NFL Owners' Meeting Includes Discussion of Collective Bargaining Agreement, Economic Crisis

Atlanta Falcons General Manager Rich McKay is serving as the chairman of the league's competition committee again in 2009.
Atlanta Falcons General Manager Rich McKay is serving as the chairman of the league's competition committee again in 2009. (Ross D. Franklin - AP)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009

The NFL owners gathered yesterday in Dana Point, Calif., for the annual league meeting.

It's a meeting that promises to produce plenty of talk among the owners about the major issues facing the league as it operates in the national economic crisis, including the upcoming labor negotiations with the players and the possibility of lengthening the regular season to 17 or 18 games, but is unlikely to yield much substantive action on those matters.

The most pressing issue is the collective bargaining talks between the owners and the players' union, which can begin in earnest now that the union has elected Washington lawyer DeMaurice F. Smith to succeed the late Gene Upshaw as its executive director. The clock is ticking, with the owners having voted last year to exercise a reopener clause in their collective bargaining agreement with the players to end the deal two years early.

That move made the 2010 season the final season in the deal, and the 2009 season the final one in it with a salary cap. Before his death, Upshaw predicted that the owners would consider a lockout of the players in 2011. So both sides are now making final preparations before the onset of the negotiations, and this meeting comes days after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell met with Smith in New York for what was described as a getting-acquainted session.

In the meantime, the owners need to figure out what further steps, if any, they will take to deal with the sagging economy. An NFL spokesman said last week there would be discussion at this meeting about the best practices the teams can use. Several teams and the league itself have announced staff cutbacks in recent months, and many teams decided not to raise ticket prices for next season.

One possible measure the owners could take to attempt to increase revenues is to lengthen the regular season -- which is now 16 games plus a bye week for each team -- by one to two games. The owners will discuss the issue at this meeting but no vote is planned, according to a league spokesman.

Goodell has said that the matter will be addressed with the union in the labor negotiations. The current labor deal contains a provision enabling the owners to lengthen the regular season if they choose. But if they do so, they are required to reach an agreement with the union about additional compensation for the players; that matter would be submitted to arbitration if the two sides could not agree. The owners, however, seem reluctant to make the move to a 17- or 18-game regular season unilaterally, at least at this point.

"These discussions are going to involve a lot of people, not the least of which will be the players and their union," Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, said during a conference call with reporters last week. "So . . . we're just trying to get our options and the ramifications and unintended consequences of anything we might propose, be it 17 or 18 [games], as clear as we can, and that's the intent of the meetings coming up with the owners. We'll continue to just massage it, and at some point be much more comfortable about making a . . . recommendation."

The NFL's competition committee announced last week that it would not recommend any changes to the sport's overtime format to the owners during this meeting. Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the competition committee, said during a conference call that there was not strong support among the teams or the players. Goodell had said during Super Bowl week that possible modifications to the overtime system would be contemplated this offseason.

The competition committee will recommend a series of changes, including some to address player safety issues and a couple to expand the scope of the plays that are subject to instant replay review.

One proposed rule change, which would have to be approved by at least 24 of the 32 teams to be enacted, would address the officiating gaffe made by referee Ed Hochuli early this past season. Hochuli incorrectly called a fumble by Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler an incomplete pass, negating a game-saving fumble recovery by the San Diego Chargers. The Broncos retained possession of the ball and went on to score a touchdown and game-winning two-point conversion.

The play, under current rules, was not subject to a replay review and could not be corrected. Now the competition committee is proposing to make such a play subject to replay review, and enable the officials to award possession to the defensive team.

"We've had some high profile plays this year," McKay said. "We think we would propose that would be reviewable and think that is a play in which people play right through the fumble recovery" even if an official blows a whistle after ruling an incomplete pass.

The league intends to announce the matchups for its marquee games on the opening weekend of next season. And there could be developments involving individual teams, particularly if the Broncos decide to trade the disgruntled Cutler.

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