PHOENIX — The official reason the NFL’s owners, team presidents, general managers, and head coaches convene for three days each March at the league’s annual meetings is to review the past year on and off the field and discuss what changes can be made to improve the league.
Unofficially, the three-day conference has taken on a different purpose: Changing the game because of, or in spite of, the Patriots.
This year’s meetings begin Monday morning at the Arizona Biltmore, and once again the Patriots are at the center of attention — and not because they just won their fourth Super Bowl trophy out here in the desert last month, or because of the Deflategate investigation that is still lingering (and almost certainly won’t be resolved this week).
The Patriots are proposing three new rule changes for this fall, two of which pertain to instant replay and one to the extra point, which Bill Belichick has vowed to make a more competitive play.
But that’s not the interesting angle. The far more fascinating subplot is that, for the fourth time in the last 11 years, the NFL’s competition committee will look to change or alter its rules because of something that happened on the field during a Patriots game. The NFL might have to name the rule book after Belichick or Pat Patriot pretty soon, because the team’s fingerprints are all over it.
The latest ruckus caused by the Patriots was their eligible-ineligible tactic they used to help beat Baltimore in the playoffs back in January. The Ravens had no idea what was going on, even after referee Bill Vinovich announced clearly to everyone in the stadium and at home, “Don’t cover 34 . . . 34 is ineligible.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a leading member of the competition committee, said last week that “Unless we had some guidelines in place, this thing may get out of hand.” So the owners will vote on a rule proposal from the competition committee this week that would make it illegal for a player like Shane Vereen to declare himself ineligible and then line up as a slot receiver. The new rule would force him to play within the tackle box, and essentially remove most of the deception that made the tactic so effective against the Ravens.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh and the rest of the organization thought the tactic was a little bush league, but not everyone in the NFL agrees. However, the Patriots opened a whole universe of possibilities with that tactic — Vereen was ineligible to catch a pass, but could have accepted and advanced a lateral — and the NFL just might close it shut this week.
“I didn’t have a problem with what they did,” Giants owner John Mara, one of the nine members on the competition committee, said Sunday. “What they did was within the rules, so they had every right to do it. The question is, is that what we want in the game going forward?”
“Should the official just slow things down and make sure the eligible and ineligible players are clearly identified? Or should we make the ineligible player line up within the tackle box? And I think as a committee, we came down in favor of making him line up within the tackle box.”
And this is hardly the first time that the NFL is considering a rule change because of the Patriots. It dates to 2004, when Fisher announced at the league meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., that the 5-yard illegal contact rule preventing defensive players from putting their hands on wide receivers would be a “point of emphasis.”
That was a direct result of the 2003 AFC Championship game between the Patriots and Colts, when Patriots defensive backs practically mugged the Colts’ receivers at the line of scrimmage, particularly in the final five minutes of the Patriots’ victory.
Not all of the Patriots-centric rules have been designed to thwart Robert Kraft’s team, however. Flash forward to March of 2006, and Tom Brady was a driving force (along with Peyton Manning) behind a rule change that didn’t seem like a big deal at the time — allowing each team to supply its own footballs for a game, as long as they passed the pregame inspection.
Brady and Manning stumped for support by calling the other quarterbacks around the league, and the measure passed easily at the league meetings that March.
“I don’t know that you’ll be able to quantify the impact that it has,” Fisher said at the time.
And finally, the Patriots again were at the center of another significant rule in March of 2009. Six months after Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 of the 2008 season, the competition committee adopted a clarification of its rule that prohibited defenders on the ground from lunging or diving at the quarterback’s lower legs.
Plenty of NFL quarterbacks had been injured before. But it took a major injury to the game’s marquee player, who happened to play for one of the league’s more influential owners, for the NFL to affect change.
Will the competition committee change yet another rule this year because of the Patriots? We’ll see if the ineligible-eligible clarification can get the 24 votes necessary to pass.
But once again, the Patriots did something unique on the field, and the NFL feels compelled to respond and potentially rein them in.
“Bill happens to be as smart a coach as there is in the game, and he’s always coming up with different strategies,” Mara said. “And the one that they used against Baltimore was ingenious, and certainly within the rules. The question is, do we want that going forward?”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.