NFL owners begin their annual March meeting today in Phoenix, with a wide variety of issues on the agenda, including proposals to alter the current postseason, overtime and instant replay formats for the 2003 season. The subject of diversity in the head coaching and front office ranks also will be a focal point, with sessions planned every day on the issue starting Monday morning.
"It's one of the priorities of this owners meeting," said Joe Browne, the NFL's vice president of communications. "It's a very important issue, but at the same time, we're not exactly in the hiring season right now. We do have some breathing room before the next round of hiring will take place."
In the last round of five vacancies, only one minority head coach was hired -- former Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, by the Cincinnati Bengals. Tony Dungy in Indianapolis and Herman Edwards with the New York Jets are the only other minority head coaches in the league.
Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore is the league's only minority general manager. Other high ranking minority executives include Rod Graves, vice president for football operations for Arizona; James Harris, vice president for player personnel for Jacksonville; and Ray Anderson, vice president and head contract negotiator for Atlanta. Harris and Graves were named to those positions within the last three months.
By the time owners adjourn on Wednesday afternoon, there may also be a resolution on the Detroit Lions situation. The league's new diversity committee, chaired by Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, has been reviewing the process in hiring head coach Steve Mariucci because the team did not interview any minority candidates.
The Lions say they were turned down for interviews by five minority candidates; several of those candidates have said publicly they wanted no part of what they considered to be sham interviews because Mariucci was the team's overwhelming first choice.
A resolution "still may happen," Browne said. "But there have been discussions back and forth. The Lions have submitted some information -- there have been routine questions from the committee -- so the process has just taken a little longer than Mr. Rooney had anticipated."
Rooney's committee has been mulling ways to enforce a pledge made by all 32 teams last season to interview at least one and preferably more minority candidates for any head coaching or front office job vacancy. If teams do not comply, any penalty would be levied by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in conjunction with the diversity committee's recommendations.
As for on-the-field issues, expanding the playoffs by two teams to 14, changing overtime rules to allow both teams at least one offensive possession, and a resolution calling for a change in the challenge system are all expected to be hotly debated issues this week.
A proposal from the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots on the playoffs would add one wild-card team to each conference and introduce a seeding system. Only the division winner with the best record in the conference would get a first-round bye, with three wild-card games per conference matching a division winner against a wild card team, also based on regular season records.
Tampa Bay General Manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the league's Competition Committee, said when the league expanded to 32 teams last season with the addition of the Houston Texans "the feeling at the time was that we'd wait two years into this new division format before we'd deal with expanded playoffs."
Still, there is considerable support for doing it for next season, according to Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. "Since the mid-'90s, we've added four expansion teams [Jacksonville, Carolina, Cleveland and Houston] with no expansion in the playoffs," Snyder said. "I don't think 14 teams is unreasonable."
The Chiefs have a resolution on the table that calls for each team to get one possession on offense in overtime. Last year, in a record 25 overtime games, 15 were won in sudden death by the team winning the coin toss and scoring on their first drive. Improvement in the kicking game has been a factor. In 1974, when overtime was instituted to avoid too many ties, the success rate on field goals of 50 yards or longer was 13 percent. Last season, it was 52 percent.
Cleveland has proposed a change in the challenge system in instant replay. Teams now have two challenges per game. Under the current system, if a team loses a challenge, it also loses a timeout. If it wins the challenge, it keeps the timeout. The Browns' proposal would have a team winning a challenge also retaining that challenge.
McKay said the Competition Committee would prefer not to modify the current replay system until the 2004 season, when the entire replay system comes up for a vote again. Whether the owners agree remains to be seen, though they generally follow the committee's recommendations. Any proposal needs a three-fourths majority to pass, a minimum of 24 votes.
There will be some discussion about future Super Bowls, now awarded through 2006. Browne said the 2007 game likely will go to a Florida city. The league is still pushing for a Super Bowl in an outdoor stadium in either New York or Washington, but that topic will be discussed at length at the next owners meeting in May in Philadelphia, and a vote is not expected at least until October, with next March also a possibility.