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TAGLIABUE READY TO SING LEAGUE'S PRAISES AT MEETINGS

Paul Tagliabue is expected to deliver a message overflowing with optimism today when he gives his opening address at the NFL's annual meetings.

The commissioner will cover several upbeat topics, the biggest of which is a new television contract that assures each of the 30 teams an annual average of $73.3 million over the first five years.

Another item on the "good news" list is the assurance of labor peace for the next six years, thanks to the extension of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association that owners should approve today.

And, of course, there is still the warm afterglow of perhaps the most entertaining Super Bowl of them all when the Denver Broncos scored a stunning upset over the Green Bay Packers last January, ending a 13-year AFC losing streak.

The Broncos' 31-24 victory was an appropriate topper to what the NFL views as a highly successful season.

"We open these '98 league meetings with the backdrop of the '97 season being a very strong one by any measure," league spokesman Joe Browne said.

"The competition was outstanding. The TV viewing of our games remained strong last year, both the regular season and the postseason. And ticket sales and gate receipts both increased."

Team owners are faced with a couple of very-deep-pocket competitors in newcomers Tom Clancy of the Minnesota Vikings and Paul Allen of the Seattle Seahawks.

Thanks to the presence of novelist Clancy, the Vikes spent $93 million to sign four free agents.

The Seahawks have signed four free agents for $38 million, continuing a trend of aggressive spending that began with their 1997 purchase by Allen, a major shareholder in Microsoft, which he co-founded.

Allen and Clancy paid about $200 million for their franchises.

"We're not going to invest that much for a team and stop short and not put a plan together that makes good sense," Seahawks president Bob Whitsitt said. "It's like you buy the Rolls-Royce but you can't afford the insurance and gas."

While other owners insist they don't feel threatened by Allen and Clancy, this is still a league that prohibits corporate ownership by requiring an individual to own at least 30 percent of a franchise. The idea is to avoid unfair competition between major corporations and family-owned clubs, and not have any NFL team simply become a small piece of a large corporate puzzle.

"We didn't want to compete with General Motors or IBM," Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said. "We didn't want to lose the image of the Mara family (which owns the New York Giants) or Rooney family (which owns the Pittsburgh Steelers) or (the Buffalo Bills') Ralph Wilson.

"We wanted it to be very important to the people involved."

As a member of the competition committee, new Indianapolis Colts president and former Bills general manager Bill Polian had a hand in devising the latest instant-replay proposal that owners will consider putting in place for the '98 season.

Polian admits there are flaws in the concept, which would permit coaches to challenge two plays per game, at the cost of a timeout if the referee determines the play originally was called correctly.

"You're not going to cure every ill, rectify every mistake," Polian said. "No one can. But I think we can correct the obvious mistakes, and the challenge system will make sure that those obvious mistakes are critical mistakes.

"If you do that, you've gone a long way toward helping improve the game."

Beyond replay, it does not appear there will be very much tinkering with the game as far as new rules.

San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci couldn't help but have some egg on his face when he opened a minicamp last week minus 15 players who departed either through free agency or retirement. A day after the Niners lost to Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, Mariucci said he "liked" the team and vowed to do everything possible to keep it together. "That was not a lie," Mariucci said. "I did like that team. Call me naive, OK?"

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