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EXECS PLAN ONLY MINOR PROCEDURES

The NFL takes its game into the operating room this week for some annual "nip-and-tuck" procedures.

We're talking a Botox injection around the eyes, a brow-lift here, a little skin resurfacing there. Major face-lifts? That's not the NFL's style, and that's not going to happen when pro football's bigwigs convene for the league's annual meeting today through Wednesday at The Breakers Resort.

"When we look at the game in general, I think '03 was another very good year," said Atlanta Falcons President and General Manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the NFL's powerful competition committee. "You have a league that is extremely competitive top to bottom."

League executives are expected to approve a host of modest rules changes, all of which amount to tweaking the product.

They include a new 15-yard penalty for players who want to repeat the "cell phone celebration" of New Orleans' Joe Horn or the "Sharpie marker act" of Philadelphia receiver Terrell Owens. They also include another vote on the future of instant replay, an adjustment to the replay challenge system, new rules regarding the hiring of assistant coaches and discussion of pass interference penalties.

On the business front, the league will vote on licensing and marketing issues related to its lucrative NFL Properties division. It also will discuss an extension of the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association.

Why nothing earthshaking on the field? Because the NFL makes adjustments to its rules on an annual basis before little issues become big issues.

It's not the case in every sport. In hockey, for instance, the NHL has seen scoring decrease 37 percent over the past 20 years, down from 8.3 goals a game to 5.1.

Imagine if the average NFL game ended 14-12. That's what a 37 percent drop in scoring would mean in football. The NFL successfully has avoided such dramatic changes in the nature of its game.

"Points per game this year ended up at 41.7 per game," McKay said this week on a national conference call. "Our target has always been 40 as a league. Anytime we're at 41 or above it's a good sign for us as a committee."

Five years ago, points were at 41.7 a game. In 2002, it was 43.3.

Another major "marker" the league closely scrutinizes is time of games, which the NFL never wants to increase. Last season's average was three hours, six minutes, 11 seconds. McKay's committee was able to bring that figure down 1:39 from the previous year by allowing networks to go to commercial during replay challenges, which they did not do in the past. Shorter games make fans and networks happy, which is good for business.

Two interesting, radical changes -- both proposed by the Kansas City Chiefs -- are on the agenda, but neither is expected to pass.

The Chiefs want to add one playoff qualifier to each conference, bringing the total from 12 playoff teams to 14. Coaches might like the idea, since it could help their job security. Some owners might like it. After all, it's easier to raise ticket prices after a playoff year. But the eight-member competition committee thinks the idea is a loser. It unanimously recommended that teams reject it.

With seven playoff teams in each conference, only the No. 1 seed would get a first-round bye.

"That would create a potential unreasonable advantage for the No. 1 seed, having that one bye by itself," McKay said.

The Chiefs also want a rule that would guarantee each team at least one possession in overtime. McKay's panel thinks it's unnecessary. In 2002, 9 of 25 overtime games (36 percent) ended in just one possession. In 2003, 6 of 26 did (23 percent). In 20 overtime playoff games since 1958, 17 have had at least two possessions.

An issue expected to get full approval is instant replay, an annual topic of discussion for nearly two decades.

Replay was OK'd on one-year trials in '99 and 2000 and then got a three-year approval. It's up to be added to the rules on a permanent basis. One change would be to permit a coach three challenges, provided his first two correctly overturned the officials' call.

Regarding touchdown celebrations, McKay said the league's policy of fining players for taunting has not cut down enough on infractions. So the league will vote on making such actions a 15-yard penalty.

"It has nothing to do with the Lambeau Leap, the spike, a sack dance," McKay said. "It stays the same as long as it's not taunting or not in the face of an opponent."

McKay said there were more than 50 players fined last year for such celebrations and said fines tripled what they had been previously. He said the league received requests to curb such celebrations from the national high school athletic associations and the NCAA.
e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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