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Dispatches from day one of the NFL annual meeting

The 4th-and-15 option has a decent chance to become part of the equation on kickoffs.

Logos for each of the thirty-two NFL football teams line the sidewalk as guest arrive for the annual NFL owners meetings, Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Phoenix.
Logos for each of the thirty-two NFL football teams line the sidewalk as guest arrive for the annual NFL owners meetings, Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Phoenix.

PHOENIX — Dispatches from day one of the NFL annual meeting at the sun-drenched Arizona Biltmore Resort….

* If there's a mild surprise looming in the rules-related news that might come out of this four-day league confab it's that the NFL might just be willing to supplement the onside kick with the Denver-proposed "fourth-and-15'' play that a trailing team could elect to use once in the fourth quarter.

NFL Competition Committee member John Mara, the Giants' co-owner, said Sunday that he was the lone no vote against the proposal on the eight-man committee, a strong endorsement that gives it at least a fighting chance to gain the necessary 24 votes needed for passage by the full ownership body.

Not that Mara can stomach the idea, calling the play "too gimmicky'' for his taste.

"I'm hoping I get eight other people (teams) to see reason,'' Mara said. "What are we, the Arena Football League?''

Under the proposal — which some call the "Greg Schiano Rule,'' because the current Patriots defensive assistant has been a proponent of it for years — a trailing team could opt to not kick off after a fourth-quarter score and instead get the ball at their own 35 yard line. If they gain 15 yards on the play, they retain possession, thus replacing the onside kick. It can be attempted only once per game per team, and ostensibly serves to add more excitement to a game since the NFL's new safety-minded kickoff alignment rules have made onside kicks very difficult to successfully execute. Only four onside kicks were recovered by the kicking team in the 2018 season.

One Broncos source I spoke with Sunday said Denver football czar John Elway is cautiously optimistic that the rule will be passed and is pleased to see it garner surprising support thus far. But traditionalists like Mara still have a shot to derail the proposal when it comes up for further discussion this week among owners and officials from all 32 teams.

I asked Mara if for him the novelty of the play harkened too closely to something the XFL might have instituted and he said: "That was my quote exactly. It's gimmicky. I don't like it. You think you've won the game, just got to recover the onside kick…. Yeah, it'd be a lot of fun. (But) not for me. And we were the team (the Giants) that didn't recover an onside kick if you remember in the Chicago game. So don't tell me it can't be done.''

Mara said the committee projects the new rule would give teams a slightly greater chance of retaining possession than they had on onside kicks executed in the NFL's former kickoff alignment, and he did not believe that the impetus for the proposal was to try and further negate the injury risk of onside kicks. Instead it's an attempt to partially replace a play that has largely become uncompetitive with a more exciting option for trailing teams.

Still, Mara was taken off guard by the support the proposal has generated, adding that Saints head coach Sean Payton changed his vote from no to yes at some point, leaving Mara isolated in his disapproval of the play.

"I could believe it,'' he said of the 7-1 committee vote. "It was pretty strong.''

* As for the league's consideration of other rule-change proposals, primarily the expansion of penalties eligible for instant replay reviews, all signs continue to point to pass interference being the most likely addition. Roughing the passer and illegal hits on defenseless players are also under a separate proposal that also includes pass interference.

But one team owner I spoke with said neither proposal is thought to be a given in terms of passage, because there are plenty of people within the league who believe replay is already too invasive, and will instinctively vote against any further use of it.

The most controversial topic here in regards to expanding replay is the gulf that exists between the league's coaches, who for the most part seem to support the notion of adding an eighth official as a "Sky Judge'' in the booth upstairs, and the Competition Committee, who are said to be united against it.

Said one head coach on Sunday: "It's the same old B.S., just a new year. I've just been through this enough now where I don't have any expectations of what might happen. But if you're not for the 'Sky Judge' idea, you're not for getting things fixed.''

Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said while he realizes the league is not ready to add non-calls under the umbrella of replay review — like the missed defensive pass interference that might have decided the Saints-Rams NFC Championship Game — he's cognizant that six inches of forward progress is better than making no gain whatsoever.

"Any small ways to say we can do things differently or better, I think it's worth giving it a shot,'' said Quinn, whose Falcons have as a team president Rich McKay, the chairman of the Competition Committee. "Right now if it goes the way that you can review defensive or offensive pass interference, or roughing the passer or defenseless player, I think that's worth looking into.

"This is the first shot at it. There's a lot of calls in a game that could be (added). But this is a good start. It doesn't address the main issue of the non-call. But I think it's a good first step.''

Mara said the "Sky Judge' concept is "dead in the water,'' because "the more we talked about that, the more (problems) we found. It's partly about finding and hiring 17 'Sky Judges,' and it's partly that you're now making that person the most powerful person in the building.

"Just picture this: Every time there's a controversial call on the field, everybody would be looking up at the 'Sky Judge' and TV cameras are going to zoom in on him. And who is that 'Sky Judge' going to be? You're going to take him off the field, one of our best guys off the field? I think we're better off having it go back to New York (the NFL's replay command center) so it's the same person or people for consistency purposes who make the review, as opposed to somebody else. Unfortunately you're occasionally going to have a situation like in New Orleans, but I think they're going to be rare.''

* Bumped into Jaguars general manager David Caldwell here at the Biltmore and he's looking relaxed after finding Jacksonville's new franchise quarterback in free-agent signee Nick Foles.

Long before the ex-Eagles Super Bowl MVP takes the field, he's already paying dividends for the Jaguars. Caldwell said he's gotten phone calls from the agents of still unsigned free-agent players who want to play with Foles.

"I just wish we had more money to spend on some of them,'' said Caldwell, whose club gave Foles a four-year deal worth $87-million-plus.

I asked Caldwell what he has already learned about Foles that he didn't know before making him Blake Bortles successor? "That's hard because we did so much homework on him,'' he said. "But it's probably just seeing how people gravitate to him. Guys just want to be around him. He has that quality about him.''

* The Bengals rookie head coach Zac Taylor is attending his first NFL annual meeting, and I'll say this about the new face of the Cincinnati franchise: It's a young-looking face. Taylor is a youthful 35 but could pass for his late 20s, not that anyone will care about that if he can revive the Bengals offense and deliver that long-sought playoff win.

When we briefly chatted Taylor sounded very excited to be in Arizona, saying it'll serve as some much-needed family vacation time. Taylor is married to the daughter of former Packers head coach Mike Sherman, and has been living with his wife, Sarah, and their four children in a Cincinnati hotel since being hired by the Bengals after the Rams' loss in the Super Bowl.

Almost two months in hotel with a family of six? That'll make anyone want to get away for a while.

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