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PASSIONS WILL FLARE AS REPLAY COMES UP FOR FURTHER REVIEW BY OWNERS

The National Football League's decision-makers apparently never get tired of talking about instant replay.

Approving it is another matter.

But as far as discussion and debate are concerned, nothing stirs the passion of NFL owners, general managers and coaches like replay.

Such will be the case once again when about 200 representatives of the league's 30 teams gather for their annual meetings, which begin today in the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress.

The NFL has not used replay as an officiating tool since its six-year run ended after the 1991 season. Still, efforts to resurrect it have been the focal point of almost all of its annual meetings since.

With increasing complaints about officiating -- and ever-soaring stakes brought on by skyrocketing television revenue -- there has been speculation in recent years that replay would return. However, opponents always succeed in shooting it down once the owners cast their votes.

The plan that will be recommended Monday by the competition committee, is a hybrid of concepts submitted by the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Washington Redskins and the league office. It calls for a coaches' challenge system, with each unsuccessful replay of a call costing a timeout.

A referee would make the final judgment after reviewing a challenged play on the field with a portable monitor and a 90-second time limit.

Some observers expect a close vote. Others, noting that most coaches dislike losing a timeout for a challenge, say it doesn't have a prayer. One bad sign for replay supporters: The competition committee isn't even unanimously recommending its own proposal.

Replay was rejected last year when it received 20 votes, three short of the necessary number for it to pass.

Bills owner Ralph Wilson continues to vehemently oppose replay, and still regrets the "yes" vote he cast to help put it into effect in 1986.

However, new Bills coach Wade Phillips would like to see replay reinstated. What he doesn't like is any sort of challenge system because it puts a price on correcting an official's mistake and gives coaches one more decision about which they can be second-guessed.

"Every coach wants a fair game, and that's all I want," Phillips said. "I just want a fair game where they (the officials) don't make a mistake and cost you a ballgame. You hear people say, 'Well, you can't take the human element out of it.' But if they cost me a ballgame, that could cost me my job.

"Even if I lose a game because of replay, I'd still rather it be fair."

The league last experimented with replay in 1996, during nationally televised preseason games. Of the 13 challenges by coaches, there were three reversals by the referee on the field. The average delay was 2 minutes, 17 seconds.

The other major items on the meetings' agenda are whether to place an expansion or existing team in Cleveland for the 1999 season, and what is likely to be a rubber-stamp vote on the agreement between the NFL Management Council and Players Association to extend their collective bargaining agreement through 2003.

By agreement, the NFL has until Nov. 15 to notify Cleveland -- which lost pro football when Art Modell moved his franchise to Baltimore -- as to whether the Browns will be an expansion or relocated club. Owners are expected to formally commit to an expansion franchise this week.

"Now that we have the new TV contracts and, hopefully, the labor extension behind us, we'll turn our attention to placing the Cleveland Browns back on the field in '99," league spokesman Joe Browne said. "The commissioner (Paul Tagliabue) is on record favoring an expansion team for Cleveland."

After adding Cleveland, the NFL would likely play for an indefinite period with 31 teams. The league's goal is to have 32 clubs.

According to Browne, a 31-club league would not create the scheduling nightmare that one might assume it would cause.

"Our schedule-makers have guaranteed us that they can have an attractive and viable schedule for however many years that we would be at 31 before we would expand again," Browne said.

Among the significant rules changes that will be considered:

Reducing the penalty for pass interference to 15 yards if the foul occurs more than 15 yards from the previous spot. This is similar to how the penalty is called on the collegiate level.

Giving the winner of the coin toss the option to defer until the second half the choice of receiving or defending. This is another college rule. As it stands, the NFL team that wins the toss actually can be at a disadvantage because it gives the opponent possession at the start of the second half and the wind at its back in the fourth quarter.

Expanding game-day rosters. Currently, teams can dress 45 of their 53 players, plus a third quarterback. Miami and New Orleans made proposals that call for 49 players to be active, plus a third QB. Washington proposed eliminating restrictions on the use of the third QB.

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