Prospects for a system of expanded playoffs for the 2003 season seemed dimmer today when NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue made it very clear he would prefer to wait at least another year before adding two teams to the current 12-team format.
In a news conference following the morning session at the NFL owners' annual meetings here at the Arizona Biltmore, Tagliabue said "there's always support for expanding the playoffs by teams that don't make the playoffs. From the fans' standpoint, we've got a pretty good system right now. Most people think we have the best system, and the regular season means something."
The Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots have proposed adding two playoff teams next season, to 14. It also would add a seeding component to the mix, and give the team with the best record in each conference a first-round bye. It needs 24 votes -- a three-fourths majority of the owners -- to pass.
The league's Competition Committee favors expanding the format to 14 in the 2004 season, and that now seems the likely outcome when it comes to the floor for a vote, possibly Tuesday.
"We said going into this we'd go two years and see if any inequities arose to require modification," said Tampa Bay General Manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the committee. "This year, none arose. The system worked very well. . . . It will be an interesting vote. . . . Do I sense some momentum for it [sooner]? Yes."
Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said he'd prefer to expand this season, and eventually would like to see eight playoff teams and no byes in each conference -- a total of 16 of the league's 32 teams.
"We are a sales-driven business," Hunt said. "We need to market our product. There is a cachet being a playoff team year to year. I just think we're better off having more teams. There is a strong case to be made that the bye system is very unfair. Because of the physical nature of the sport, you want to have every team have a fair chance.
"I'm in favor of 16. It's to a team's advantage to have a bye if for no other reason than you're not exposed to losing a game, and making the playoffs gives you something to sell for next year. Someday, at some time, it will happen."
What is not expected to happen between now and the close of business Wednesday is any final resolution of the league's inquiry involving the Detroit Lions' hiring of Steve Mariucci as their head coach without interviewing any minority candidates. Tagliabue said he did not expect to make any decisions here this week after the league's new Workplace Diversity Committee heard from Lions officials earlier this month.
Tagliabue also said he would make any decision on possible penalties for the Lions or any other team that violated a new league policy that says every team must interview at least one or more minority candidates for any head coaching or front office vacancy. He emphasized that those penalties would involve dollar fines, and not draft choices.
Tagliabue also made it clear that he believes the league can handle its diversity issues without interference from outside organizations. Washington attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran, who have been in the forefront of criticizing the league for its dearth of minority head coaches and executives since the start of the 2002 season, have recently formed the Fritz Pollard Alliance.
In other developments, Tagliabue indicated there was considerable support among the owners for changing the overtime format to allow each team at least one offensive possession in the extra session.
"It will be a very active debate," he said. "It's an issue from a competitive standpoint that there is a growing feeling that too high a percentage of teams winning in overtime are being influenced by who wins the toss of the coin."
He also said NFL Europe, the league spring developmental league, will go on as scheduled, despite the war in Iraq and widespread anti-American sentiment in a number of European countries fielding league teams, including Germany and Great Britain. The season openers are scheduled for April 5-6.
NFL Notes: The league announced three of its nationally televised games for its opening weekend of the 2003 season, including a Monday night game on Sept. 8 matching the Philadelphia Eagles, in their new Lincoln Financial Stadium, against Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay.
On Sunday night, Sept. 7, the Oakland Raiders will play the Tennessee Titans in Nashville on ESPN. Earlier that day on Fox, the Dallas Cowboys and new coach Bill Parcells will face the Atlanta Falcons at 4:15 p.m.
The Washington Redskins open the season at FedEx Field in prime time against the New York Jets on Thursday, Sept. 4, on ABC. The rest of the regular season schedule likely will be announced in the next few weeks.