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Looking ahead at future Hall of Fame classes

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The seven members of the 2014 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame have received their busts in Canton, Ohio, and now that enshrinement weekend is behind us, let’s look ahead at the players, coaches and contributors who could comprise the next five Hall of Fame classes.

2015

Junior Seau will be eligible for the first time next year, and he’s the one man who looks like a lock for the class of 2015. Seau’s enshrinement will bring up stories about his suicide and questions about whether brain damage on the football field could have led to his depression, but his enshrinement should also be a celebration of one of the greatest linebackers ever to play the game.

Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner, may be the biggest beneficiary of the Hall of Fame’s new policy of voting on contributors separately from players and coaches. In past Hall of Fame votes, Tagliabue has lost out, but now that he’s no longer competing with players and coaches, there’s a good chance that he’ll be enshrined next year.

Steve Sabol would also be a good choice in 2015, when there will be two Hall of Fame finalists from the separate contributors category. Sabol’s father Ed is already in the Hall of Fame, but both Sabols deserve busts in Canton for building NFL Films.

Kurt Warner is, after Seau, the player with the best chance of being enshrined in his first year of eligibility next year. Some may say Warner’s greatness was too short-lived to merit Hall of Fame induction, but a player with two regular-season MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP award is probably going to end up in Canton.

Orlando Pace protected Warner’s blind side in St. Louis and was one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL for a decade, and he’ll also be eligible for the first time next year.

Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce were the top two receivers on the Greatest Show on Turf, and they both retired after the 2009 season, making them eligible in 2015. (You can be forgiven if you’ve forgotten that Holt was in Jacksonville and Bruce was in San Francisco in 2009.) It would really be something if they were both inducted along with Warner and Pace. That, however, is awfully unlikely. Wide receivers have had a hard time getting into Canton in recent years, and Holt and Bruce may end up competing against each other and therefore hurting each other’s chances in much the same way that Steelers greats John Stallworth and Lynn Swann did for many years.

Jerry Kramer, the great Packers offensive lineman, would be a strong choice as a senior candidate. Next year will be a harder year for seniors to get in, as only one senior finalist will be nominated. But Kramer may be the most deserving senior candidate eligible.

2016

Brett Favre is a sure thing to be inducted in 2016, and the Packers have already begun the process of turning the year before his induction into a long ceremony honoring Favre, who will have his number retired in 2015.

Terrell Owens also becomes eligible in 2016, but he’s a long shot. Owens is second only to Jerry Rice on the all-time receiving yards list and third behind Rice and Randy Moss in receiving touchdowns, but Owens acted like such a jerk, so often, that he’s remembered as much for becoming a disruptive force in the locker room as he is for being a dominant force on the field.

Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the former 49ers owner, may benefit from the new contributors category and be enshrined soon. The question is whether Hall of Fame voters will reward DeBartolo for his role in building the great 49ers teams of the 1980s and 1990s, and overlook the circumstances that led DeBartolo to be forced out of the NFL.

Jerome Bettis may finally get his bust in Canton in 2016, as a relatively weak crop of first-year eligible players will make room for those who have previously been passed over.

Will Shields, the great guard for the Chiefs, would also seem likely to benefit from a lack of first-year eligible players, although there have been so many great offensive linemen enshrined in Canton in recent years that it’s hard for any one to gain recognition over all the others.

Marvin Harrison was voted down this year, but he had so many great seasons as a receiver for the Colts that it seems like just a matter of time before he gets in, and 2016 may be the year.

Randy Gradishar and Ken Stabler are a couple of good senior candidates who may be enshrined in 2016, when two seniors will be eligible. (Only one senior is eligible in 2015, 2017 and 2019.)

2017

LaDainian Tomlinson becomes eligible for the first time in 2017, and with 13,684 career rushing yards, Tomlinson looks like a good bet to make it. Only four players have more yards than Tomlinson (Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin) and all four are already in the Hall.

Jason Taylor becomes eligible in 2017 as well, and he has a good case, although he may be joining a crowded field of pass rushers, as we’ll detail momentarily.

Kevin Greene was voted down as a Hall of Fame finalist last year, but with 160 sacks in his career, he seems sure to get in eventually: The only players with more career sacks than Greene were Bruce Smith and Reggie White, two of the greatest players in NFL history. The 2017 class may be the one that finally makes room for Greene.

Charles Haley also might finally get his Hall call in 2017. He’s been voted down five times already, but his contributions to Super Bowl winners in both San Francisco and Dallas should be enough to earn him a bust at some point.

Hines Ward was a great wide receiver and a Super Bowl MVP winner, and he’ll be eligible for the first time in 2017. But Ward’s career numbers (1,000 catches for 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns) are dwarfed by those of some other recent receivers, and Ward may suffer by comparison.

Brian Dawkins was a nine-time Pro Bowl safety who also becomes eligible in 2017, but he seems unlikely to be selected in his first year of eligibility. Dawkins was a beloved player both on and off the field, and at some point the voters may put him in Canton, but that point probably won’t be until he’s on the ballot for at least a few years.

George Young, the former Giants general manager, is just the kind of person that the new “contributors” category is designed to recognize, and the 2017 class may be the year that the late Young gets his due.

Don Coryell would appear to be a likely choice as a senior candidate some day, and 2017 may be when that day comes. Coryell never won a championship as a coach, but he was such an innovator of the passing game that he’s a significant figure in the history of football.

2018

Ray Lewis will be an easy choice as one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. There’s no room for debate on that.

Randy Moss may leave some room for debate, as his numbers are comparable to those of Terrell Owens, who looks like a long shot. But Moss at his best was such a game-changer that he just feels like exactly the kind of player who belongs in Canton.

Brian Urlacher, who like Lewis and Moss becomes eligible in 2018, has a very good case for enshrinement as well. Although he’ll suffer in comparison to Lewis, there will probably be enough support for Urlacher to get him enshrined in his first year of eligibility.

Steve Hutchinson was a great guard and also becomes eligible in 2018, but he won’t get in on his first year of eligibility. Hutchinson may be a finalist many times, but getting the necessary 80 percent of the vote will be tough.

Tim Brown is a longtime finalist who feels like he accomplished enough in the NFL (usually while serving as the only decent threat in his teams’ passing games) that he should be recognized eventually. The 2018 class may be the year.

Art Modell has been voted down several times, and the opposition to his candidacy is strong from some who say that taking the Browns out of Cleveland was an unforgivable sin. But the new contributors category gives Modell a much better chance, and 2018 could be his year.

Bob Kuechenberg and Cliff Harris are among the best senior candidates who haven’t been selected yet.

2019

Tony Gonzalez becomes eligible for the first time in 2019, and he’s just about a sure thing as one of the greatest tight ends ever to play the game.

Ed Reed also becomes eligible for the first time in 2019, and he also looks like a sure thing as one of the greatest safeties ever to play the game.

Tony Dungy was voted down in his first year of eligibility last year and may be voted down a few more times, but he’s likely to get in eventually, and 2019 could be the year.

Morten Andersen was also voted down this year in his first year as a Hall of Fame finalist, but he also has a good case to make it eventually. Andersen, the NFL’s all-time leader in points scored, would join Jan Stenerud and Ray Guy as the only kicking specialists in the Hall of Fame.

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Report: Clay Matthews Sr. dies at 88

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One of the most prominent families in the NFL lost one of its patriarchs.

According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Clay Matthews Sr. died at age 88 following a long illness.

Matthews played parts of four seasons for the 49ers (1950, 53-55) and helped father a long line of productive NFL players.

Bruce Matthews was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007 following a 19-year career that saw him named a first-team All-Pro a whopping 10 times with 14 Pro Bowl selections at tackle for the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Oilers/Titans. Clay Matthews Jr. was a three-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowl section in 19 seasons with the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons.

Bruce and Clay Jr. each have two sons make the NFL as well. Bruce is father to Jake and Kevin Matthews. Jake is the left tackle for the Atlanta Falcons while Kevin played parts of five seasons for the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers.

Clay Jr. is father to Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews III and Casey Matthews, who played linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings.

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Crown of helmet rule could be expanded

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Several years ago, the NFL adopted a rule that prohibits players from lining up an opponent and ramming him with the top of the helmet. With few exceptions, the rule — which would have made illegal one of the greatest highlights of the 1970s — has been honored.

The rule could now be expanding. The Competition Committee has proposed expanding the prohibition to include not just the crown of the helmet but the hairline.

A total of 24 votes from ownership will be needed to pass the rule. Given that the rule enhances player safety, and in light of the current focus on making the game safer, it’s hard to imagine at least nine owners opposing this change.

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Chargers steadily selling out (a small) stadium

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The Chargers will avoid the sight of empty seats in their first season in Los Angeles.

They just won’t set any speed records when doing so.

According to an ESPN report, the franchise has sold all but about 600 of its season tickets for 2017. However steady the progress, selling out a 30,000-seat StubHub Center has been a process unlike what the Rams experienced when making their Los Angeles return in 2016.

The Rams sold all 70,000 of their season tickets in six hours.

The Chargers have taken longer to sell less.

They began accepting $100 refundable deposits on Jan. 12 and announced season-ticket prices on Feb. 14. They opened business to existing season-ticket holders (those from Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego) on Feb. 22 and to other customers on March 9, a club source said Thursday evening. So, it’s been two weeks since the public sale opened.

This was never a competition with the Rams. The Chargers know what they’re up against in a new market.

Their team slogan, “Fight for L.A.,” was chosen for a reason.

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Report: Seahawks to sign linebacker Michael Wilhoite

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Even with the signing of Arthur Brown last week, the Seattle Seahawks still see a need for depth at linebacker.

According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, the Seahawks are addressing that need by signing former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Michael Wilhoite.

It has essentially led to a swap of middle linebackers between the two teams as backup middle linebacker Brock Coyle signed with the 49ers in the first few days of free agency.

Wilhoite has appeared in 65 games with San Francisco over the last five seasons and has started 34 games in the last three seasons. However, unless he can transition to playing strong-side linebacker in Seattle’s 4-3 scheme, Wilhoite is joining the Seahawks as a backup to Bobby Wagner and special teams contributor.

Mike Morgan – Seattle’s starting strong-side linebacker from last season – remains unsigned.

Wilhoite recorded 55 tackles in 16 games played for the 49ers last season. He joins Kevin Pierre-Louis, Dewey McDonald, Ronald Powell and Brown as depth at linebacker behind Wagner and K.J. Wright.

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Competition Committee proposes change to hiring procedures for coaches

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The NFL has plenty of rules that often are ignored. Unless those rules are going to be enforced, they should be changed.

Case in point: The current rules prohibit teams from hiring head coaches employed as assistants by other teams whose postseasons have not yet ended. Twice in the last three years, however, the worst-kept secret in the NFL centered on a team having a deal in place with an assistant from a Super Bowl team.

And so the rule could be going away. The Competition Committee has proposed a rule change permitting a club to “negotiate and reach an agreement with a head coach candidate during the postseason prior to the conclusion of the employer club’s season.”

It’s a rule that is long overdue. It was overdue two years ago, when the Falcons had a wink-nod deal in place with former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. And it’s even more overdue now, after the 49ers had a wink-nod deal in place with former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

Will it be a distraction for the assistant coach? Nope. If anything, it will remove the potential distraction that arises when a guy who knows that, if his team keeps winning, he won’t get hired. That happened five years ago, when the Buccaneers decided they could no longer wait for former Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.

And, yeah, that’s Gantt in the background of the photo. After putting up a photo of the new guy earlier, I need to find a way to make it up to the rest of the crew.

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Eagles propose allowing teams to have second helmet

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Several years ago, the NFL eliminated the ability of teams to have multiple helmets, based on the notion that keeping players in the same helmet all year long in some way helps manage or minimize concussions. The NCAA, with teams like Oregon that have a different helmet every week, clearly disagrees.

The Eagles do, too. They have proposed te rule change that, if passed, would allow teams to have an alternate helmet in a color that matches their third uniform.

Barring convincing medical evidence that having multiple helmets a health risk beyond the health risk already assumed when playing football, it makes sense to let teams have a second helmet. And I say that fully aware of the potential abominations that Nike will concoct if/when it acquires the ability to do so.

Then again, the Eagles previously did a pretty good job of screwing up an alternate helmet without Nike’s help.

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Report: Bears finalizing deal with Mark Sanchez

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Whatever cure is required for the quarterback situation in Chicago, it seems, won’t be found at this late stage in free agency. The best hope for remedy on the current roster comes in the form of Mike Glennon, he of 11 passes the past two seasons combined.

Depth, though, is depth.

The Bears appear on the brink of adding some.

Veteran journeyman Mark Sanchez is on the cusp of signing with the Bears, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported. This will be the fifth NFL team for the ex-USC quarterback, who has bounced from the Jets to Eagles to Broncos to Cowboys and now Bears since 2014.

Sanchez, 30, completed 10 of 18 passes in his lone season with the Cowboys, notching 93 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.

But it’s all relative.

Elsewhere on the Bears’ QB depth chart today, Glennon threw 11 passes in 2016, and Connor Shaw threw none. So 11 compared to Sanchez’ 18.

See, things are starting to look up. And Donald Trump won’t tweet about this one.

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Joe Greene didn’t want to play in Pittsburgh

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Strange as it may sound to folks who have followed football for most of the last five decades, the Steelers at one point stunk. They stunk bad. The turning point, in hindsight, came with the hiring of coach Chuck Noll in 1969.

When Noll and the Steelers made defensive tackle Joe Greene the fourth overall pick in the ’69 draft, no one knew that things were going to change. As a result, Greene wasn’t happy to learn he’d be coming to Pittsburgh.

Greene explained his adverse reaction to becoming a Steeler during a Thursday visit to PFT Live. He also talked about the one time that he was actually intimidated on an NFL field, via a story that is well worth your time.

It will also be worth your time to check out Greene’s memoir, Mean Joe Greene: Built By Football. It’s available early next month; you can pre-order it now.

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Rams add DT Tyrunn Walker

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The Rams aren’t necessarily among the NFL teams that scream in need of defensive-line help.

On Thursday, they add a veteran and will hope he helps.

Los Angeles announced it agreed to terms with veteran defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker. He started eight games in 2016 for the Lions but underperformed, going from starter to a reserve player who was benched for a midseason game. He’ll work to gain favor with a fresh start on a line featuring Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers and Dominique Easley.

Walker, 27, played 353 defensive snaps in 2016. He appeared in 15 games, finishing the season with 26 tackles and no sacks.

The 2012 undrafted free agent from Tulsa missed all but four games in 2015 to a broken leg.

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‘It’s good?’ Possible bonus for kickoff between uprights

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Two referees stand beneath the goal post before a field-goal or extra-point attempt, waiting there to determine if a kick sails beyond the crossbar and between the uprights for a successful conversion.

Imagine that for kickoffs, too

Such is one rules-change proposal that will be considered next week at the NFL owner meetings. This one, proposed by Washington owner Dan Snyder, stands to reward a team whose kickoff is ruled “good” with field position, as its opponent would start the ensuing drive at the 20-yard line as opposed to the expected 25.

This is not the first time something like this has been discussed. Last November, the Ravens banged the drum for a one-point scoreboard incentive on such straight-shot kicks. (Note: We need to find a name for these. Kickoff conversions?)

Snyder’s rule proposal is a tamer version, albeit one that still incentivizes touchbacks and thereby furthers the NFL’s player-safety cause.

Potential drawbacks to the rule, other than its ease for video gamers, appear few. One potential concern that could be raised, however, is whether or not the monitoring of a “good” kickoff will compromise the crew’s ability to position itself properly for a returned kickoff.

Currently, one referee stands near the goal post for kickoffs. If kickoffs are to be judged like field goals and extra points, a second official would have to join him or her. If a converted kickoff is a one-person ruling, this concern is rendered moot.

Secondly, there is the matter of doing too much. Last year, the league made the extra point more interesting — and, some might argue, too interesting — when turning a gimme try into a 33-yard attempt. “Kickoff conversions” would be the latest example of making a wrinkle of something that once was routine.

Too many wrinkles can be off-putting.

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Dan Snyder wants to be able to opt out of “Color Rush”

Washington did not play a Thursday night game last season, which means Washington did not wear a “Color Rush” uniform. Dan Snyder would like to keep it that way.

Among the 2017 NFL rules proposals announced today is one by Washington which would change league bylaws to allow teams to opt out of the Color Rush uniforms.

Under current rules, teams playing on the “Color Rush” Thursday night games have to wear the uniforms. Washington didn’t have to because its only Thursday game was on Thanksgiving afternoon, so the only visual evidence we have that Color Rush uniforms were designed for the team is the promotional photo you see here.

In general, the league doesn’t like to allow teams to opt out of league-wide endeavors like “Color Rush,” so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Snyder’s fellow owners vote down his idea. But if an owner doesn’t like how “Color Rush” looks on his team, it’s a little odd that the league can force it on him.

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Saints re-sign DL Darryl Tapp

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Two days after the Saints acquired linebacker Manti Te’o, they re-signed someone they hope can make his New Orleans debut a bit easier.

New Orleans added more help up front, striking a one-year deal with defensive end Darryl Tapp. This depth signing caps an active two-week stretch for the Saints’ defensive line, as it also secured Nick Fairley and Alex Okafor.

Tapp is entering his 12th NFL season and second in New Orleans. The 32-year-old hasn’t missed a game the past three years. In 2016, he logged 17 tackles and half a sack while playing 292 defensive snaps.

The Saints look to improve the NFL’s 27th-ranked defense from 2016.

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NFL to consider 15 new rules, 6 new bylaws, 3 new resolutions

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NFL owners will vote on a wide variety of potential new rules, new league bylaws and new resolutions, covering everything from whether a player can leap over the line of scrimmage on a field goal to whether a team can opt-out of the league’s “Color Rush” uniforms.

2017 rule proposals

1. By Philadelphia: Gives additional protections for long snappers on kick plays.

2. By Philadelphia: Prohibits the “leaper” block attempt on field goal and extra point plays.

3. By Philadelphia: Expands the “crown of helmet” foul to include “hairline” part of helmet.

4. By Philadelphia: Amends the challenge system by granting a third challenge if a club is successful on at least one of its initial two challenges, and expands reviewable plays outside of two minutes of each half.

5. By Washington: Eliminates the limit of three total challenges per team per game and eliminates the requirement that a team be successful on each of its first two challenges in order to be awarded a third challenge.

6. By Washington: Moves the line of scrimmage to the 20-yard line for any touchback where the free kick travels through the uprights.

7. By Buffalo and Seattle: Permits a coach to challenge any officials’ decision except scoring plays and turnovers.

8. By Competition Committee: Makes permanent the rule that disqualifies a player who is penalized twice in one game for certain types of unsportsmanlike conduct fouls.

9. By Competition Committee: Changes the spot of the next snap after a touchback resulting from a free kick to the 25-yard line for one year only.

10. By Competition Committee: Reduces the length of preseason and regular season overtime periods to 10 minutes.

11. By Competition Committee: Gives a receiver running a pass route defenseless player protection.

12. By Competition Committee: Makes crackback blocks prohibited by a backfield player who is in motion, even if he is not more than two yards outside the tackle when the ball is snapped.

13. By Competition Committee: Replaces the sideline replay monitor with a hand-held device and authorizes designated members of the Officiating department to make the final decision on replay reviews.

14. By Competition Committee: Makes it Unsportsmanlike Conduct to commit multiple fouls during the same down designed to manipulate the game clock.

15. By Competition Committee: Makes actions to conserve time illegal after the two-minute warning of either half.

2017 bylaw proposals

1. By Washington: Amends Article XVII, Section 17.1 to eliminate the mandatory cutdown to 75 Active List players.

2. By Washington: Amends Article XVII, Section 17.14 to place a player who has suffered a concussion, and who has not been cleared to play, on the club’s Exempt List, and be replaced by a player on the club’s Practice Squad on a game-by-game basis until the player is cleared to play.

3. By Washington: Amends Article XIX, Sections 19.8(B) and 19.9(B) to permit clubs to opt out of the “color rush” jerseys created for Thursday Night Football.

4. By Competition Committee: Liberalizes rules for timing, testing, and administering physical examinations to draft-eligible players at a club’s facility for one year only.

5. By Competition Committee: Changes the procedures for returning a player on Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform or Reserve/Non-Football Injury or Illness to the Active List to be similar to those for returning a player that was Designated for Return.

6. By Competition Committee; The League office will transmit a Personnel Notice to clubs on Sundays during training camp and preseason.

2017 Resolution Proposals

1. By Philadelphia: Amends the NFL’s On-Field Policy to allow clubs to have an alternate helmet in a color to match their third uniform.

2. By Competition Committee: Permits a club to negotiate and reach an agreement with a head coach candidate during the postseason prior to the conclusion of the employer club’s season.

3. By Competition Committee: Permits a contract or non-contract non-football employee to interview with and be hired by another club during the playing season, provided the employer club has consented.

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Goodell wants to cut five minutes of down time from NFL games

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell thinks the league can make games about five minutes shorter without eliminating anything fans will miss.

Goodell said on NFL Network that he believes some of the league’s ideas for cutting delays during the game can reduce the length of game from last year’s average of three hours and seven minutes to an average more like three hours and two minutes.

“We were 3:07 and change this year,” he said. “We think we probably can get probably close to five minutes of down time out of the game, so that would get somewhere in the 3:02 range.”

Goodell said he worries that if the league doesn’t eliminate down time, fans will decide to turn games off.

“There’s a lot of wasted time in there,” Goodell said. “You don’t want to give them an excuse to step out and do something else.”

Some of the NFL’s ideas include fewer commercial breaks (though not fewer commercials, as each break will now be one commercial longer), speeding up replay reviews and moving more quickly between touchdowns, extra points and kickoffs.

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Robert Kraft thanks Mexican, American authorities for finding jerseys

Tom Brady’s Super Bowl jerseys are back in New England, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft issued a statement thanking authorities in both the United States and Mexico for tracking the stolen jerseys down.

“We want to thank the FBI, the Mexican authorities and the many different local agencies that were involved in the investigation and ultimate recovery of Tom Brady’s Super Bowl LI jersey,” Kraft said. “Working along with the Patriots and NFL security, those agencies collectively coordinated an investigation that also led to the recovery of Tom’s missing Super Bowl XLIX jersey. It was great to have both jerseys returned to Gillette Stadium today. I don’t know that any agency could have accomplished this independently, but collectively multiple agencies – both in the U.S. and in Mexico – worked together to achieve the goal of retrieving the stolen property. It is another example of the importance of teamwork and what can be accomplished when everyone works together. We appreciate the effort of everyone involved and look forward to returning these jerseys to Tom when he gets back to New England.”

By stressing the importance of American-Mexican cooperation, Kraft could be subtly attempting to distance himself from President Trump, whom Kraft has described as a friend. The Patriots have received some criticism for the support that Kraft, Brady and Bill Belichick have given to Trump.

An employee of a Mexican newspaper who has attended multiple Super Bowls on press credentials has been identified as the suspect in the thefts, although he has not been criminally charged.

Photo via Patriots.com.

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