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NFL Owners Make Rules Changes; Labor Main Topic

NEW ORLEANS - There's no telling how long the NFL's work stoppage will last - or whether the 2011 regular season will start on time.

While the labor dispute with players was the "primary focus'' of two days of owners meetings, according to Commissioner Roger Goodell, the league also carried on with business as usual, discussing rules changes that included moving kickoffs up 5 yards to the 35, and using replays on all scoring plays.

"We are certainly planning on having a full season,'' Goodell said Tuesday at a news conference closing the two-day meetings. "That's our objective, and we're going to work as hard as we can to make that become a reality.''

He also said the league might not keep its last contract offer on the table if bargaining doesn't resume soon. Goodell hasn't spoken to NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith since March 11, when talks ended after 16 days of federal mediation.

Owners made a proposal that day that included an increase in their 2011 salary cap offer from $131 million to $141 million; the players had been seeking a $151 million cap for that year, plus a chance to earn a percentage of any higher-than-projected revenues above a certain threshold.

"Every day that goes by,'' Goodell said, "makes it harder and harder to keep the elements in that proposal.''

Goodell, though, said owners haven't talked about using replacement players, something they did in 1987, when a strike shortened the season and three weeks of games included nonunion players.

He also said five teams have been fined or been told the NFL is investigating them for violating offseason rules prohibiting contact with players. NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said the violations aren't related to the league's lockout of players, which began March 12, hours after negotiations with the players broke off, and the union dissolved.

Even during normal offseasons, from the end of one season until around March 15, NFL rules bar teams from holding organized workouts, practice or meetings, and don't allow position coaches to supervise players.

"It's a 'go home and relax' period,'' Pash said.

Since the lockout began, no contact between the league's 32 clubs and players has been allowed. Players don't get paid and can't negotiate new contracts; they aren't allowed to use team facilities.

Whenever games do resume, kickoffs will look slightly different because the starting yard line changed, and coverage players now will be limited to lining up 5 yards or fewer from the spot of the kickoff - part of a proposal that passed 26-6.

"The objections were, 'Hey, you're affecting my team.' Clearly, some teams have good kick returners, and they said, 'What if there's 10 percent less returns?' We have no answer,'' said Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee, "but player safety will always trump any other consideration.''

Owners did not change where touchbacks will go (that's still the 20, not the originally proposed 25) or the number of players allowed in a blocking wedge (that remains at two, not the proposed zero).

Joshua Cribbs, the Cleveland Browns' standout returner, wasn't thrilled by the changes, tweeting: "Essentially taking returners out of the game...injuries will still take place, then what move it up again, or eliminate it all together.''

Team owners also voted 30-2 Tuesday to make all scoring plays reviewable by the replay official and referee, although the third coach's challenge that the competition committee suggested dropping will be kept.

But they tabled a proposal that would have banned players launching themselves to make a tackle and would have expanded the definition of a defenseless receiver. McKay said joining those elements to a previous rule caused problems. Each of the proposals will be made into a separate amendment before being presented to owners again in May.

"We didn't feel like there was enough support to get it passed,'' said Giants owner John Mara, a competition committee member. "A number of people seemed to be, in my opinion, more concerned about flags being thrown for questionable hits. My feeling is, I'm more concerned about needless concussions, so I'm willing to make that trade. But I think we need to go back and just clarify some of the language, maybe to make it a little bit more clear for everybody.''

The replay official now can call for the referee to review any scoring play. Previously, replay officials only could order reviews - of any play - in the final two minutes of each half and in overtime.

Coaches pushed for the change in part because they felt they didn't get a fair shake in road games.

"It's a real big competitive disadvantage,'' Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You don't get that look at it on the road that you get at home; they just don't show it.''

One proposal was adopted unanimously, giving the commissioner the power to approve or deny requests to change the color of the playing field from green. Falcons owner Arthur Blank said the concern was that sponsors could approach teams and suggest a deal that involved altering a field's color.

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