- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

They will discuss a possible move to a 17- or 18-game schedule, a change in the draft order, player safety, instant replay and rules on tampering. But there’s no question the hot topic when NFL owners meet the next three days in Dana Point, Calif., will be a man who won’t be there, newly elected players association executive director DeMaurice Smith.

The 45-year-old partner at D.C. law firm Patton Boggs is a mystery to the owners, who voted in May to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement with the union, setting the stage for what figures to be testy negotiations with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Several factors, from the death of NFLPA chief Gene Upshaw to the economic tailspin and retirement of commissioner Paul Tagliabue, put pressure on Smith and Goodell to make a deal that would avert the elimination of the salary cap in 2010 and a subsequent lockout of the players in 2011.

“There will be a good deal of focus on planning and preparing for the upcoming negotiations with the players association on a new collective bargaining agreement,” NFL vice president Greg Aiello said.

The owners also will discuss - but won’t vote on - contentious topics like adding a game or two to the regular-season schedule, having playoff teams draft in reverse order of their elimination from postseason and permitting teams to talk with prospective free agents during a five-to-seven-day window before the start of free agency.

What will be voted on is an idea to reseed the playoffs so that division winners with worse records than wild-card qualifiers wouldn’t receive home games.

Also, owners will vote on proposed rule changes related to player safety. Two of these proposals would eliminate the bunch formation on kickoffs and the three-or-more man wedge on kickoff returns. Others would penalized helmet-to-helmet hits on blind-side blocks and any contact to the head of a defenseless receiver.

The competition committee also wants to expand instant replay to review incomplete passes on which a fumble was recovered and whether a loose ball is recovered in or out of bounds. The committee also hopes to amend the rule preventing redos of onside kicks that go out of bounds from the final five minutes to the entire game.

Although 43.4 percent of overtime games in 2008 were won on the first extra possession, surveys of clubs and players revealed that neither group wants to mandate at least one possession a team.

“I would like to see a game that you would think was more balanced, but when you talk to the membership and the players, they’re comfortable… that they had a chance to play defense,” said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, the competition committee co-chair.

“I was a little surprised at how adamant the players were about not wanting to change the current overtime system,” NFL vice president of football operations Ray Anderson said. “They were pretty adamant that extended play time, when you’re playing 20 games [including preseason], exposes you to injury risk and they’d just as soon say… if you can’t win it in regulation, you take your chances in overtime.”

The votes on the committee’s proposals are expected Wednesday, two days after Goodell announces the nationally televised games for the Sept. 10-13 opening weekend.

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