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For referees, the play stands Refs not an issue but new rules are at owners' meeting

Some football fans might be as interested in what's not on the National Football League's agenda for its annual owners' meeting this week as to what's on it.

Absent from the agenda is anything about the overall quality of officiating in the 2005 season.

The campaign ended with a mini-furor over the men in stripes after several controversial calls in Super Bowl XL. After further review -- league executives say the referees had an excellent year.

"We look at it from the standpoint that there were 39,000 plays this year in the league," said Atlanta Falcons General Manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the league's powerful competition committee. "And we thought officials had a very good year. There's no question there were a couple calls in the Super Bowl and or the playoffs that we wish we had back. But by and large it was a very good year."

Officiating still will be the subject of discussion this week in meetings that run today through Wednesday. The league will consider changes to the instant replay system and discuss adjusting rules for player safety, offensive holding and false starts.

More importantly, the NFL's 32 owners will try to map out a process for replacing Paul Tagliabue as commissioner. Tagliabue last week announced his intention to retire in July. The last time the NFL had to find a new chief, in 1989, a fractious six-month battle ensued.

The league also will consider a proposal by the Kansas City Chiefs to expand the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams, although it appears that's a long shot for approval.

The proposed rules changes represent an annual tweaking of an officiating system that the league views as solid.

"I worry that the perception of officiating is not good," McKay said. "I know what the perception is driven by. If you have just a couple, a handful of big plays in big games, then that's going to drive perception, and that is very tough."

A bad call in an AFC playoff game got attention when an interception by Troy Polamalu was ruled an incomplete pass. In the Super Bowl, the debated calls included a touchdown ruling on a Ben Roethlisberger plunge at the goal line, a holding call on Seattle's Sean Locklear that wiped out a big play, an offensive pass interference on a Seattle touchdown and an illegal block call on Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, who was trying to make a tackle.

"We went through them all," McKay said of the postseason calls. "It wasn't a 100 percent success rate. But by the same token we're not talking about 10 calls. It wasn't overwhelming. It was just a couple calls that probably we didn't get right. What bothers us when those don't go right in the magnitude of the game, then all of a sudden there's almost an indictment of the system."

McKay acknowledged that the Polamalu call was a mistake and that the low-block foul on Hasselbeck should not have been called. He declined to comment on the Locklear penalty.

"The one everybody acknowledges is the tackle, or the low block," McKay said. "That is one that just shouldn't have been called. I don't buy into the theory that that means that officiating as a whole didn't have a good year."

It seems every time there is a controversial call in a playoff game there are calls from fans and media to make the league's officials full-time employees. Most league officials object to the idea. They say the league would lose too many good current officials who would not want to leave their full-time jobs. They say there is not enough work to keep the refs busy year round. They say it simply would not make the officiating better.

The league sends out separate surveys on officiating to every one of the 32 owners, general managers and coaches each January. McKay said not one person mentioned the subject of full-time referees in this year's survey.

"It's not something that's on the radar screen," McKay said. "A number of years ago it was. We spent a day and a half just talking about this issue as a committee. The commissioner even put together a little committee that included former coaches to talk about it and give us some ideas. We came to the conclusion that the value of it wasn't really going to be there at the end of the day.

"We don't have a way to replicate games. We can't get practice in that way. So instead of trying to focus on having full-time officials, we have to focus on trying to get everybody -- coaches, players and officials -- on the same page. Because I think when there's clarity you've got a better chance for consistency."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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