NFL Owners Finish by Putting Off Change

Thursday, March 27th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PHOENIX (AP) _ NFL owners have always liked to ponder major rules changes. They pondered so much this week, they didn't change anything.

``I wasn't surprised,'' Rich McKay, co-chairman of the competition committee, said Wednesday. ``Traditionally, we don't change anything the first time it comes up.

The two most important things that weren't changed were the overtime rules and the number of teams making the playoffs.

The owners voted down a proposal to give both teams a shot at the ball in overtime _ it got 17 votes, seven short of the 24 needed. And it tabled a one to expand the playoffs from 12 teams to 14.

The overtime vote was influenced in part by Bill Polian, general manager of the Indianapolis Colts, who pointed out that the new system would have made his team's 23-20 overtime win in Denver much duller.

``The current system presents a tremendous reward or risk. That's something that adds a lot of excitement to the game,'' Polian said, noting that the play on which the winning field goal was kicked would have been a punt under the new proposal.

The expansion of the playoffs got more support than either commissioner Paul Tagliabue or McKay expected.

But it was tabled until the league's May meeting in Philadelphia because, Tagliabue said, the league had to study the ramifications for both competition and television coverage involved in adding two wild-card teams.

Some teams also are concerned that only one team would have a bye under the proposed system. And both Tagliabue and McKay noted it was a change in an agreement to wait two years with the new eight-division alignment before tinkering with the playoffs.

``We had no problems last year with the alignment,'' said McKay, Tampa Bay's general manager. ``The teams that made the playoffs were the teams with the best records.''

The change in overtime was proposed after a record 25 games went into an extra session last year. Ten of those were won by a team on its first possession and 58 percent were won by the team that won the coin toss at the start of the OT.

One of those was the game in Denver.

In that contest, which was televised nationally, the Colts' Mike Vanderjagt tied it with a 54-yard field goal in regulation. Indianapolis then won the coin toss in overtime and moved the ball far enough for Vanderjagt to try a 51-yarder into the wind, which he made.

Polian said that if it wasn't sudden death, coach Tony Dungy certainly would have chosen to punt; he sent the punting team on the field until Vanderjagt convinced him to try the field goal.

``That game made our season,'' Polian said. ``It's probably the main reason we made the playoffs. If there had been two possessions, a defensive-minded coach like Tony certainly would have tried to pin them back. That would have been the right call. But the reward for kicking was much greater _ we won the game on the spot.''

In another move, the league changed the rules involving onside kicks in the final five minutes of games.

In the past, if a ball did not go 10 yards, went out of bounds, or was touched illegally, the kicking team was penalized, but had a chance to kick again from five yards back. McKay said that while that was rewarding a team for an illegal play, coaches wanted it retained; the coaches feared teams would stop trying surprise onside kicks.

It finally passed when it was amended to cover only the final five minutes, when a trailing team often tries to get back in the game by getting another possession through an onside kick.

The owners also spent considerable time discussing racial diversity in hiring practices. There was no agreement, however, on what discipline to take against the Detroit Lions, who hired coach Steve Mariucci without meeting the new guidelines to interview at least one minority candidate.

The Lions said that five prospective black candidates turned them down because it was clear that Mariucci was the first choice for the job.