Much-debated realignment issue tops owners' agenda

Pro Football

May 22, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Personal agendas will give way to the greater good in the NFL this week. They will if the league is going to achieve a 2002 realignment during its three-day owners' meetings, anyway.

Much of the structure of the new eight-division, 32-team setup is in place. At least four divisions are already firmed up -- the NFC East and North, and the AFC East and West.

Left for the most contentious debate is which teams fill out the NFC West, AFC North and AFC South. That debate renews itself today in a Rosemont, Ill., hotel near Chicago. The key figures are the Ravens, Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals and the expansion Houston Texans, who will join the league in 2002.

The Ravens, Texans and Colts all want to be the fourth team in the AFC North with Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

The Seahawks and Cardinals are headed for -- but don't want to join -- the NFC West.

Obviously, some teams will have to sacrifice for the good of the league, just as Ravens owner Art Modell did in 1969, when he agreed to shift his Cleveland Browns to the AFC with Pittsburgh and the Baltimore Colts. Wrestling with the NFL-AFL merger, the owners were deadlocked on realignment for the 1970 season.

"I thought to serve my league I would choose to move my team, providing two conditions were met," said Modell, who was president of the league and Browns owner at the time. "One, the New York Giants would approve it because we had a tremendous rivalry. And two, that [Pittsburgh owner] Art Rooney would say, `OK, I'm going with Art.'

"It was a tremendous sacrifice because we had great rivalries. [But] I had to break that logjam."

Although the Browns, Colts and Steelers received $3 million apiece to relocate, Modell insists it did not influence his decision.

"The money was incidental," he said. "The $9 million [total enticement] was on the table for four months. Anybody could've had it if they wanted to make a move."

In this realignment, one AFC team -- almost certainly the Seahawks -- will have to switch conferences. The bigger skirmish appears to be over which team will complete the AFC North.

Modell wants to stay with his old rivals, but doesn't have a vote.

Houston's Bob McNair, who paid $700 million for his franchise and doesn't have a vote, either, wants to revive the old Oilers' rivalries in that division.

In all, commissioner Paul Tagliabue holds four proxy votes from expansion and relocation -- those belong to Houston, the Ravens, St. Louis and Tennessee. Passage of any plan will require 24 votes.

The Colts' interest in the North is for geographical reasons (Indianapolis is 90 miles from Cincinnati).

Two of those teams will wind up in the AFC South, instead, with the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. Here are two delicious new rivalries for the Titans: the Colts, with former Tennessee Vols quarterback Peyton Manning, and the Texans, who replaced the Titans in Houston. Only problem is, Tennessee doesn't want to be in the same division with Houston.

The league expects to eliminate several of the seven realignment proposals on the table today, then have a final vote tomorrow.

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