NFL team owners converge in Chicago today to begin tackling one of pro football's most contentious issues: realignment.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said for several years that the league's geographically illogical divisions -- where Dallas is east and Atlanta is west -- should be cleaned up when its two newest teams are added.
But after months of study and arm-twisting, many observers predict the league will be unable to garner the necessary three-quarters vote (21 votes) for a radial reshuffling and simply will slot the expansion teams into the existing structure.
Accordingly, the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars are likely to end up rounding out the league's four-team divisions, the NFC West and AFC Central, giving all NFL divisions five teams.
Both expansion teams wanted to be in the stronger NFC, and Charlotte owner Jerry Richardson even wrote team owners requesting it. He has one thing going his way: Jacksonville's television market overlaps at one end with the NFC's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, making a strong argument for the Jaguars in the AFC.
A more elaborate plan, supported by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, calls for the Atlanta Falcons to join the NFC East, Jacksonville the NFC Central and the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks the NFC West. In the AFC, Tampa Bay would move to the East, Carolina and Indianapolis to the Central and Houston to the West.
Another scheme has a pair of relatively benign flips: Arizona and Atlanta, and Indianapolis and Tampa Bay.
The owners also are expected to discuss some stadium issues at the two-day meetings, possibly including Tagliabue's recent suggestion that the league help finance a new Los Angeles facility by promising it a number of Super Bowls. The idea was widely criticized by Los Angeles officials, who have spent millions repairing the earthquake-damaged Los Angeles Coliseum, and by team owners opposed to preferential treatment for one team.