The NFL's annual spring meetings are about to begin under the ominous cloud of the first work stoppage in 24 years.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, league executives and owners, coaches and management from all 32 teams have several business items on the agenda during their two-day session at the Roosevelt Hotel. But the ongoing labor strife between the owners and players will be the dominant topic of discussion.
The league and the NFL Players Association went their separate ways 10 days ago after 16 days of mediated negotiations failed to result in a new collective bargaining agreement.
With the former CBA expiring, the NFLPA decided to decertify as a union. The owners answered that move by locking out the players.
The players promptly filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block the lockout. They await an April 6 hearing in Minnesota, where a judge will decide if their request for an injunction will be granted.
Since talks ended, voices have only been raised to hurl accusations at each other about not being sincere about getting a deal done.
And so with wealthy people unable to figure out how to divvy up $9 billion in revenues, the owners come to the Crescent City to talk about their issues and seek a solution to a problem that could wreck the 2011 season.
In addition to discussing the labor situation, the owners will vote on several rules proposed by the league's competition committee, who meet every year before the meetings and suggest changes it thinks will improve the game.
One proposal that is likely to draw a lot of discussion has to do with dramatically altering the look of kickoffs.
The competition committee suggests kickoffs be moved from the 30-yard line to the 35. Players on the coverage team would be allowed no more than a five-yard running start to the kicking line.
Touchbacks would result in the ball being placed at the 25 instead of the 20. The four-man wedge was eliminated last year. Now the committee is suggesting all forms of a wedge be prohibited.
The committee's argument for the changes is due to the rising number of concussions and other serious injuries on kickoffs.
"The injury rate on the kickoff remains a real concern for us and for the players," Atlanta Falcons president and competition committee chairman Rich McKay said in a conference call with NFL media this week. "Our feeling was this was a way to deal with the injury numbers and the tape we saw."
McKay acknowledged that moving the ball up on kickoffs would result in more touchbacks, which might neutralize the NFL's top return specialists. But he added that moving the ball out to the 25 after a touchback will discourage teams from kicking it into the end zone every time. The rule wouldn't affect touchbacks on punts, which would still be brought out to the 20-yard line.
"Right now, we have about the 27.6 or .7 average starting line [after kickoff]," McKay said. "You're not gaining a big advantage with a touchback."
In addition to the kickoff rule, the competition committee is recommending that any scoring play be eligible for a review from the booth. Currently, the instant replay official only looks at plays that occur within the final 2 minutes of each half.
According to McKay, this would take some pressure off coaches when deciding if a play should be challenged. The third coaching challenge, which is awarded if the coach is successful on both earlier challenges, would be eliminated under this proposal.
One of the major recommendations by the competition committee is rewriting the "defenseless player" rule. If passed, there will be eight categories of a defenseless player: the quarterback in the act of or just after throwing a pass; the receiver attempting to catch a pass, which includes the receiver who hasn't completed a catch or had time to protect himself; a runner who's already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped; a kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air; a player on the ground at the end of a play; a kicker or punter during the kick or during the return; a quarterback at any time after a change of possession; and a player who receives a blindside block.
"We just want to be sure that we write the rules very clearly and that all eight of those categories have the exact same protection," McKay said.
The committee also will seek the owners' approval to suspend players for illegal hits in the game when it is warranted. Several players, including Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, was fined heavily for hits deemed unnecessary by league officials last season.
The league says special attention will be paid to players who have been repeat offenders over the past two years, according to Ray Anderson, the NFL director of football operations.
The NFL strengthened its policy on helmet-to-helmet hits last October and threatened players with suspensions. None were handed down in 2010, but Anderson said the league "won't have that hesitation" now that teams and players have received sufficient notice of the league's policy.
The owners are expected to vote on all rules proposals on Tuesday. At least 24 of the 32 owners are needed to pass any rules.
One topic that won't be discussed at the meetings is the re-seeding of playoff teams. The Seattle Seahawks hosted a first-round game last season with a 7-9 record because they earned the fourth seed by winning the NFC West. McKay said teams haven't shown much interest in changing the system.
A league spokesman said the regular-season schedule is expected to be released in mid-April, although no specific date has been set.