Instant replay, taunting are hot topics

The NFL isn't a league that promotes change. The league reluctantly went kicking and screaming into free agency more than a decade ago because of the pending annual roster changes.

The NFL prefers the status quo, so don't expect a lot of major adjustments this week as the owners, coaches and general managers convene Monday at The Breakers in West Palm Beach for the NFL annual meeting.

And why change? Television ratings are up. Stadiums are pretty much filled with fans. Competitively, the sport couldn't be any better. Owners don't want to mess up a good thing, and so they won't.

Go back to a year ago when the rage was changing the overtime rules. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue jumped on the bandwagon to make major alterations in the overtime rule, trying to make sure each team had at least one possession in the extra session.

Well, that sentiment has died down and no overtime change is expected. As it turned out, change really wasn't needed anyway. Last season, only six of 26 overtime games (including those in the playoffs) ended with one possession. In 2002, the number was nine, which was 36 percent of the 25 overtime games.

The Competition Committee reported that in the 20 overtime playoff games since 1958, 17 involved multiple possessions. The system wasn't broke as it turned out.

"I think when the issue of overtime was brought up, there was no real support that we were going to talk about it for long," Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the Competition Committee said. "There's no real support for changing it once we looked at the numbers. We saw that the numbers came down. We talked quickly -- I mean quickly -- over the various alternatives that were discussed, one of which is an extension of the game. I think all of us agreed the present format was better than making some major changes."

Even Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, one of the biggest proponents of change, only submitted two proposals, three or four fewer than most years. He pushed for years to get the two-point conversion into the game. Though that worked, his efforts to let each team use all of its 53 players in games instead of deactivating eight and other advanced agendas have fallen upon deaf ears.

"This is a pretty light year," Hunt said of his proposed changes. "This league isn't big on change. My two proposals didn't get a recommendation by the Competition Committee."

The Chiefs entered two proposals this year, neither expected to be passed. One, alterations to the overtime rules, are highly unlikely. The second, expanding the playoff field from 12 teams to 14, has already been withdrawn.

The interesting decision coming up this week involves instant replay. The latest three-year installment of instant replay is up and there only appears to be 4-6 teams against replay. It's possible that owners could vote it in permanently. The Competition Committee voted 8-0 in favor of replay. The Committee even recommended giving coaches an extra challenge if they successfully challenged two replays, a rare occurrence.

"The committee will recommend this year that we vote on it as a permanent rule," McKay said. "Hopefully, we'll be successful in that so that we don't have to come back and discuss this on future calls."

Of course, owners don't always vote in things permanently. If permanent support of replay isn't approved by 24 owners, the league and the committee will push to have it continue for three years or some defined period.

Perhaps the most interesting rule adjustment isn't being voted upon. Plenty of anger was generated in the AFC and NFC championship games because pass interference and illegal contact infractions weren't called. Colts and Eagles receivers felt as though they were mugged. The aftereffect was a tighter officiated Super Bowl.

After an intense review by the league and the Competition Committee, defensive backs will have a tougher time next season. Officials will be told to call more pass interference and illegal contact penalties. It's not a rules change, per se. The adjustment is called a point of emphasis.

"Everyone felt that defensive backs have been allowed to get away with more things in the past couple of seasons," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher, co-chairman of the Competition Committee. "You see it particularly on 'go' routes where a cornerback will grab a receiver as he goes down field. The rule was that the call wouldn't be made if the receiver wasn't materially affected on his route. But if he is grabbed, he is materially affected."

Pass interference calls dropped from 238 to 221 last season. Illegal contact fell from 58 in 2002 to 50 last season. Expect the numbers to jump significantly in 2004.

Another point of emphasis will be involving false starts. The Competition Committee and the league felt offensive players were drawing too many defensive false starts. Centers were flicking their hands to draw defensive linemen offsides. A point of emphasis will be making sure defensive players aren't being tricked into making their rushes before the snap of the ball.

Sportsmanship will be another big topic. For the first time, it will be emphasized to officials to call 15-yard dead ball penalties against players who excessively celebrate after a big play or a touchdown. Fines weren't enough even though more than 50 players received monetary penalties for excessive celebrations.

"Don't start writing we're the no fun league," McKay said. "It has nothing to do with an individual player's celebration. It has nothing to do with the Lambeau Leap, the spike, the throw it over the goalpost, the sack dance, any of that. All of that remains the same as long as it's not taunting. As long as it's not done in the face of another player, it will be allowed."

There are also plenty of business items to be discussed at this meeting. Tampering rules involving front office officials will be on the agenda. The league in promoting a slight change that would allow front office executives of playoff teams to be interviewed for promotions on other teams in the same fashion as assistants.

The NFL Trust, which is the licensing agreement for trademarks and logos, runs out Wednesday, and has to be voted in to continue. The Jets will discuss their plans to build a stadium in Manhattan.

As for change, though, don't expect much.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.