A CRITICAL JUNCTURE

When the NFL owners meet in Palm Beach, Fla., next week, among the primary issues will be a proposal for changing how the playoffs are seeded. Colts President Bill Polian said Thursday there are compelling arguments on both sides of the issue.

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Owners Meetings to Feature Several Key Issues, Polian Says

INDIANAPOLIS – Bill Polian can see both sides of the issue.

On the one hand, Polian – entering his 11th season as the Colts' President – said there are strong arguments for the NFL's existing playoff seeding system, a system that rewards division winners and sends non-division winning, wild-card teams on the road in search of Super Bowl glory.

Yet, there is another, equally compelling argument.

That argument is that a new, proposed system – one that places greater emphasis on regular-season record – would heighten the imance of late-season games.

It's an issue that will be voted upon next week when NFL owners, executives and head coaches convene at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., for the 2008 NFL Owners Meetings. There, among other issues, owners will vote on a proposal to change how the playoffs are seeded.

Polian said it's an issue that could go either way.

"Frankly, I think it's 50-50 whether it will pass or not, but it certainly will be interesting," said Polian, a member of the NFL's prestigious Competition Committee, which voted 5-3 in favor of recommending the modified system.

"That's an issue that encompasses virtually every part of the business – the business side, the ownership side, the football side. The Competition Committee took its position 5-3, but it could just as easily have been 5-3 the other way. We didn't have strong feelings about it."

The Competition Committee's proposal would enhance a wild-card team's chance of playing host to a first-round playoff game. While the two division winners with the best records in each conference would still have a first-round bye, the No. 3, 4, 5 and 6 seeds would be determined by records.

Under the current system, the two division winners with the best record get a bye, with the other two division winners being seeded No. 3 and 4 and receiving a first-round home game. Under the existing system, the two wild-card teams get the No. 5 and 6 seeds and play on the road in the first round and – if they advance – in the second round, too.

Under the proposed system, the Nos. 3-6 seeds would be slotted by record, with the three and four seeds hosting first-round games regardless of placement within the division.

The division winners would have a tiebreaker edge over wild-card qualifiers, meaning a division-winning team with an 11-5 record would play host to a wild-card team with the same record.

"I think that the major thing you want to accomplish when you go into the year is win your division," said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, co-chairman of the Competition Committee. "The reason you want to win your division, you know that gets you to the playoffs.

"In my mind, in no way have we touched that. We haven't gone into it saying, 'This division champion doesn't qualify for the playoffs.' We've gone one step further and said, 'If you win the division and if you have one of the two best records in football or one of the best division champion records, you are going to get a bye.'

"I know there will be others that take the position on the opposite side, and I respect them for it. But I would say to you, 'I think that to make as many games as competitive as we can late in the year without, in my mind, adversely affecting the third and fourth best division records, I think this would be a good step for the league.'''

The other side of the issue, Polian said, is a long-standing feeling by many in the league that high importance should be placed on winning a team's division.

"It's very important," Polian said of the opportunity to play host to a first-round playoff game. "It's the springboard for your season-ticket base the next year. It's the reward for your fans who supported you all year. There are very, very compelling reasons to keep it the way it is. It's a tough call.

"There are good and compelling reasons on both sides of the issues. I said to (Colts Owner and Chief Executive Officer) Jim (Irsay), 'This is your call. This is an owner's issue.' The Competition Committee gives an opinion, but there are so many overarching issues that affect not only the game on the field, but the franchise . . . Jim might very well vote the other way after he thinks it through."

Polian, who said he voted to recommend the change, said the importance of having "good games" for television late in the season swayed his thinking.

"One of the statistics we looked at said had the (New England) Patriots lost to Baltimore (last season), for example, there would not have been a meaningful game to put on television (in the final week of the regular season), in reality," Polian said. "That's worrisome. That's something that's going to be talked about.

"I'll be interested to hear the other clubs, the other owners, discuss the matter."

Polian also said the re-seeding won't significantly lessen the importance of winning a division title.

"Those of us who supported it believe the value of the division was diminished anyway, when you went from three (divisions in each conference) to four," Polian said, referring to the NFL's 2002 realignment. "Six (games) out of a 16-game schedule is in the division, you really you ought to emphasize the schedule and not the division."

Polian on Thursday also discussed several other topics expected to be issues next week:

• Integrity of the game. In a recent letter to the Competition Committee, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell proposed strengthening enforcement procedures. The committee took no specific action, but agreed in principle to the proposal, which included a "whistleblower" provision that would protect anyone reporting illegal activity. "The Competition Committee has endorsed the steps he's taking making sure we ensure the integrity of the game going forward, but I also think it's very important to remember that what we're doing is dealing with the future and there haven't been a lot of difficulties in the past," Polian said. "I've been asked numerous times, 'Is this something that's widespread?' The answer is no. I can count on the fingers of one hand the serious competitive violations that I have seen in my 30 years in the league, which is remarkable. As (Seattle Seahawks Head Coach) Mike Holmgren said to me (Wednesday), the vast majority of us adhere to the philosophy that the rules that were set down many, many years ago by Don Shula and Tex Schramm and Paul Brown and Tom Landry and others . . . the rules are the rules and we all have an obligation to obey them. The overwhelming majority of us do that, so this is not a reaction necessarily to something that's happened in the past, but far more to deal with advances in technology in the future, which in and of themselves can cause problems."

• Coach-to-Defensive Helmet Communication. The owners next week will consider a proposal to allow two defensive players to have in-helmet communications systems similar to that currently used by coaches to communicate with quarterbacks. One player would be allowed to use the device at any one time. "The Competition Committee was 8-0 in favor of it, which usually means it has a chance to pass," Polian said. "There will be, I'm sure, questions raised by clubs that want more than two helmets. We just feel that the unintended consequences, the chances of skullduggery if you will, are too great when it goes beyond that. We think we've arrived at something that strikes a middle ground." A similar proposal fell two votes shy of approval a year ago. Last year's proposal called for one player to have the communication system. Under this year's proposal, the second player's wired helmet – like the first player's, marked with a distinctive sticker – would be used only if the first player leaves the game.

• Elimination of the force-out rule. Owners also will consider eliminating the so-called "force-out" rule. Currently,

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