NFL expansion uncertain-and-long


Hard as it is to believe, no one is planning a parade down Charles Street to celebrate the pending NFL labor agreement, which is supposed to lead to expansion, which is supposed to lead to the return of football to Baltimore.

Don't put two and two together. The NFL never does, except when it's computing all those spine-tingling playoff possibilities. The Baltimore angle is this: The Colts are 8-7 and can't make it, while Denver is 8-7 but can. Another good year.

Anyway, the expansion derby -- the sporting equivalent of the 100 Years' War -- is about to resume. Unless, of course, the owners turn to a more pressing matter, like their upcoming TV contract or national health care.

It's difficult to get excited when commissioner Paul Tagliabue says, "Gentlemen, start your engines" on the subject of expansion. The owners line up in their Porsches, and suddenly discover they've all got dead batteries.

According to the latest, Tagliabue needs one more vote from the owners' seven-man executive committee to ratify the labor deal, or U.S. District Judge David Doty gets to perform his John Elway act one last time.

Doty gets the ball, the owners lose.

It's the biggest lock in sports.

But, back to expansion. The labor agreement will mark a significant step forward, or so we've been told. Baltimore and the four other expansion hopefuls know better. It ain't over till it's over. And it ain't over when it's over.

Flash back to Super Bowl Week 1991 -- nearly two years ago. Tagliabue said expansion plans were in place. It was speculated that two teams would be added for the '93 season. Now, we're talking about '95, at the earliest. Of course, the owners won't say whether that's 1995, or 2095.

That's why it's impossible to get excited about the latest developments. The Colts left almost nine years ago, and Baltimore has been on an emotional roller coaster ever since. Encouraged one day, discouraged the next. After awhile, you just get numb.

Remember the Baltimore Cardinals?

St. Louis owner Bill Bidwill flirted with moving to Baltimore. Instead, he took his sorry act to Phoenix, where the Cardinals drew 28,452 for their last game. Please, don't say we're better off. A hopeless team is better than no team at all.

Remember Malcolm Glazer?

He entered the Baltimore ownership equation by saying he could pay cash for an expansion franchise. It seemed cause to rejoice, until it was discovered that he might bear a closer resemblance to Eli Jacobs than Santa Claus.

Remember the exhibition game?

The thing sold out in 5.3 seconds, and a great time was had by all. Too bad the owners probably were enjoying a swim at their summer vacation homes instead of taking in all the frantic action on ESPN.

Glazer is still on the roller coaster, along with Tom Clancy and Boogie Weinglass, waiting, waiting, waiting. The NFL required each prospective ownership group to submit its choice of colors and team names. It was like asking Artie Donovan what he'd wear on a date with Cindy Crawford.

If, if, if.

No one -- not even ESPN's Fred Edelstein -- knows how the NFL will proceed with expansion once the labor issue is settled, if indeed it will proceed at all. On those rare occasions when the owners show interest in expansion, they're about as unified as the former Soviet republics.

Indeed, it seems doubtful any city can get the necessary 21 (out of 28) votes. Tagliabue can't even get 21 owners to agree on whether the Eagles wear green. Why, he's struggling to convince four out of seven to endorse a reasonable labor agreement.

On and on it goes, with Baltimore nothing but a helpless bystander. Whenever something happens, it's always entertaining to read the comments of Herb Belgrad, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority. Belgrad is in a maddening position, but it's his job to remain upbeat.

When the labor talks stalled last week, he said, "I recognize that it's not easy to resolve all the issues. The fact that the two parties are talking and have reached agreement on many of the issues is positive."

One of these days, someone should reward Belgrad for his patience. Besides working on expansion, he negotiated the Camden Yards lease with the penny-pinching Orioles. No doubt that was an experience he'll remember fondly.

Of course, it's always possible that one day Belgrad will get his just reward -- a real, live football team, right next door to the baseball team. Only then will it be time to celebrate. As far as expansion is concerned, the NFL always finds a trap door.

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