The NFL's reaction to the spying scandal involving the New England Patriots will include a renewed push this offseason to persuade owners to approve a proposal that would allow one defensive player per team to be connected to a coach on the sideline during games via a wireless communication device, officials said.
The rule would put offenses and defenses on an even footing because each quarterback already is outfitted with a helmet receiver connecting him to a coach during games. It would eliminate the need for coaches to signal in defensive plays from the sideline and, thus, eliminate the possibility of those signals being stolen by an opponent.
The proposal would have to be approved by 24 of the 32 owners to be enacted next season, and likely will be recommended by the NFL's competition committee and put to a vote at the annual league meeting that begins March 30 in Palm Beach, Fla.
"It's safe to say you will see some sort of proposal, yes," said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the competition committee.
The proposal fell two votes shy of being ratified by the owners last March, and McKay said he's optimistic that it will be approved this time.
"I hope so," McKay said by telephone from Atlanta. "I would hope we would get it without just that [the spying scandal] being the impetus. We tried in the past to get it passed, and we got close. We were two or three votes away the last couple years. I hope now it gets passed."
The owner of one NFL team said this week he expects the proposal to be supported by the league office and passed by the owners in the aftermath of the Spygate scandal, in which the Patriots were punished for illegally videotaping the play signals of New York Jets coaches in the opening game of the just-completed season.
"That should push this [approval of the proposal] over the top," said the owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the controversial nature of the topic and the recent congressional interest in it. "If there are no defensive signals, there's nothing to steal and nothing to videotape. I'm sure the league will want this and that should get it done."
Under the proposal, one defensive player would have a radio receiver in his helmet to hear a coach's play calls. One objection raised by some teams to the proposal in the past is that the rule might be difficult for game officials to administer.
Unlike the quarterback, who generally plays the entire game, most defensive players leave the field regularly as part of a team's substitution pattern. The question has been whether more than one defensive player should have a helmet with a radio. If only one player's helmet has one, opponents to the proposal have wondered, what happens when he's not in the game? And if more than one defensive player's helmet has a radio, will officials be expected to monitor that only one of those players is in the game at a time?
The proposal received 22 approval votes last spring, two short of being ratified. The year before that, it received 18 votes.
"This last time, I think some of the offensive coaches didn't think it was necessary," McKay said. "They did not feel the playing field needed to be leveled. The time before that, I think it had to do with people wanting to see how it would be administered and having concerns about whether it would work with only one defensive player being designated."
McKay said the members of the competition committee might tweak the proposal to address teams' concerns before it's presented to the owners in Palm Beach.
"We'll have to see if the proposal changes at all," McKay said. "We have to study it and talk about it first. We'll look at the surveys we get every year from the teams."
In September, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fined the Patriots $250,000 and their coach, Bill Belichick, $500,000. Goodell also stripped a first-round draft pick in the spring from the team. The Spygate scandal received renewed attention last week when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) criticized the league's investigation and questioned Goodell's decision to have the six videotapes that were turned over to the league by the Patriots destroyed. Plans are being made for Goodell to meet with Specter next week.
League officials also are arranging to interview former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh after the Boston Herald reported last weekend that the Patriots videotaped a St. Louis Rams walk-through before the teams met in the Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 2001 season. The Patriots have denied the allegation and Goodell has said there's no evidence to support it.
Whatever the Patriots did or didn't do in the past, part of the league's aim is to make it more difficult to gain an improper competitive edge in the future. But McKay said the competition committee wanted to see this proposal ratified long before spying became such an issue.
"Our feeling was, it wasn't so much concern over signs being stolen," McKay said. "It was not so much driven by that. It was just making things go smoother. It was kind of silly for people to be holding up signs and things like that. In some people's minds, it might be about sign-stealing. But in our minds, it's not. It's not driven by all of this that has happened. We've been going down this path a long time before all of this happened."