INDIANAPOLIS — Sean Payton has always been a thoughtful, outspoken presence on the NFL rulebook, ready to offer his opinion on how a rules change might affect the game.
He now has a chance to help make those decisions.
Payton was added to the NFL's competition committee last September, but he did not get his first opportunity to sink his teeth into the real meat of the role until this offseason.
After a preliminary meeting in New York at the beginning of February, Payton arrived in Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine on Sunday last week, and he spent the days leading up to the workouts absorbing information on some of the NFL's hottest topics.
"It's fascinating, and it's humbling," Payton said. "When you get in a room like that, and it’s truly a passion for our league, what’s best for the league, it’s enjoyable." There’s challenges that come with it, because you want to come up with great solutions."
Payton already had relationships with several members of the committee. He worked for New York Giants owner John Mara and Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones as a coordinator, and he's known Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin for a long time.
Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy, Denver Broncos general manager John Elway and Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome round out the group.
No final decisions were made by the competition committee this week. For the men trying to make decisions in the best interest of the game, this was the primer.
Payton and the competition committee will make their decisions when the league convenes in Orlando, Florida, for the NFL's meetings from March 25-28.
"It’s kind of the preview of many of the things we’re going to be discussing when we get into the spring meetings," Payton said. "It’s not like decisions are being made. They’re being discussed by the players union, they’re being discussed by coaches sub-committee, they’re being discussed by different groups. It’s your intro to the topics."
Collectively, the competition committee is sinking its teeth into one of the NFL's most controversial rules this offseason, the catch rule that has been the subject of plenty of confusion and ridicule.
Controversial catch calls have ranged from the famous — high-profile plays by Detroit's Calvin Johnson, Dallas' Dez Bryant and Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James — to plays that have been largely forgotten. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has sought input from Hall of Fame receivers, and he said at the Super Bowl that he'd like to see more clarity from the rule.
"We’ve seen, probably, every challenging or catch worth debating in the last 20 years," Payton said. "Hopefully, as we get down the road, our job will be there, to bring clarity, come up with a clean way to look at it for everyone. That’s the mission."
Payton said during the season that he felt like he had a good understanding of how a catch is defined by the NFL rulebook.
The problem for the committee is that the rulebook doesn't often match up with public opinion, particularly the element that requires the ball to "survive the ground" as a player makes a catch while falling to the turf.
The committee's task is to close that gap between the rule and the fans.
"What we’re trying to do with that is with the officials on the field rule, what they see in replay and what the fans see at home, make that consistent," Newsome said. "And it’s a lot tougher to do than it is to say."
For noncommittee members, the key is finding a catch rule that is consistent enough that coaches know when to risk a challenge on a questionable catch.
"That's a hot topic out here, right?" Bills coach Sean McDermott said. "I'm just looking for consistency. Whatever they decide, and I'm sure we have a long way between now and then, and respecting that process, is the consistency, whether it's that rule or any rule."
The catch rule is far from the only rule under consideration by Payton and the competition committee.
Another rule that has drawn attention is pass interference. According to Payton, a number of proposals have been introduced that could change pass interference from its current status as a spot foul.
"The key, when we go down in March, is how many plays would that have impacted, how many times are we getting interference past 15?" Payton said. "One of the proposals was a flagrant interference is a spot foul, otherwise it’s 15, so we’ll be able to look closely at all of it."