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Seeing yellow

If Terrell Owens brings out the Sharpie this season, he can sign a penalty flag with the football.

League officials told a group of media at Reliant Stadium Friday afternoon the NFL would begin to crack down on choreographed celebrations with fines and 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

Individual players dancing after touchdowns are safe under the rule, but they better not find a partner.

"They want spontaneous stuff," umpire Garth DeFelice told the media. "Players keep thinking of new and better ways to do things. They've fined them in the past, now they're going to penalize the team 15 yards."

DeFelice was on the field last season when Saints wide receiver Joe Horn pulled a cell phone from under the goal post and acted like he was making a call. Horn was fined for his actions.

Players will not be penalized for spontaneous celebrations on the field or sidelines, including leaping into the stands. The team however will be flagged if another player joins his teammate.

DeFelice and two other officials showed a video to the media and answered questions for about half an hour.

The NFL will institute several rule changes and "points of emphasis" beginning in the first week of the preseason.

Beginning this season defensive backs especially will be under more scrutiny. Any contact beyond the five-yards from the line of scrimmage will result in a five-yard illegal contact penalty. Jersey grabs will also be flagged, even if the quarterback is out of the pocket or if the ball is thrown to the opposite side of the field.

Defensive players are allowed to touch receivers outside beyond the line of scrimmage, but only in self-defense.

DeFelice described the action like taking a charge in basketball – a player has a right to his own space, but cannot initiate contact after the initial impact with a receiver.

Defensive holding was marked as a point of emphasis prior to last season. As a result, 31 more penalties were called than in 2002.

Rule changes in 2004 include rewarding a coach with an extra challenge if he is successful on two reviews and has a time out left. Coaches can also call timeouts from the sideline.

Last season 66 of 255 challenges were reversed.

Coaches will also have more options when it comes to taking penalty yardage.

Penalty yards from kickoffs, onside kicks and free kicks can now be added to the end of the return. Penalty yards resulting from unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on a fumble or lateral recovery can also be added to the end of the play.

In 2004, all kicks will go dead when the ball hits the ground in the end zone whether or not it is touched by a defensive player.

Coaches can also request a free kick if a safety occurs at the end of a half. The kick will be an un-timed down.

By far the most concern has arisen from the added focus on defensive backs and illegal contact, but DeFelice said players will recovery. He also said to expect plenty of calls early in the season.

"These guys are great athletes," he said. "They will adapt."

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