Following the National Football League's expansion derby is like trying to find your way through a maze.
Each time you open one door, there seems to be another closed door behind it.
After a series of developments in the last 10 days in the cities seeking expansion teams, many new questions have been raised about expansion.
* Will Robert Tisch's purchase of half the New York Giants, which took him out of the Baltimore picture, hurt Baltimore's chances?
* Will the decision of Federal Express owner Fred Smith to pull out of the Memphis, Tenn., ownership picture hurt that city's chances?
* Did St. Louis suffer a major setback when a committee in the Missouri legislature voted against funding for a new stadium?
* Did Jacksonville, Fla., take a major step forward when it approved a renovation of the Gator Bowl?
* Can Charlotte, N.C., investors get the financing to build a stadium with private funds?
* Will the NFL actually get two expansion teams on the field by 1993?
The answer to the first two questions is no.
The answer to the others is that nobody knows.
Pittsburgh Steelers president Dan Rooney, who headed the last expansion committee and is a member of the current expansion and realignment committee, said the departures of Tisch and Smith will have no bearing on the hopes of Baltimore and Memphis.
"That's not a consideration," Rooney said of the importance of ownership groups. "It wasn't last time, and it won't be this time."
The NFL is sticking to its two-step process of picking the cities first, then choosing the owners.
For example, when Seattle and Tampa, Fla., were awarded teams when the NFL last expanded in 1976, the eventual owners weren't even the first ones proposed.
Seattle officials first suggested that five different investors each own 20 percent of the team. The NFL didn't like that idea, so it contacted Hugh Culverhouse, who now owns the Tampa Bay franchise, and asked him if he wanted to own a team in Seattle.
He declined, even though he had tried to buy the Los Angeles Rams before Carroll Rosenbloom made the deal in which Bob Irsay bought the Rams and traded them to Rosenbloom for the Baltimore Colts in 1972.
Seattle then came back with a proposal that the Nordstrom department store family own the team, and that proposal was accepted.
Meanwhile, in Tampa, there were a half-dozen groups bidding for the team, and Culverhouse wasn't the first choice.
A contractor named Tom McCloskey was awarded the Tampa team. But McCloskey decided after a few months that he didn't want to keep it. Once McCloskey bowed out, the team was awarded to Culverhouse.
The lesson is that the NFL owners first decided they wanted to put teams in Seattle and Tampa, then they worried about finding the owners. They're likely to follow the sameprocedure this time.
In any case, Baltimore has three other groups -- led by Baltimore Blast owner Ed Hale, Maryland developer Nathan Landow and former Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr -- willing to step forward, and more groups may decide to enter the bidding now that Tisch has pulled out.
The NFL can go in another direction and find different owners. For example, Jerry Richardson, the former Baltimore Colts player, and his son, Mark, have spearheaded the Charlotte expansion effort. But the NFL could award a team to Charlotte and still pick another another owner. The Richardsons have no guarantee they'll be the owners if Charlotte gets a team.
Except that the potential owners won't affect a city's chances, everything else about the expansion process is murky.
St. Louis did seem to suffer a setback last week, when a committee in the Missouri legislature voted down funding for a new stadium and convention center that is essential to St. Louis' expansion hopes.
If the vote isn't overturned, St. Louis' hopes would appear doomed. It doesn't help that there is so much public opposition to the project. Oneclergyman even is fasting in protest against it.
But St. Louis officials sound confident they'll get the vote overturned next month and will get back on track.
"If we do our job, the league isn't going to see a better application," said Fran Murray, a minority owner of the New England Patriots who is one of the leaders of the St. Louis effort.
Another unanswered question is whether Charlotte's plan to finance the purchase price of the team and a new stadium with private funds will work. The Richardsons say their net worth and that of their partners will cover the franchise purchase and the revenues from the sky boxes and club seats will finance the new stadium.
But that is not easy to pull off. The late Joe Robbie financed his stadium in Miami that way, but he already owned the Dolphins. It was such a costly project that Robbie's son, Michael, wound up selling 50 percent of the stadium and 15 percent of the team.
Jacksonville seemed to help itself when its city council passed a $60 million renovation of the Gator Bowl 10 days ago. The question is whether Jacksonville will be able to overcome the relatively small size of its television market.
Then there's ultimate question of when the league actually will expand.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue supports expansion and has set a target date of getting two new teams on the field by 1993.
But Tagliabue, who was a corporate lawyer before getting the job, tends to be a cautious man. He's become even more cautious now that there's some opposition among the owners to expanding in the near future, especially because the economy is weak.
Even though baseball already has narrowed its field to six cities for expansion in 1993, the NFL has yet to give any indication of when it will begin examining the applicants. If it really plans to field the teams in 1993, it has to pick the cities in the next year.
The league told the various cities that expansion would be on the agenda at the annual March meetings in Hawaii. Herbert J. Belgrad, the head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said he hopes the NFL will set up some sort of timetable at the meetings, which he plans to attend.
But an NFL spokesman said last week the league hasn't put together its agenda yet and doesn't know whether expansion will be a topic.
That's just one thing lost in the expansion maze.