broncos -- have advanced to 18 of the past 20 Super Bowls. (To be fair, 12 of 16 NFC teams have been to the Super Bowl in the same time frame.)

This comparison might be related to the importance and shortage of quarterbacks in football. Perhaps they are healthier over time than the baseball equivalent of a No. 1 pitcher. But if quarterbacks hold the key to true parity -- if you can't win without a good one -- then No. 3 might be even more important than anyone realized.

5. Endorse flag football over tackling for youth

The NFL continues to trip over itself in fending off mounting evidence that its game fosters the kind of repetitive brain injuries that cause a disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). As recently as last week, commissioner Roger Goodell was warning against the risk of sitting on the couch while one of the league's top neurosurgeons was denying a link between football and CTE.

It's not realistic to expect the NFL to just shut down its operations, but embracing flag football as a replacement for tackling at the youth level would be a step in addressing a much larger problem. It would have real impact and also serve as a public sign that the league is not completely walled off on the issue.

Those at the core of CTE research suggest that no child younger than high school age should play tackle football because of the increased risk to their developing brains. The NFL could comply if it promotes flag football, touting it as a more inclusive option, and then focus on transitioning those players to tackling in high school.

The NFL can't eliminate the risk of head trauma in its games, and this in no way will solve the brain crisis. But if you accept that more parents will bar their children from tackle football over time, the NFL will be best suited with a football-related alternative in place.

6. Find on-field communication devices that work

In 2014, NASA used a form of wireless communication to land a spacecraft on a comet flying 317 million miles away from Earth. In 2015, it sent another on a close flyby of Pluto (distance: 4.67 billion miles).

Meanwhile, NFL coaches and players -- never more than 100 yards from one another -- couldn't go two games without their headsets breaking down or, in at least one case, oddly tuning in the opposing team's radio broadcast. It's unfathomable how unreliable this simple but critical piece of technology remains in an era of minute-by-minute innovation around the globe.

The NFL tested a new product in the Pro Bowl two weeks ago. It didn't provide specifics but implied it could be adopted for 2016. Let's hope it performed well. It shouldn't be this hard, should it?

7. Release the next-gen stats

For two seasons, the NFL has collected movement data from players during games via RFID (radio frequency identification) chips embedded in their shoulder pads. To this point, the data has been seen only as snippets of context-less statistics on television broadcasts. (Examples: A receiver ran 18 mph, or a running back ran 45 yards to gain 21 on a reversal of field.)

For now, the NFL has warehoused most of the data. It could eventually have some broadcast value, but the real impact will be when teams are given access. The numbers could change the way coaches make in-game schematic adjustments, how they determine matchups and how they rotate running backs based on exertion levels, among many other possibilities. (New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton strongly endorsed them last offseason.)

The NFL's competition committee has put a hold on the data until, frankly, it is satisfied that there are no hidden advantages smarter teams could exploit. But this represents a way to grow the game, in terms of interest level from invested fans to marketing possibilities from new corporate sponsors. (Video game developers wouldn't turn it down, I'm sure.)

8. Expanding replay

The NFL has pushed back on all efforts to include judgment calls on its list of replay possibilities, but the HD era of football viewing is making that argument more difficult to justify.

It's inevitable that more mistakes will be visible when fans have a better view of games on their televisions than officials do at games. But the NFL can minimize those instances by crossing the threshold into reviewing plays such as pass interference and helmet-to-helmet hits.

As I noted during the season, the Canadian Football League has been reviewing defensive pass interference for two years with good success. The NFL could impose its current standard of a clear and obvious mistake, and it could still limit coaches challenges to two or three per game. But the technology exists to minimize judgment mistakes, and ignoring it threatens to increase the disconnect between its officiating and the sensibilities of viewers.

9. Take care of the Chargers and San Diego

The biggest losers in the NFL's return to Los Angeles are football fans in St. Louis, who parted ways with the Rams -- and probably the NFL -- forever. But a close second is Chargers owner Dean Spanos, whose 14 years of responsible and careful positioning was overwhelmed by the billions of dollars offered by Rams owner Stan Kroenke.

Now that the Chargers have committed to playing 2016 in San Diego, it seems better for everyone that they find a way to stay there. The NFL has offered an additional $100 million to help the Chargers and San Diego build a new stadium, and hopefully that number is flexible in final negotiations.

In the long term, it seems preferable to service the San Diego market with its own franchise rather than shove the Chargers into Los Angeles as a secondary option.

10. Fix the Pro Bowl -- for good

Cosmetic changes implemented for the 2014 Pro Bowl made a mild impact the past two seasons, but the 2016 Pro Bowl was again beset by disinterest, unenthusiastic play and low television ratings. Goodell said he was disappointed and planning to study the issue, similar words he used in 2013.

It's time to accept that the Pro Bowl as a competitive game between elite players is a dead concept. There's nothing wrong with electing a postseason team of all-stars, but asking players to travel -- even to Hawaii -- and add punishment to their bodies after the season appears to be a non-starter.

If the league insists on a game, perhaps a "futures" contest of rookies and second-year players would be worth a try. The league could promote the game as a matchup of tomorrow's stars, and those players might be more willing to participate and market their brands. Otherwise, the league might want to consider wrapping an all-star celebration into Super Bowl week and its now annual NFL Honors program.

As the top dog in American sports, the NFL is going to be subject to criticism regardless. But it doesn't need to give its detractors such easy targets as the Pro Bowl.