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Rule change allows review of down-by-contact calls

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Instant replay got a significant expansion Wednesday but not as much of a boost as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted.

NFL owners voted down a proposal by the Bucs to allow teams to challenge any call on the field during a game. Atlanta Falcons General Manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee, said the vote against the idea was almost unanimous.

There were 290 challenges of calls in 256 regular-season games last year, and few in the league want to see more stoppages in play due to replay.

However, one situation involving change of possession that was not reviewable in the past now can be challenged for replay review. The NFL teams approved review of the "down by contact" call by a vote of 27-5.

The inability to review the play resulted in some maddening situations in which it was obvious the defense recovered what should have been a live ball.

When the down-by-contact ruling is overturned on video review and the defense recovers the ball, the play will be ruled dead at the spot where the defender got the ball. Usually the down-by-contact call is followed closely by a blowing of the referee's whistle. The whistle will not be a factor in the review of the play. But if the play is ruled a fumble, the recovering defender will not be allowed to advance the ball.

"To me this was a gaping hole in the replay system," said Mike Perriera, the NFL's vice president of officiating.

The Buffalo Bills voted in favor of the rule change.

The down-by-contact rule prevented what would have been a key fumble recovery by Washington in a playoff game at Tampa.

The rule would have applied to at least two plays for the Bills last year. In the Carolina game, a fumble by Roscoe Parrish on a kickoff return was recovered by the Panthers but the Bills retained possession because Parrish incorrectly was ruled down by contact. In the game at San Diego, Nate Clements recovered a fumble by a Chargers receiver, but it was wiped out because the officials incorrectly thought the receiver was down.

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It's difficult for defenses to get rules made in their favor in the NFL. A proposal that would have allowed one defender to have an earpiece in his helmet allowing for communication with the sidelines between plays was voted down. The vote was 21-11, three votes shy of approval. The Bills were for the rule change.

Offensive coaches, of course, are in contact with the quarterback between plays. So the proposal to have one designated defender with an earpiece was considered fair play by some.

Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said he thinks the rule eventually will be passed.

"I think it would even the playing field a little bit," Bills coach Dick Jauron said. " Right now you can tell the offensive huddle right away when you're sending in four wide receivers on the next play. You don't have to send them in right away, but they all know who's coming in and who's coming out. It would be good to do that for the defense."

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The Bills' preseason opponents are out, but the exact dates and times are not yet set. The Bills will play at Carolina Aug. 10-14, at home against Cincinnati Aug. 17-21, at home against Cleveland Aug. 24-28 and at Detroit Aug. 31 to Sept. 2. The league is expected to announce its full regular season schedule within the next two weeks.

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Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. did not bother to attend the meetings this week. He does not attend them every year, and he was at the meeting in Dallas earlier this month in which the collective bargaining agreement was extended.

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The owners wound up tabling a proposal by the Kansas City Chiefs to expand the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams. There does not appear to be much support for the change. The Bills are against it.

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A rule designed to protect quarterbacks was passed. Pass-rushing defenders now are prohibited from "forcibly hitting" the passer in the knee area or below if they have a chance to avoid the hit. If they're blocked into the QB or can't avoid it there is no foul. The hit that put out Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer in the playoffs would have been legal under the new rule, because Steeler defender Kim von Oelhoffen could not have avoided the play.

The league also added to the rule limiting touchdown celebrations. Now players can't go to the ground to celebrate and can't use the ball or anything else as a prop. This would prevent players from pretending the ball is a baby, a bottle of beer, a golf ball, a telephone a gear shift or an oar. Players can't pretend to do a snow angel on the ground or use the goal post as a dance pole. All those antics occurred last season.

"You can still celebrate, spike the ball, spin the ball, dunk it over the goal posts, just don't overdo it," said Perriera. "Kids all the way down to Pop Warner ball emulate what they see on Sunday. . . . The players union even agreed with us."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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