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League enters meetings 'in good shape'

(March 15, 2002) -- Aside from potential tinkering with technology and tweaking of language, the NFL is not likely to mess with its game to any noticeable extent when league owners meet in Orlando, Fla., next week.

The tinkering and tweaking are possible responses to two controversial plays during the 2001 regular season and playoffs.

One was the ugly bottle-throwing incident in Cleveland triggered by a first down that was nullified by instant replay late in the Browns' Week 14 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, even though another play had been run and angry Browns fans assumed the review would be negated.

The other was when replay overturned what initially was ruled a fumble by New England quarterback Tom Brady in the final two minutes of a divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders, allowing the Patriots to tie the game, win it in overtime, and eventually become Super Bowl champions.

Still, the NFL's on-field product seems healthy enough to remain mostly untouched during this annual session -- scheduled from Sunday to Wednesday -- when old rules and policies are re-evaluated and new ones (or revisions thereof) are considered or put into place. Business matters also will be addressed, but there are no blockbuster topics -- such as realignment -- that need tackling.

"I think, from the state-of-the-game point of view, the league's in pretty good shape and the game's in pretty good shape," says Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee.

McKay and the seven other committee members met for two days in Dallas late last month and have been meeting for a week in Naples, Fla., to put together recommended changes in playing rules and interpretations, which then will be put to a vote by owners in Orlando. At least 24 affirmative votes are needed to alter a rule.

Although replay was at the center of both major controversies, there is no consideration to do away with it or overhaul it significantly. Replay was installed last year for three seasons. If there is any change, it will come in the communication between the replay booth, which takes control of challenges in the final two minutes of each half, and the officials on the field. Currently, there is a delay in the buzzer notifying officials that a play will be reviewed. Competition committee members believe technology that makes the buzzer notification instantaneous could help prevent another incident such as the one that marred the Dec. 16 Jacksonville-Cleveland game.

Some critics have suggested that coaches be allowed to challenge calls in the final two minutes of each half, but that won't happen this year. Each coach still will have two replay challenges per half and risk losing a timeout if a call is not reversed.

"Historically, the coaches have not wanted command [of challenges] in the final two minutes," McKay says. "The beauty of this system -- and it's not beautiful to everyone -- is that in the final two minutes, there could be as many as six plays reviewed, if necessary. Whereas outside of the two minutes, we have limited the number of challenges.

"There was talk of [whether there] should be some public display of when a challenge is initiated, but looking at it from a logistical standpoint, we just found that to be unworkable. I think that there will be a clear charge to the officials, meaning the umpire and the referee, that the instant the buzz is felt or the [coach's red] flag is seen, they must call timeout, put their hands over and stop the play, to the extent that the challenge occurred or was initiated prior to the snap."

The "tuck rule," at the heart of the Brady fumble-turned-incompletion, has been in place for years and probably won't be altered. It states that a quarterback who stops the act of throwing can only be determined to have fumbled if the ball is completely tucked into his body. The competition committee has invested considerable time and discussion in attempting to craft a slight modification in the way the rule is written, yet cannot reach a consensus. As of Wednesday, there were at least seven drafts of the modified language.

"I would say, as a committee, we're not a hundred percent in agreement as to whether this rule should be modified," McKay says. "The nice part of a rule like that, the way it's [presently] written, is it's a very bright line [for officials]. It should lend itself to consistency in officiating, which we think is important. And it should limit cheap turnovers, which is something as a committee, going way back to the Paul Brown and beyond days, was very important."

A problem that has arisen, in part, from state-of-the-art sound systems found in many stadiums is artificial noise. There are numerous cases of music blaring so loudly it disrupts the ability of the visiting team's offense to call plays. The solution that likely will be put to a vote is banning artificial noise when the visiting club has the ball and the play clock has started.

"It has nothing to do with fans cheering; it has nothing to do with the [stadium] board saying, 'Defense! Defense!' " McKay says. "It deals strictly with the pumping in of music, or other noise coming through speakers, during a specified period of time."

Rules also might be adjusted to address the way intentional grounding is called. According to the committee's annual survey of team presidents, general managers and coaches, officials continue to struggle with consistency when determining whether a quarterback has illegally grounded the ball. The committee enlisted the help of three current referees and one retired official to examine all aspects of intentional grounding and come up with clarifications that will be presented to the owners.

Beyond hot-button issues, the committee has taken a close look at some significant trends, beginning with scoring. Last year's average was 40.4 points a game.

"It's gone down a little bit [in recent seasons]," McKay says. "That would be a concern to us if the trend continued, but right now it still [averages] above the 40-point-per-game mark, which is our target."

Other notable trends:

Length of games: Last year's average was three hours, four minutes and fifty-two seconds, down about a minute from 2000. The target is 3:05.

Plays per game: Last season's average was 152.85, which is above the target of 150.

Margin of victory: Forty-eight percent of all games were decided by seven points or fewer, the highest percentage since 1993.

Division winners: There have been at least five new ones in each of the past three seasons, the strongest evidence that the league has achieved its long-stated goal of competitive balance. There were five last year, six in 2000, and five in 1999.

Quarterback safety: Last year, there were 41 injuries to quarterbacks, 45 fewer than in 2000.

Penalties: Last year's total was 3,438, a decline of 371 from 2000 and the lowest since '93.

However, one area where the committee feels there still is plenty of room for improvement is sportsmanship, which was a focal point last year.

"We tried to emphasize [a reduction in] taunting, we tried to emphasize [a reduction in] unnecessary roughness," McKay says. "The penalties in those areas went up. The fines in those areas went up.

"Talking to the players and getting their input, I think we'll continue to emphasize [sportsmanship] because I don't know that we've accomplished totally our task. I think we've brought it to the players' attention, but I think we've got more work to do in that area."

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