Armed with a key victory in the courts, NFL owners gathered Monday for their annual spring meetings.
Usually, it's a time for discussing Super Bowl sites and rules changes. This year, the 32 owners primarily will talk strategy for this summer as the labour impasse goes through court proceedings.
They might even gloat a bit after obtaining a permanent stay of an injunction blocking the lockout of the players that began March 12. The labour situation remains something of a stalemate, locked in the courts until the league's full appeal of that injunction is heard June 3. But the 2-1 ruling on the stay contained strong language indicating the NFL will win its appeal.
"I think as time goes on everybody on both sides realizes that this doesn't get better, it doesn't get easier," NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said after attending committee meetings. "I think people are also realizing that the litigation alternative is not one that's going to get a quick resolution. ... Everyone focuses on the next court date and it sort of freezes people in place.
"The only way we're going to solve this is by saying, 'OK, let's put this behind us. Let's put the litigation on hold and let's solve our own problems."'
Basically, not much action is required by the league until the legality of the lockout is determined by the 8th U.S. District Court in St. Louis. While the lockout's in force, teams can't communicate with players — and NFL teams are dead in the water when it comes to training for the 2011 season.
That stagnation could threaten the start of training camps at the end of July — at the very least.
Commissioner Roger Goodell continually emphasizes the need for face-to-face discussions between the league and the players.
"The sooner we get back to the negotiating table the more we can address those issues in a timely fashion and get to what everybody wants, which is football," he said. "In the meantime, we've done everything to prepare for 2011."
That includes several significant rules clarifications, one of which was tabled during the annual league meetings in March, but will be voted on this week.
It involves a clearer definition of a defenceless receiver, which also could apply to a player intercepting a pass. The new rule, if adopted, would incorporate all defenceless players into one category and expand the protection for the defenceless receiver.
"It used to say he was somebody who had not completed the act of the catch," explained competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons. "Now it will give a receiver protection until he becomes a runner and has the opportunity to defend himself.
"We saw too many helmet-to-helmet or shoulder-to-helmet hits where the receiver has just caught the ball and has two feet on the ground and has not had a chance to protect himself."
The hope also is to lower the target area of the tackler against such receivers.
In March, the owners made several changes to kicking rules. They moved kickoffs up five yards to the 35-yard line; kept touchbacks coming out to the 20 rather than the 25; allowed the number of players in a blocking wedge to remain at two; and limited kick coverage players to lining up five yards or fewer from the spot of the kickoff.
They also voted to make all scoring plays reviewable by the replay official and referee.
Implementing many of these alterations could become problematic with a shortened training camp and, perhaps, cancelled pre-season games.
McKay isn't worried.
"They are big changes, but we will put player safety first and foremost regardless of the circumstances," he said. "Our special teams coaches are pretty good at adapting to rules changes even if they have less practice with them than in other years."
As for the labour woes and possible worse-case scenarios, McKay said he hasn't heard that such items — like a contingency schedule for a shortened regular season — are on the agenda for these meetings in Indianapolis, where the Super Bowl is scheduled for next February.
The next owners meeting is June 21 in Chicago. The planned start of the regular season is Sept. 8 in Green Bay.