NFL united on divisions

Realignment OK'd unanimously for 2002

Ravens in AFC North

Seahawks headed for NFC

Fast approval gained after concessions to former division rivals

May 23, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- NFL owners braced for a fight yesterday, then resolved the simmering issue of realignment before lunch.

They plotted proposals for two years, then pushed one through in little more than two hours.

Fight? The owners did everything but pose for a team photo after shaping the future of the league for years to come on the first day of the spring meetings.

The winning plan was the favorite all along, the one that put the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West starting in 2002 and the Ravens in the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers.

It was called Option A1. It posed the least disruption of any of the seven proposals under consideration and drew unanimous approval from the owners.

"There was general sentiment for A1 from the beginning," said Ravens owner Art Modell. "A1 was what I wanted, and others did, too. [Pittsburgh owner] Dan Rooney wanted it that way."

The expansion Houston Texans, who will become the 32nd team in the perfectly balanced NFL in 2002, were the exception. Because the old Houston Oilers had played in the AFC Central -- renamed the AFC North in realignment -- before moving to Tennessee, Texans owner Bob McNair wanted to revive those rivalries.

But when the vote was taken, McNair didn't make waves. He'll take his Texans into the AFC South to create a new rivalry with the Tennessee Titans.

"Those were the traditional rivalries the Oilers had and therefore Houston had," McNair said of the new North. "But we made a clean break with the past in terms of that, and to be with the other Sun Belt cities -- that's where the growth is.

"We're going to be playing in markets that are growing at a faster rate than Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. From that standpoint, the markets are more dynamic."

Even though commissioner Paul Tagliabue held proxy votes for the Ravens, Texans, Titans and St. Louis Rams -- all through relocation or expansion agreements -- each of those teams answered roll call in the rush to acceptance.

"No one ever expected a unanimous vote, no matter when it would be done," said Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who preserved his traditional rivalries in the NFC East.

Unanimity came after Tagliabue's realignment committee took the pre-emptive strike of adding two scheduling wrinkles to the A1 proposal. The first will empower the league to schedule preseason games between those transplanted teams and their former division rivals for a period of five years, running through 2006.

The second was the consideration that when the league launches its rotating schedule in 2002, at least some of the transplanted teams will play their previous division rivals in the regular season. For example, the league could have the NFC West Cardinals playing all of their former NFC East opponents or the AFC South Jacksonville Jaguars facing off against their old AFC Central rivals.

"Those were the added elements [to the A1 proposal]," Tagliabue said. "I think those were important in producing the consensus."

The key features of realignment are a more equitable schedule and the pooling of the visiting gate receipts.

"It will give all the fans guaranteed matchups on a rotating basis, outside of the division and across the conference," Tagliabue said of the schedule. "We haven't had that before. It will bring the strong teams into everyone's market on a guaranteed cycle."

Even Bill Bidwill, owner of the Cardinals, and Bob Whitsitt, president of the Seahawks, were willing to concede that their moves were in the best interest of the league.

"It was a good vote for the league, a good vote for the Cardinals," Bidwill said. "We want to move forward."

Seattle was the only team forced to change conferences, leaving the AFC West.

In the Ravens' case, Modell opted to maintain his long-standing rivalries with the Steelers and Bengals, in addition to the emotional series against his former team and town, the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens' other option was the AFC South. Moving to the NFC was not an option, Modell said, because CBS, which televises AFC games, did not want Baltimore to jump conferences.

All of which suits Steve Bisciotti just fine. A minority owner of the Ravens under Modell, Bisciotti has the option to take control of the team in January 2004. Yesterday, he said he was in favor of retaining those ties to the past.

"The Ravens being new to the league, I think it was important that we stayed with as many of our recent rivalries as we could," Bisciotti said. "And we got three out of five.

"Secondly, there's the long history of the Colts with teams like the Browns and Steelers. Other than two Super Bowls, all the people my age and older remember the championships against the Browns and the losses to Pittsburgh. You can't replace those kind of rivalries and know it's the Ravens."

Bisciotti also commended Modell for his advocacy of playing in the AFC North.

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.