The NFL may rank as the most popular sports league in the United States, but its owners will gather in Orlando, Fla. on Monday as part of a three-day meeting to examine ways to improve the league.
"The game remains in very solid shape," Atlanta Falcons president/general manager and Competition Committee co-chairman Rich McKay said. "It has been a great league for a long time. The popularity gets stronger and stronger each year."
That great league, however, will have a new captain guiding its ship as commissioner Paul Tagliabue ends his 16-year tenure in July. On Monday the owners will begin the process of selecting a committee to research candidates to replace the respected Tagliabue.
"He's done a wonderful job of keeping labor peace for us and improving our televison situation and improving our business situation," said President and CEO Bob Harlan, who will attend the meetings. "He was the perfect person for the job at the time he took it."
Would McKay, a hotly-rumored candidate to succeed Tagliabue as commissioner, be interested in that position?
"I am invoking the lawyer in me that says that's a hypothetical question," McKay said. "I appreciate the fact that anyone would even mention my name, but by the same token it's a long process. It's only pure speculation. So for me to say much of anything, I'm not sure that's appropriate."
As always the owners will examine officiating. Some of the postseason penalties came under fire. Referees controversially called Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck for a low-block penalty during the Super Bowl and ruled that Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu failed to intercept a pass from Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning during the divisional playoffs.
"There were late-season playoff issues with officiating from a media standpoint," McKay said. "There's no question that there were a couple of calls in the Super Bowl and in the playoffs that we wish we had back, but by and large it was a very good year."
To better ensure the players' safety, owners also will examine low hits on the quarterback, blocks in the back during punts and an enforcement of the horse collar penalty to include the inside of the jersey.
Instant replay remains a contentious issue. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have submitted a proposal to have replay reviews include all penalties. Owners will mull whether to cut down review time from 90 seconds to 60. That measure would shorten the game's duration, which lasted an average of three hours, seven minutes and six seconds in 2005.
The games in 2005 featured a combined 850 false start penalties. To reduce that number in 2006, the owners will weigh the option of letting eligible receivers re-set without receiving a false start penalty.
"We're trying to find ways to limit that," McKay said
Another possible rule change involves the Kansas City Chiefs' proposal of expanding the number of playoff teams from 12 to 14. That proposal did not pass last year but carries particular intrigue after the Pittsburgh Steelers became the first wild-card playoff team to win the Super Bowl in the culminating moment of the 2005 season.
"From a playoff system standpoint, we had a 6-seed win a Super Bowl," McKay said. "That was quite an accomplishment."
The NFL hopes to accomplish another feat by finding a person to fill Tagliabue's shoes.
"There will be some great candidates listed," Harlan said. "And we'll begin discussing them this week."