An NFL meetings primer

Today in Orlando, the NFL begins its annual meetings. Having been to nine of these gatherings in the past, I can tell you that these events are where team executives and head coaches are as relaxed as they can get, in a sun-soaked location with scheduled parties and golf.

But there’s also work to be done at the Ritz-Carlton (although probably not the best choice of venues while trying to demonstrate economic hardship to the players’ union). Here are a few of the items that are always on the agenda, all bubbling to the surface above the underlying theme of the labor situation that will permeate the gathering:

The pep talk

The meetings open with a video montage of the previous NFL season, in full throat from NFL Films, featuring the best of the passes, catches, runs and bone-jarring hits – I wonder if that part will be toned down since we’re in a new age of concussion and brain-injury awareness. The room is always quite rapt in appreciation of the video, although there’s usually some grumbling about the little to nonexistent highlights from some teams and overexposure to others.

The commissioner, Roger Goodell, then opens the meetings. He first allows the Super Bowl participant teams to take their bows and puts a wrap on the previous season. He then moves on to discuss the key issues facing the league going forward. Today’s address, of course, will be dominated by labor, with phrases put out about how the league is trying to reach a deal with the NFL Players Association that is “sustainable” for both sides and calls for collective shared risk.

The commissioner then dismisses the entire group to its meeting agenda, with the principal owner sessions taking place in the large room and the other group of what’s called “working club executives” (that was my group) sent off down some corridor to another room. We would usually hear the same topics as the more important group, just in a different setting, usually a practice forum for whoever was making their presentation later to the ownership group.

The competition committee

The group most on display at the annual meetings is the competition committee, a mix of ownership (John Mara), executives (Bill Polian, Rich McKay), head coaches (Jeff Fisher), general managers (Ozzie Newsome), officiating (formerly Mike Pereira, now Carl Johnson) and the league office (Joel Bussert).

They give their report in different versions throughout the first two days of the meetings, setting up any issues that are to be voted on either Tuesday or Wednesday. McKay is usually the one to give the Cliff Notes version of what they’ve been working on (the committee usually meets for up to two weeks before to the annual meetings, also at a sun-soaked location).

Usually, there’s a hot-button issue or two for the committee to report on during the meetings. This year, the issue appears to be overtime, with a recommendation from the group to change the rules to ensure a possession for each side.

Like most hot-button issues, this one seems to be reactionary rather than proactive. The fact that Saints were able to win the NFC Championship in overtime without a chance for the Vikings to get the ball seems to be fueling the fire for a change. But for that, I don’t sense this would be a top agenda item. For what it’s worth, I would be against any change. The league should not be in a position to have to respond to isolated occurrences, no matter how broad the stage.

The other major committee issue on the agenda is player safety, which should continue to garner attention and debate since it has properly become a proactive issue thanks to Congress and other interest groups.</p>

At some point today, the league will also announce some tidbits from the schedule of opening weekend for the 2010 NFL season. Just to whet everyone’s appetite.

Compensatory picks

At some point, usually on the first day of the meetings, teams are handed a sheet showing the compensatory picks they’re receiving at next month’s draft. These picks are “compensation” for the net loss of unrestricted free agents (UFAs) from the prior year, in today’s case from 2009. The formula takes into account the number of UFAs lost and gained from each team, how much money they made and how much or how little they played in the season. Through its formula, the league then assigns these picks to the teams at the end of rounds 3-7 of the draft.

The ritual of teams’ carping about how they expected higher picks than they received accompanies the handing out of the sheets. This is an annual rite of the annual meetings.

To clarify, compensatory picks only deal with UFA losses, not the loss of free agents, meaning the loss of players whose contracts did not expire. So next year, the loss of players such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Joey Porter, Derek Anderson, Antrel Rolle, Thomas Jones, Jake Delhomme and others will not be factored in, as they were players who were released by their teams.

I never have and still do not understand why these picks can’t be traded. It seems to me that if these picks have value, as they were meant to have, teams should be allowed to use that value to their advantage.

Party time

At the end of the first day of meetings, it’s time to party. Tonight, the barriers come down – at least they do for most people – in a festive gathering of team and league officials, sponsors and media, where food, drink and sometimes uninhibited conversation flow.

Tomorrow, I’ll look closely at the underlying issue on these meetings’ agenda -- the same as it has been for a couple years and perhaps another year or so longer: labor. Stay tuned.

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