In the NFL, it used to be the object of the game was to get into the end zone. Now, the object of the game is to get into the end zone and act like a fool.

The end zone has turned into dinner theater, minus the dinner and the theater.

Not so long ago, after scoring a touchdown, Barry Sanders would hand the ball to an official. These days, after scoring a touchdown, Terrell Owens combines elements of "Anything Goes," Cirque du Soleil and the potato-sack race at the county fair.

Unfortunately, Owens is just one of many offenders. It's as if players cross the goal line and into another dimension. At any given time, the end zone is one part "American Idol" and one part "Fear Factor."

In Sunday's Chiefs-Saints game, after the Saints' Joe Horn scored, he sprinted briefly, pointed, dialed a phone number in the air and bear-hugged the goalpost. By the time he was done, I thought I'd be charged a $10 cover and two-drink minimum.

Bobby Engram's touchdown celebration is so elaborate, I'm surprised he hasn't hired an opening act.

(Of course in the annals of time, there are three infamous, well-chronicled incidents of excessive celebration off the field:

1. When Moses asked for the Red Sea to be parted in 1462 B.C. and it was, he slapped his camel silly and struck a pose.

2. When Albert Einstein formulated the theory of relativity in 1905, he tossed his physics book into the Swiss Alps and shouted, "Boo-yah!"

3. When Robert Peary reached the North Pole in 1909, he stripped down to his skivvies and ripped open five candy wrappers -- coincidentally, this was the advent of the frozen Snickers bar.)

Besides the elaborate song-and-dances, there have been a couple other regrettable growth industries in the end zone -- dunking the football over the crossbar and jumping into the stands.

As an ex-basketball player, the Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez is the dunking poster boy. Tell me this isn't a blueprint on how to get injured. Frankly, it would be safer to pole-vault over the crossbar in a straitjacket and sandals than to extend your body and football over the crossbar in full pads and cleats.

But what do I know? Half the day I'm prone, the other half of the day I'm ordering food into a clown's mouth.

As for jumping into the stands, this emanated from the once-beloved Lambeau Leap. All I can say is -- it seemed like a good idea at the time.

But it breaks Rule No. 7 of Life: Never jump into a crowd of strangers unless it is your intent to (a) not return, (b) incur bodily harm or (c) marry one of the strangers.

Alas, even worse than excessive touchdown celebrations are premature touchdown celebrations. That's right -- guys who break into a cheap lounge act before they get into the end zone.

A couple of weeks ago, the Texans' Jabar Gaffney extended his left arm -- so he could "showcase" the football -- and fumbled the ball out of the end zone just before he got to the goal line. Then, while the officials were correctly ruling it a touchback, this Junior Jonas Salk still hopped into the crowd for a not-quite-a-touchdown celebration.

Meantime, last week on "Sunday Night Football," with the Ravens leading the Browns 20-13 in the final minute, the Ravens' Ed Reed intercepted Jeff Garcia in the end zone and returned it 106 yards for a touchdown.

Now, forget that he should've downed the ball in the end zone and the game would've been over, because the only way the Ravens could lose is if the Browns got possession again. Rather, Reed took off, holding the ball like the proverbial loaf of bread in his right hand, then switched it to his left hand at the Browns 30-yard line, held it low and started to do some little prance dance fox trot the final 15 yards.

I hurt myself trying to reach through the TV set to knock the ball out of the punk's hand.

Ask The Slouch

Q. What was your excuse for not attending the MLS Cup, which was practically held in your L.A. backyard? (Larry Jackson; Arlington)

A. Oh, yeah, that was a tough decision for me -- fight four lanes of freeway traffic to see Freddy Adu not score or walk over half-empty Doritos bags in my living room to see Peyton Manning throw five touchdown passes.

Q. Isn't it a bit screwy that the Indiana Pacers' Ron Artest asked for time off from the NBA season because he was promoting his rap album? (Drew Warren; Saginaw, Mich.)

A. Actually, I once took time off from the column because Nick at Nite was showing a "Petticoat Junction" marathon.

Q. Many college football coaches use state troopers for sideline protection. Does Couch Slouch employ similar security measures when he wanders into any of the red states? (Bob Buckwalter; Arlington)

A. If I happen to wander into any state -- red or blue -- I am at risk, which is why, as a rule, I do not leave my basement apartment.

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