CHICAGO -- The NFL dragged expansion out of the closet long enough yesterday to let the assembled owners get a whiff of this mystic aroma.
Fragrance of rose petal, it wasn't. More like ode to mothball.
That a few owners wrinkled their prim noses at the smell should come as no great surprise. These guys haven't embraced expansion since 1976, when they admitted Seattle and Tampa Bay to the club. Sharing their generous bounty from TV coffers is an idea that takes some getting used to, apparently.
And they will get used to it, too, if commissioner Paul Tagliabue has any say in the matter.
Tagliabue, bullish on expansion, reiterated his position with a status report on the realignment and expansion committee at the league's fall meetings yesterday.
"I reported that the committee felt expansion by '93 was a realistic target," Tagliabue said, "that a two-team expansion was the maximum that could be digested at any foreseeable date, and that expansion in the United States as opposed to Canada and Mexico is our primary focus."
A formal announcement on expansion in 1993 isn't expected before the league's March meetings in Hawaii. But the green light was still flashing, at least, for the five prime expansion contenders -- Baltimore, St. Louis, Charlotte, Memphis and Jacksonville.
In Baltimore, Herb Belgrad saw yesterday's developments as a step forward in the long march.
"There obviously was sufficient discussion to give the commissioner confidence that expansion by two teams in '93 is realistic," the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority said from his Baltimore law office. "I clearly see it as a positive statement."
Tagliabue is chairman of the seven-man realignment and expansion committee he appointed last March. Last summer he established the goal of two new teams for '93.
"I think Paul's got the support of all the owners," Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson said early in the day before hearing Tagliabue's pitch. "In our meetings, I don't sense anybody is opposed to what he's proposed in various areas."
Wilson's appraisal is noteworthy because he does not count himself among the expansion hawks.
"I'm probably not one of the pro expansion people," he said. "I'm not against it per se. [But] I want to hear a good response why we should expand. You can expand and dilute the product.
"We've got so many lawsuits filed against us. We don't have a collective bargaining agreement. The game is being televised all over the country [already] . . . We've got so many problems, as I see it, to rectify before we step out and expand."
After Tagliabue's report, Wilson was singing the same tune, but with a few different words.
"I'm in favor of expansion when we get a lot of things worked out," he said. "Nothing [in the report] changed my mind."
Like Wilson, Cleveland owner Art Modell has been on record tTC saying the league needs a collective bargaining agreement before expanding. Yesterday, however, his position was unclear.
Asked if he still required a CBA, Modell said, "It didn't come up [in the meeting]." Modell then referred all expansion questions to the league office.
It seems Tagliabue instituted a gag order on the owners on expansion, so as not to muddy the waters.
Tagliabue said there was no opposition to expansion, just concerned inquiries.
"There were concerns expressed to me by various clubs earlier," he said. "[Those people felt] they were not being made part of our analysis of a very important subject. I think we allayed those ++ concerns today.
"We didn't have any criticism, and our people are not reluctant to criticize when they think criticism is in order."
Tagliabue also made the following points:
* He basically ruled out a four-team expansion in 1993, saying it was "extremely unlikely." He also said it was premature to talk about two additional teams in 1995.
* There are factors beyond the league's control that could affect the 1993 expansion, like escalating gasoline prices, the nation's "soft economy" and the tenuous situation in the Middle East.
* The league will attempt to discourage the advance sale of season tickets by would-be franchises. That was a direct slap on the wrists of the St. Louis partnership that has sold 28,000 refundable season tickets at $25 each. These tickets, however, are not to be confused with attendance guarantees, which are expected to be part of each contending city's financial package.
* There will be at least one more meeting of the expansion and realignment committee before the spring meetings.
In the meantime, the committee will delve deeper into expansion analysis. And the owners are expected to fall in line behind Tagliabue.
"When Paul's positions are expounded," said Chicago Bears owner Ed McCaskey, "my guess is we will act in concert."
Jim Irsay, general manager for the Indianapolis Colts, said the club would keep an open mind if there's an expansion vote on Baltimore.
"If we think it's for the good of the league, we wouldn't have a problem voting for Baltimore," Irsay said.