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Despite issues, Tagliabue praises state of league

Sending positive but stern messages about the minority hiring process, the conduct of players, underclassmen and the globalization of the game, commissioner Paul Tagliabue painted a picture Friday of the NFL enjoying unprecedented success.

"Many have called these playoffs the best ever in the history of the NFL," he said. "That's the type of game we expect on Sunday."

In Houston, home to Chinese All-Star basketball center Yao Ming, Tagliabue joked the game would reach the Far East.

"I'm a firm believer that sports will migrate around the globe and that they're doing that right now," he said. "At some point, maybe we'll have a quarterback from China named Yao Fling."

In his annual address on the state of the game, Tagliabue said the league might be unable to help assistants whose teams reach the Super Bowl interview for head-coaching positions.

"I don't, personally, feel that there is much we can do to further improve the rules we have in place," he said. "We've worked on these for, literally, decades."

At the heart of the issue is what many believe is punishment for successful assistants such as the Patriots' offensive and defensive coordinators, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, respectively, who can't interview while their teams are preparing for the game.

Tagliabue said it's a matter of timing, citing John Fox. The then-defensive coordinator could not interview while the Giants were in the Super Bowl but later became Carolina's coach. Also:

+ While league and union representatives have praised the coaching minority hiring initiative, the new concern is if it could be directed toward the front office.

Tagliabue said the league has discussed the matter but stressed they are "really quite different."

"When it comes to the front office, you start with the question of where is the talent coming from that you're seeking to get into the mix," he said. "I don't see us doing a mirror image or saying that because we did it over here, we're going to do it over there."

+ Stemming from complaints from the Colts that officials allowed the Patriots to be overly physical with their receivers during the AFC Championship Game, the commissioner said there is no policy to call playoff games differently.

+ While the league awaits a ruling on Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett's lawsuit petitioning for entry into the draft, the league remains strongly against college players fewer than three years removed from high school joining the NFL.

+ Tagliabue said the league is considering increasing fines and could suspend players who exhibit behavior deemed unsportsmanlike.

Referring to incidents such as New Orleans receiver Joe Horn's cell phone call, Tagliabue said the concerns are not just his, but of coaches and players.

"Take the unsportsmanlike stuff out of the game," he said. "Take the taunting out of the game. Unsportsmanlike conduct, be it cell phones or (Sharpie) pens, are strictly prohibited, and the discipline will escalate unless it stops."

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said punishment for end zone celebrations could increase.

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