-- The NFL will change its longstanding policy for the postseason of using officiating crews made up of the highest graded individuals at each position. Starting in 2003, each seven-man crew that works together during the regular season will be rewarded with playoff assignments based on its overall performance.

"This is a huge change," Mike Pereira, the league's director of officiating, said today at the NFL's annual meetings. "I don't know why it took this long to get this done, but we're charged with not keeping the status quo and improving it year in and year out. We're not resistant to change."

The only members of a crew who would not advance to the postseason would be first- or second-year officials, a total of 26 in a work force of 119 officials employed on a part-time basis by the league. Pereira said most crews have only one or two men in that category and they would be replaced by those officials who grade out the highest during the regular season.

There are 17 crews, and only eight will work the playoffs. The crews also will be seeded No. 1 to No. 8 at the start of the playoffs, and a similar seeding will be used to determine the crews that work the NFC and AFC title games and the Super Bowl. The No. 1 seed will work the Super Bowl, No. 2 and No. 3 the title games.

"To us, the real benefit will be in the 17 weeks of the regular season," Pereira said. "Guys will work a lot harder together, learn each other's strengths and weaknesses and learn to work together as a unit. The goal is to get every play right. . . . These guys will work their tails off. . . . We believe it's the right thing to do."

Playoff Vote May Wait

Owner votes on changing overtime and adding two teams to the playoff mix are scheduled for Wednesday's final session, and there has been some talk about possibly tabling the expanded playoff issue until the May meeting in Philadelphia.

Tampa Bay General Manager Rich McKay and Tennessee Coach Jeff Fisher, co-chairmen of the Competition Committee, delivered their report and recommendations to the full ownership today for discussion. McKay said there is much sentiment to expand to 14 playoff teams in 2003, but he was not certain if there was enough support to pass by a three-fourths majority. "Twenty-four votes [for approval] has always proved difficult in this league," he said.

McKay indicated he does not believe there are enough votes this year to change the current overtime system to give each team at least one offensive possession. He is personally not convinced a change is necessary but said, "trying it for one year would be fine with me. The system does need to be looked at."

Speaking Out on Diversity

Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy, one of three black head coaches in the NFL, said he has not been at all surprised by the league's distancing itself from the newly created Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group he's joined in order to help improve minority hiring of head coaches and front office executives.

"The league has always felt the best way to handle things is from within and to have control of it," he said. "But I think it's going to be a positive. It's not a group that's meant to be a threat. It's more for us to pass information to minority candidates and to come up with some solutions."

Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, chairman of the league's workplace diversity committee, said he's been pleased by the progress being made since his committee was formed in November, but that there is still "a long way to go. . . . Am I satisfied? No. I want to do better."

He said the committee also will bring in an outside executive search company to identify potential minority candidates who are not in the NFL now, and to also help in other areas. The league plans a one- or two-week program for current league executives through the Stanford business school, and also hopes to come up with a similar program for coaches.

He also indicated there would be no action taken this week on the Detroit Lions' hiring of Steve Mariucci as their head coach with no minority interviews. He said the process has been complicated by reports that the Atlanta Falcons also were interested in Mariucci replacing Dan Reeves as their head coach. Atlanta owner Arthur Blank is on the diversity committee.

"It just throws another thing in there," Rooney said. "I think that was agent intervention to get [Mariucci's] leverage built up [with Detroit]."

Bengals Eye No. 1

Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis said today he hopes to have the No. 1 overall selection in the draft identified and signed a week before the April 26 draft. He listed quarterbacks Carson Palmer of Southern Cal and Byron Leftwich of Marshall, Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman and Michigan State wide receiver Charles Rogers as potential selections, though he clearly seemed enamored with Palmer. "We don't need the guy to step in and be the starter, no matter what the position is," Lewis said. "We don't need to put pressure on him. . . . It's not going to be a surprise on draft day."