The Nfl's New Deal

Realignment: The addition of Houston in 2002 will result in eight new divisions, and some new rivalries

the Ravens will end up in either an AFC North or AFC South.

Pro Football

May 20, 2001|By Ken Murray | By Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

NFL realignment - a concept whose time is long overdue - will resurface this week when league owners convene in Chicago to wade through a number of vexing issues.

By the time the owners adjourn the three-day meetings on Thursday, the Seattle Seahawks could be headed back to their NFC roots, the Indianapolis Colts could be severing their eastern ties, and the Ravens may be looking at a division they could dominate for years.

Thirty-one years after the league's last realignment, the NFL will embrace upheaval not by choice, but out of necessity. The arrival of the Houston Texans as the league's 32nd team a year from now forced the issue.

In 2002, the new-look NFL will feature eight divisions of four teams each, a more equitable regular-season schedule and the same postseason format used the past 11 years.

No fewer than nine teams figure to change divisions. The Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints all will abandon their ill-conceived placement in the NFC West, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will bolt the NFC Central and the Arizona Cardinals will finally leave the NFC East.

Each existing division will drop at least one team, and the AFC Central, where the Ravens play, will drop two. That leads to the obvious advantage of a compacted division.

"It's easier to dominate a four-team division than a six-team division," Ravens owner Art Modell said.

Unlike the 1970 realignment, which came on the heels of the NFL-AFL merger, this realignment is driven by rivalries, geography and television (regional rivalries, it is believed, produce better TV ratings).

Because Modell has a longstanding history in the AFC Central as former owner of the Cleveland Browns and now the relocated Ravens, popular opinion has Baltimore settling in the renamed AFC North with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals and the new Browns.

That, at least, is the previously stated desire of Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, one of the league's leading advocates of realignment, who declined an interview request for this story.

In four of the seven realignment proposals now on the table, the Ravens are in the AFC North. In the other three, they are in the AFC South with a combination of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts and/or Houston.

Passage of any one of the proposals will require 24 votes, or three-quarters majority. Modell, however, does not have a vote in realignment, a privilege he surrendered in his relocation agreement with the league.

Tagliabue holds cards

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue holds four such proxy votes, those belonging to the Ravens, Titans, Texans and St. Louis Rams. Tagliabue informed owners last week he will use those votes as a bloc and vote with the majority, according to an Internet report.

Said Modell: "I don't have a vote, but I have a strong voice."

Modell, who moved the Browns to the AFC in 1970 after prolonged debate, stopped short of calling the Ravens' North destination a certainty.

"I don't think anything is a lock," he said. "There's a strong feeling in the league to keep certain divisions intact: Washington, Dallas, the New York Giants and Philadelphia [in the NFC East]. There's strong sentiment for Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati, leaving Tennessee and Jacksonville to form another unit. There will be a lot of conversation."

Modell played down the possibility the Ravens would lose budding rivalries with the Titans and Jaguars in that scenario.

"Rivalries are built up over a period of decades: Washington-Dallas, New York-Philadelphia, Cleveland-Giants [started] years and years ago. They're not established over three or four years," he said. "We're [virtually] an expansion team. I keep saying that."

Getting any alignment passed would have been extremely difficult without the owners' decision last January to pool the 40 percent visiting share of all gate receipts and divide it equally. That decision negated the advantage of bigger stadiums within a division, and, in effect, leveled the playing field financially.

Previously, each visiting team got 40 percent of the gate for that game only. For smaller stadiums in smaller markets, that can be a significant difference over the years.

"We passed a major threshold when we agreed to the enhanced revenue formula," said Bill Polian, the Colts' president. "That removed a major stumbling block. It was a huge and statesmanlike move by all of the owners."

Another positive result of realignment is a rotating schedule that will yield 14 common opponents for each team in its division. With only six division games (compared to the Ravens' 10 now), there will be slightly less significance for those division matchups than before.

In addition to its own division games, every team will play against another division from each conference for eight more games. The final two games will be against teams with the same previous year's standing from the other two divisions in the conference.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.