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Sunday, March 23, 2014
Suggestions for owners meetings

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

From the looks of the agenda at the 2014 NFL owners meetings, the league appears to be in good shape and little needs to be fixed.

Revenues jumped past $11 billion, television ratings are at a high and profits are soaring. Despite the success of the league, plenty of change will be discussed this week at the meetings in Orlando, Fla.

A total of 21 rule changes, bylaw proposals and resolutions are on the table. The topics include moving extra-point attempts back to the 25-yard line, expanding replay to everything, moving kickoffs to the 40-yard line and centralizing replay officiating in the New York office.

Here are the three things I'd like to see happen at the owners meetings.

1. I wish everyone would drop the idea of making extra points more challenging. So what if kickers have a 99.6 percent accuracy rate on conversions? Extra points are like periods at the end of sentences. The coach has the option to go for a 2-point conversion for strategic purposes. That's enough. Still, you get the feeling the league is moving in the direction of change over the next few years. Not much change will happen this year. The most owners will do this week is vote in a one-week experiment in which kickers will line up at the 25-yard line and kick. Going to the 25 turns a 99.6 percent play into a 90 percent play. While that adds drama, it takes away points. The change is something that is quietly being pushed, and often the league gets its way over time. The league wisely eliminated wedge blocking on kickoff returns, and that helped with safety. For safety, the NFL fought some resistance on moving kickoffs to the 35 to protect players better. While touchbacks are as boring as extra points, bodies were saved. The extra-point change is not a safety issue. Recent rule changes protected the center better, already making it a play on which you don't worry much about injuries.

2. Don't expect the NFL to go for the Washington Redskins' proposals to expand the active roster from 46 to 49 and the practice squad from eight to 10, but owners should go for it. For years, people wondered why the NFL wouldn't allow teams to dress 53 players. "Why pay them and not play them?" was the rant. The thought from NFL traditionalists is that dressing more than 46 players creates a competitive disadvantage for the weaker teams. That argument doesn't stand up anymore. Missed games because of injuries or suspensions jumped over 1,600 games this year. Replacement players for injuries are harder to find, as the street doesn't offer much hope for teams with injuries. Why not fix the problem with quantity as opposed to quality? The Minnesota Vikings didn't have a good season, but they had one game in which 10 players weren't dressed because of injuries. When you have that many players out, more starters have to play on special teams, risking further injury. The Vikings played well despite the missing parts. Give all teams the option of putting more players on the field for development and depth. The league is long overdue to restart a developmental league, and they need to provide other ways for players to gain experience. If you pay them, play them.

3. Don't overdo changes on instant replay. I'm all for the idea of having the officiating department helping a replay official and a referee at a game. The league office has great HDTV screens with replay, and supervisors know the rules. Matching their technology and minds with those at the game will make for better decisions. The mistake would be not having a replay official at the game. There was a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game in which the first quarter wasn't on the network because of technical problems. Keep the extra set of eyes in the press box. A mistake would be going overboard on reviews. Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera wants to have interference penalties reviewed. Bill Belichick wants to be able to challenge everything except scoring plays. Football fans don't go to games to watch referees put their heads under a hood to watch replays. They go to watch the plays. It's great that officials are not throwing as many flags and letting the players play. Don't bog things down by extra replays.

From the inbox

Q: The 18-game schedule seems inevitable, so how about this for a proposal: Cut the preseason to two games, increase roster size to 70 and stipulate that no player can play more than 16 regular-season games. This would allow teams to develop their own players, and there would be great tactical battles of when to rest your starters. No matter how you cut it, 18 games is going to dilute the product.

Gerard in Cork, Ireland

A: As long as the current union leadership is in place, I don't think it would ever agree to an 18-game schedule. If there is a change in leadership, then it might happen. If there is an 18-game regular season, there is no doubt the preseason would shrink to two games. That's a given. The 70-man roster won't happen. I don't ever see the league under an 18-game format going to more than 56 or 57 players. A developmental squad could be used for the development of other players. The idea of having players limited to a maximum of 16 games has been thrown around for some time. That would create some interesting decision-making for coaches. You get the feeling that the owners are pushing for the 18 games and won't stop, but it's not going to be an easy thing to obtain.

Q: Something I've thought about for a couple of months now. Top QBs take up a huge portion of a team's salary cap and limit teams' spending at other positions. Can you see a smart head coach, known for developing QBs, probably with a college coaching background, treating the QB position like they do in college? Draft a new, raw but talented QB each year or two and develop that QB. When the starter gets to a point where the next contract will eat up a huge portion of the cap, let that QB go or trade him and install the new starter. I could see Jim Harbaugh doing something like that. He has a great track record of developing QBs, a college background, and he does not care what anyone else thinks of him. Chip Kelly and Pete Carroll are others who I think would consider something like that.

Brian in Pittsburgh

A: An elite quarterback is going to win four to six games in the final minutes of games. How can some manufactured quarterback match that? He can't. Simply use the backup quarterback formula and you will see why. A good backup quarterback can come off the bench and win you three games, but if the coach plays him in six, he will lose you three games. You are using a formula that only gets a team to .500. That's why teams pay the quarterback -- they can take a team to 10 to 12 wins.

Q: With the NFL trying to position itself more globally with multiple games in London and games in Toronto, is there any chance that the Super Bowl could be held in another country?

Eric in Indianapolis

A: While I personally think that would be a mistake, I could see some people in the league office pushing for it. The NFL wants to market the game globally, and that would be one way to do it. I could see the league doing that if it puts in a team in London. I still think the NFL needs to get a team in Los Angeles before even considering London, and I'm not an advocate of taking the Super Bowl out of the country. But can it happen? Of course it can.

Blake Bortles
Blake Bortles has impressed evaluators with his mobility and physical gifts.

Q: Before the combine, there was a lot of talk about Blake Bortles having the ability to beat you with his arm and athleticism based on his senior season. He ran a 4.93 at the combine, which would put him somewhere between Joe Flacco and Matt Schaub speed. He may have good movement in the pocket (Tony Romo and Big Ben aren't exactly fast), but it means he's probably a pocket QB. My question, though, is: Why doesn't this cast doubt on the tape that indicates he's a dual-threat guy? It would be a huge red flag to me that his tape is misleading.

Allen in Dallas

A: I look at it a different way. He's starting to look like the best quarterback in this draft because of his mobility, arm strength, size and physical skills. He looks like a quarterback who can throw well on the run. His biggest problem is his footwork. It is going to take him time to get the right footwork down to be a starter in the first half of the season. Bortles had a great week. He outperformed Teddy Bridgewater during the pro day workouts. The feeling is the Houston Texans are seriously thinking about taking him with the first pick in the draft. They can start the season with Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starter and buy time until Bortles is ready.

Q: A lot of people are writing off the Tennessee Titans this year. I think we can surprise everyone in the AFC South. Do you think Jake Locker is the answer at quarterback? They pulled off a steal in getting Ken Whisenhunt as the coach.

Dan in Dallas

A: They did pull off a steal getting Whisenhunt. Whiz could be the right coach to get the most out of Locker, but this is the year the Titans have to make a decision. Locker is in the last year of his contract. They may not re-sign him after this year, so he needs a good year. Locker was playing well before getting hurt last year. He has a chance. And so do the Titans. GM Ruston Webster is doing a good job assembling this team.

Q: Do you think that today's mindset of instant gratification and the "win now" mentality are having an adverse effect on the true quality of NFL? I know that the game is as popular (if not more) as it has ever been, but it seems as if the rush to sensationalize players and hype teams has caused ill-prepared players to play too soon and good coaches to be fired too early. Before, teams and coaches had years to develop talent and teams, now that all has to be condensed into sometimes no more than one offseason.

Mark in Hill AFB, Utah

A: I do think franchises change coaches too soon and often that sets a franchise back instead of moving it forward. If that is considered "win now," then it is a mistake. But a franchise should try to win as soon as it can. If a franchise has an elite quarterback, it needs to keep winning every year while it has that quarterback. Coaches also have to be realistic in selling a team. I hate it when I hear a coach on a 4-12 team talking about a Super Bowl, particularly when the quarterback isn't that good. Try pitching the idea of making the playoffs first. Still, everyone wants to win as quickly as possible.