From the Top: Fumbles, Overtime, and CBA on Owners' Agenda

Chris CluffCorrespondent IIMarch 18, 2009

When the NFL's competition committee gathers ahead of the owners' meetings this weekend in Dana Point, CA, one game from 2008 will direct much of the conversation.

Denver's controversial 39-38 win over San Diego in Week Two put the focus on two issues: the inadvertent whistle and overtime.

The key play in that game was a fumble by Denver quarterback Jay Cutler in the final minute, with the Broncos trailing 38-31 with the ball at the Chargers' one-yard line.

Because the play was incorrectly ruled an incomplete pass and blown dead, the Chargers could not retain possession, even though they had recovered the ball.

Instead, after referee Ed Hochuli reversed the call through replay, Denver got the ball at the dead-ball spot, the 10-yard line.

Then the Broncos capitalized on the second chance and scored on the next play.

The second controversial decision was made when coach Mike Shanahan decided to go for the win rather than risk overtime, even though they were playing in Denver. Cutler's pass to Eddie Royal converted the two-point try, and the Broncos won by one.

Thus, in one game, two league-wide issues were brought back to the fore, and the owners are sure to debate those topics among others this weekend.

Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, the co-chairman of the competition committee, confirmed that to reporters after the controversial game in Denver last September.

"It's going to require a great deal of discussion," he said of the fumble that was ruled dead. "It's happened at times. It happened in a game against us at Indianapolis years ago. ...When the whistle blows and the pass is ruled incomplete, there's just no way currently that you can award possession."

The NFL has addressed this issue before. In 2007, owners voted to make it possible to overturn a down-by-contact ruling and award a fumble to the team that recovered the ball even as the play was blown dead.

The Cutler play was akin to the infamous "Tuck Rule" play that helped New England beat Oakland in the divisional playoffs in January 2002. The competition committee discussed that rule after that season but made no changes. The group will certainly discuss the fumble-incompletion ruling this time.

An even bigger issue for the league was highlighted by Shanahan's decision to go for the win because he didn't want to lose the game on a coin toss.

Games increasingly are being won by the team that wins the coin toss (60 percent overall, 47 percent on the first drive), and some NFL people think they need to change the overtime rule. They just don't agree how they need to change the overtime rule.

No one seems in favor of playing an entire extra quarter or of using the college system, which results in inflated scores and keeping players on the field for longer than teams would prefer.

Some have suggested that each team be given a possession in overtime to level the field. Some have said the team that wins the toss shouldn't be able to win on a field goal on the first possession. And some have proffered the idea of starting the ball at the 20- or 25-yard line, with no overtime kickoff.

Commissioner Roger Goodell does not like the college overtime system, where teams get the ball on the opponents' 25-yard line and get equal possessions until one team has outscored the other.

"I prefer our system," Goodell said on ESPN radio during Super Bowl weekend. "I think it's got the fundamentals there. We're talking about potentially tweaking it in a few ways to force teams to have to drive the football."

He said the idea of tinkering with how teams get the ball to start overtime seems to have the most support from coaches and general managers.

"I think it's something our committee needs to look at," Goodell said in his Super Bowl news conference last month. "We have talked about different concepts, and the committee will discuss this."

The owners also are expected to discuss the looming negotiations for a new collective-bargaining agreement, as well as perhaps more about playoff seeding, camp roster size, and a possible Thanksgiving rotation.

The CBA is the biggest issue on the horizon. The owners have opted out of the current CBA because they don't like paying the players 60 percent of their revenues. The CBA now expires after the 2010 season, and the 2009 season will be the last with a salary cap until a new CBA is worked out.

"It [the CBA] wasn't working for them prior to the economic downturn," Goodell said last month. "The economic downturn has just made it that much worse for them. There needs to be a new model.

"There needs to be a consideration of the tremendous cost and risk in operating in an environment like this and come up with something that's fair to the players, fair to the owners and allows our great game to grow."

It looks like the owners are ready to do whatever it takes to get back some of what they gave up in 2006, even if that means playing 2010 without a salary cap and then locking out the players in 2011.

But Goodell doesn't think it will come to that.

"I am optimistic that we're going to be able to sit down with the union and reach an agreement that will continue labor peace and allow the players to continue to flourish," he said, "but most importantly allow the owners to continue to invest in the game."

Chris Cluff's Football.com column, "From the Top," is a weekly look at issues involving coaching, management and ownership of the NFL's 32 franchises. See more at http://www.football.com/nfl.php.


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