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What we learned from the 2019 NFL’s Annual League Meeting

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A few rule changes were made — including one in response to the blown call in the NFC Championship Game.

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The NFL’s Annual League Meeting is the starting point for the rules that could change the game. Every March, NFL owners and coaches gather to discuss the season that was, the season that will be, and the potential tweaks that can make the game fairer and/or sand down any advantage the Patriots may have gleaned the year prior.

The meeting is the genesis of ideas like replay challenges (good), relaxed team celebration rules (good), the language that gave us catches that had to survive the ground (bad), and the language that kinda-sorta cleared that mess up (... OK). It serves as the jumping-off point for reforms that will earn hours of debate throughout the offseason before either working their way into the rulebook, or being tabled until the rules committee or one enterprising team decides to broach the subject at the Spring League Meeting in May.

But it’s not just a gathering to discuss the rulebook. The confluence of coaches and owners means plenty of juicy gossip leaks out of Phoenix. Last year we heard about everything from how much the Rams’ new stadium will cost to Baker Mayfield’s Pied Piper potential (hee HEE!) to Todd Bowles’ amazing defense of Christian Hackenberg.

This year’s meeting was supposed to take place from March 24-27, but the league wrapped it up by March 26.

Here’s everything that happened, starting with the big headliner.

A big change to replay was made ... for 2019, at least

The biggest proposal this week revolved around expanding the use of instant replay, primarily in response to the pass interference no-call that cost the Saints a spot in Super Bowl 53.

On Tuesday, the league owners made a major change: that offensive and defensive pass interference calls, including non-calls, are now subject to review during the 2019 season.

A coach can challenge up until the final two minutes of each half, and at that point, it’s up to the replay booth to review it. Team owners approved it by a margin of 31-1 (the Bengals were reportedly the dissenting vote).

Under this new rule, which will be on a one-year trial basis, the no-call in the NFC Championship and another in the Super Bowl would have been reviewed. Interestingly enough, the original rule changes up for debate this week wouldn’t have included those.

However, a new proposal — the one that passed — was added to the agenda Tuesday:

That’s a clear victory for Sean Payton and the Saints, who fought hard to get the rule changed:

To start of the week, the discussion was centered around whether or not to make penalties called on the field like interference, roughing the passer, and defenseless player fouls reviewable — a distinction that could extend the running time of games but also ensure a call doesn’t prematurely end a team’s season.

There were initially two proposals on the table. The first would’ve added pass interference penalties to the list of reviewable calls. The second would’ve also included pass interference, as well as other 15-yard personal fouls like roughing the passer.

“The goal is to correct clear officiating errors on impactful plays,” Troy Vincent, NFL’s executive vice president of football operations said in an interview in advance of Sunday’s meeting. “Our credibility is on the line.”

While Vincent and the league’s competition committee are receptive to change, some owners aren’t. The Steelers in particular came out against expanded replay in the run-up to the debate.

“First of all, I would not want to see the length of the game be expanded,” team president Art Rooney II said in an interview released Friday. “One other thing I’ll add to that is replay, at the end of the day, is another human being interpreting the play. While it can be helpful in a lot of cases, when you start talking about judgment calls — pass interference in particular — you’re still putting another human being in a spot of having to make that decision. You’re just never going to get it perfect, no matter how many people are looking at it.”

In the end, a third version passed, after an impassioned defense from the coaches, including ... Jason Garrett?!

What rules did teams want to change in 2019?

While those motions came from the competition committee, a pair of proposals from teams also sparked debate in Arizona.

Kansas City wanted guaranteed possessions in overtime

A motion from the Chiefs aimed to change overtime rules to ensure both teams possess the ball at least once in the extra period — a proposal that comes months after Kansas City didn’t get a chance to field its offense as the Patriots ran away with a 37-31 overtime win in the AFC title game.

Their rule would also eliminate overtime in the preseason and eliminate the overtime coin toss, instead allowing the team who won the game-opening toss to choose whether to receive the ball or defer.

This proposal didn’t make it out of the committee in Arizona, but it will be discussed when the league holds its annual Spring Meeting this May — so it’s not completely licked yet.

The Broncos wanted an alternative to the onside kick

Another potential reform from the Broncos would’ve followed the AAF’s lead and provided an alternative to the onside kick. With conversions at a historically low rate, Denver’s suggestion is to give teams the option to convert a de facto fourth-and-15 from their own 35-yard line immediately following a touchdown or field goal. If the scoring team can gain 15+ yards, they retain possession of the ball. If not, the defending team takes over wherever the ball is stopped.

As interesting as that would have been, the league decided it wasn’t ready for an onside kick replacement yet. Denver’s idea was shot down Tuesday afternoon.

What other proposals were on the table?

Here were all the rules up for discussion, per the NFL. In all, 16 playing rules, six bylaws, and two resolutions were proposed. (A third resolution from the Eagles, which would have required the Cowboys and Lions to play their Thanksgiving games on the road every other year, was withdrawn.)

By Tuesday, a number of them had passed — seven rules, as well as all six bylaws and both resolutions.

They’re mostly unexciting tweaks, but they include:

  • Making 2018’s kickoff changes permanent — most notably moving a team’s starting position after a touchback up to the 25-yard line, ending the wedge formation in front of returners, and preventing players from getting a running start before the ball is kicked.
  • Extending “defenseless player” protections to players who get hit by blindside blocks:
  • Determining where teams can apply an opponent’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty following a touchdown.
  • Automatically reviewing any turnover or scoring play that was negated by a penalty.
  • Automatically reviewing any extra point or two-point conversion try.
  • Giving the league more autonomy to eject or disqualify players for non-football acts on the field.
  • Allowing teams to roster more players during the preseason.

To pass these proposals, 24 of the 32 teams needed to approve the changes.

What team news broke this year?

2019’s meetings got off to a slow start. By Monday, all we’d really heard out of Arizona was that the Jets were getting new uniforms and that the Dolphins could draft a quarterback in 2019 or 2020.

Cool.

Mike Tomlin was also there talking about his Steelers team. And trying his best to avoid talking about former Steelers Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.

And Jon Gruden’s out here working his next-level spy tactics to figure out how the upcoming draft will shake out.

How many Hawaiian shirts will Andy Reid wear?

Every year, Andy Reid always shows up cosplaying as Tommy Bahama.

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FWIW, last year he was spotted wearing three different Hawaiian shirts. The tally so far? At least one — and it’s Chiefs themed!

The topic of Reid’s shirts at every year’s meeting was enough to make Bill Belichick smile — almost. The Kansas City coach apparently has a customized bitmoji dressed up in Tommy Bahama as well.

Reid only appeared to wear two different Hawaiian shirts this year — including one that he wore LAST year too:

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Mike Vrabel was dressed more conservatively, but if he followed Reid’s lead and added a Detroit Tigers hat he’d have a pretty convincing Magnum PI costume going.

And yes, the annual coaches photo remains the best part of the entire week.

What about the 2019 NFL schedule?

We’re kicking off the season with a classic rivalry game and a replay of one of 2018’s best games. The Packers will host the Bears in an NFC North showdown to open 2019.

Last year saw Aaron Rodgers return from injury to lead Green Bay back from a 20-0 third quarter deficit in one of his many deflating comeback wins over the Bears. Will 2019 give us another entry on that list?

There was also a report that the Raiders could play a preseason game in Canada.

Did the league do anything about Robert Kraft?

Kraft was charged with two counts of soliciting a prostitute in February and was set to appear in court to contest those charges March 28 — until he pleaded not guilty and the appearance was cancelled. While he had reportedly been offered a diversionary program that would allow him to expunge those counts in exchange for 100 hours of community service, participation in an educational program about the dangers of sex trafficking, and a reimbursement of court costs, Kraft appears dead-set on fighting the case instead.

While it seems like a no-win situation — Kraft was allegedly caught on camera inside the spa — Kraft’s refusal to accept a deal means he’s unwilling to admit he was likely to be found guilty at trial, a condition of the terms of the diversionary program. That may be related to the discipline he’ll no doubt receive from the league after his arrest. Being found not guilty would help his case as he faces a significant fine and suspension from Roger Goodell — who also played Kraft’s nemesis in the years-long Deflategate battle between the NFL and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

He also did some prep work in advance of Sunday’s start, publishing a public apology while not admitting guilt in a statement posted Saturday.

Otherwise, as expected, nothing was resolved between Kraft and the NFL this week in Phoenix.