Although he'd consider it five years too late, Brian Russell still celebrated when the NFL owners voted this week to eliminate the force-out rule.

"If you talk to a receiver, he might tell you something different," said Russell, the former Vikings safety now playing for Seattle. "But I'm on the defensive side. I think the rule needed to be eliminated."

Had it been done before Dec. 28, 2003, Russell would have saved a season, Nate Poole wouldn't have received a hero's welcome in Green Bay, and Vikings fans would have one fewer heartache to lament.

"Obviously, that was about as tough a way to end a season as you can imagine," Russell said. "But the rule was different. There was nothing we could do. It was a judgment call that couldn't be reviewed by replay officials."

As you may remember, the Vikings played the Arizona Cardinals in Sun Devil Stadium that day. Having started the season 6-0, the Vikings were 9-6 but needed only to survive one more play against the 3-12 Cardinals to win the NFC North.

Enter Mr. Poole. On fourth-and-25 from the Vikings 28, Poole got behind cornerback Denard Walker's coverage and into the deep right side of the end zone. Russell had deep middle coverage but saw Poole break free. Then came the arching pass from quarterback Josh McCown, who had been sacked on the previous two plays but managed to unload a final pass with four seconds left.

Russell was a little late getting to Poole. Poole jumped, caught the ball and was coming down. Russell shoved him, and then Walker, too. The official ruled immediately that Poole would have come down inbounds had he not been forced out.

Replay officials reviewed the play, but only to see whether Poole maintained possession of the ball. He did. The Vikings, who had led their division for all but that one play that season, joined the 1978 Redskins as the only teams to start 6-0 and not make the playoffs.

The Packers won the division and played host to Seattle in a wild-card game the following week. Green Bay won.

"Who knows what would have happened, but we really liked our chances of hosting a playoff game in the Metrodome," Russell said. "It was a missed opportunity. Very disappointing."

The now-defunct force-out rule stated: "A pass is completed or intercepted, or a loose ball recovered, if the player inbounds would have landed inbounds with both feet but is carried or pushed out-of-bounds while in possession of the ball in the air or before the second foot touches the ball inbounds by an opponent. The player must maintain possession of the ball when he lands out-of-bounds."

Now, according to Rich McKay, the Atlanta Falcons president and co-chairman the competition committee, "The only time a force-out would be called is if a player was actually held and carried out of bounds, which really begins to mimic the college rule. Last year, we think it was called a total of 15 times, but it would eliminate those 15 calls."

Mike Pereira, the NFL's director of officiating, told that there were 16 force-out calls made last year and that about half of them were the wrong call.

"Look at the Cleveland Browns game in Arizona last year," Russell said. "That was a call at the end of the game, too. It wasn't the last game of the year, but it ended up costing the Browns a playoff spot, too."

Browns tight end Kellen Winslow II made a great catch in the front corner of the end zone. He got one foot inbounds before he was clearly forced out by a defender. The official didn't see it that way, and the Browns fell one victory short of the playoffs.

"You were asking officials in a split second to make a judgment call that's not reviewable," Russell said. "That's too tough a call for them to make. Now the rule is simple, and it's reviewable."

A little late for Russell, but good, nonetheless.

"Now there's a definitive way to decide a game if it comes down to that play," Russell said. "And what happened to us in 2003 shouldn't happen to another team again."

Mark Craig •