Is it finally time to set the expansion watch?


PASADENA, Calif. -- This time, it may not be a false alarm.

When commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Friday that the NFL will name two expansion teams in October to play in 1995, it had the look of the real thing.

L Of course, Tagliabue has been overly optimistic in the past.

In the spring of 1990, he said in a conference call that the league would expand "possibly by 1992, certainly by 1993."

It didn't reach that target, and then in May 1991, the league passed a resolution calling for the naming of two teams in the fall of 1992 to play in 1994.

There was one proviso. If labor problems became an "impediment," expansion could be delayed.

Sure enough, it was a problem. At least it was in the league's eyes when it didn't reach a settlement with the players and the target was delayed.

This time, Tagliabue didn't add any ifs, ands or buts to the declaration now that a settlement has been reached with the players.

He still has to get 21 owners to agree in March to go ahead with expansion, and there are some who are bound to quibble that they should get the next television contract sorted out first.

But the odds are that Tagliabue will get the owners to go along with him this time.

He also has a carrot to offer. According to the settlement with the players, the expansion fees won't be counted in the designated gross revenue the way the TV money is.

That means the owners get to put all of the expansion money in their own pocket instead of giving 60 percent of it to the players the way they do with the TV money.

That will offset the sting of having to split the TV money 30 ways instead of 28 ways in the future.

In any case, the timing couldn't be better for Baltimore.

The selection of the teams will come a little more than three months after the baseball All-Star Game will give Baltimore a national showcase for Camden Yards.

When they show the blimp shot of the new stadium during the game,Baltimore officials are sure to suggest to them that they can point out where the new football stadium will be built with public funding if Baltimore gets a team.

Nothing is guaranteed when the 28 NFL owners start voting, but it would seem to be difficult for any other city to top that blimp shot.

The TV battle

The saber-rattling has started between the TV networks and the NFL over the next contract.

Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC Sports, said last week that the networks are going to lose $200 million on the NFL in 1993.

Last year, the networks negotiated a rebate for 1993 in exchange for a two-year extension with Art Modell, the Cleveland Browns owner who heads the TV committee. Tagliabue, though, couldn't get 21 owners to support the proposal.

"If we don't think we can make a profit in our next NFL arrangement, we won't be in it," Ebersole said. "We can't subsidize another business. We're not a charity."

When NBC officials said similar things a year ago, Tagliabue brushed it off as a negotiating ploy.

"The networks in this context are fairly skilled in stating their positions privately and publicly," he said.

At his news conference Friday, Tagliabue took a much more subdued tone. He simply said the NFL would try to work things out with the network.

The NFL still gets high ratings, but because of the recession, the networks can't charge enough for their ads to overcome the huge rights fees.

The $3.65 billion contract signed in 1990 called for each team to get an average of $32 million a year, but it goes up to more than $40 million in 1993.

It's hard to believe NBC would walk away from the NFL, but the network may not be bluffing.

The network's revenue figures to go down in 1994. The question is just how much it's going to go down.

Is replay dead?

Today may be the last chance for instant replay to be revived in 1993.

Unless there's a controversial call in the Super Bowl that has a huge effect on the game, there won't be much sentiment to revive it.

The death knell was sounded at Tagliabue's Friday news conference when he announced he won't recommend bringing it back.

Instant replay died last year when only 17 owners voted for it (it needed 21 votes to be saved) even when Tagliabue supported it. Now that he isn't, it appears to have no chance.

It's difficult, though, to judge the impact of a blown call in the Super Bowl. Things that happen in the Super Bowl tend to get magnified.

Unless that happens, instant replay is dead for another season. Nobody really missed it during the regular season.

Tagliabue also mentioned that many teams decided that it gave the defenses an edge when a replay delay interrupted the flow of a drive.

The miss

Scott Norwood remembers the miss. He just doesn't want to talk about.

The former Buffalo place-kicker, who was wide right with a 47-yard field-goal attempt at the end of the Bills' 20-19 loss to the New York Giants two years ago, lost his job when the Bills signed Steve Christie last spring.

Norwood, who lives in Virginia, has an unlisted number, and he asked the Bills not to give it out. He didn't want to rehash that miss.

It's an indication of how cruel the Super Bowl can be for the losers.

For the winners, it can make their careers. Just ask Joe Namath.

For losers, especially a player who becomes the goat, the glare of the Super Bowl spotlight can last a long time.

A lot of Buffalo players didn't play well enough to win the Super Bowl against the Giants, but Norwood's miss is the one that is remembered.

Thurman Thomas is in a similar situation. The Bills would have lost last year's game even if he hadn't misplaced his helmet and had played the first two plays. But Thomas is remembered for losing his helmet.

Jackie Smith can relate to being remembered for a mistake. With the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII, he dropped a pass from Roger Staubach in the end zone in the third period. It wouldn't have made much difference if he'd caught it. The Pittsburgh Steelers were unstoppable, building a 35-17 lead midway through the final quarter. They gave up a couple of prevent-defense touchdowns to win, 35-31.

Smith's drop is remembered, though, and it's forgotten that he had a distinguished career with the St. Louis Cardinals.

That's what happens when a whole nation watches an event. One play can become larger than life.

Staying on top

The new salary cap may make it more difficult for the free-spending organizations such as the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins to stay on top.

But the teams that are willing to spend money may still have an edge.

Look at what the 49ers did last week. They gave their offensive coordinator, Mike Shanahan, a contract that made him the highest-paid assistant in the league to keep him from taking a job as the Denver Broncos head coach. He reportedly will get more than $300,000 a year.

The 49ers were eager to keep Shanahan because if they lost him, they would have had their third offensive coordinator in a little over a year. They lost Mike Holmgren to the Green Bay Packers last year.

Shanahan also was concerned about the direction the Denver franchise is going under owner Pat Bowlen. He figured he could wait for a better opportunity.

Remember burnout

Now that Dan Reeves, the former Broncos coach, has taken the same job with the Giants, the burnout theory can be just about put to rest.

When John Madden and Dick Vermeil left coaching for the announcing booth and never came back to the sidelines, the theory started that coaching was so stressful that coaches burned out.

But now Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells have come back to coach and Reeves wasn't unemployed for long. It turned out that Madden and Vermeil were the exception, not the rule.

Reeves even took the Giants job as the third choice after Tom Coughlin and Dave Wannstedt turned it down. He also applied for the job, telling GM George Young that he didn't have to have the total control he demanded in Denver.

Incidentally, now that Reeves has changed teams, coach Joe Gibbs of the Redskins is second in seniority among active coaches with the same team. He'll start his 13th season with the Redskins next year.

Gibbs doesn't figure to burn out, either. He was so exhausted at the end of the season that he had a physical to make sure he was only worn down.

But Gibbs gets away from football during the off-season. Not that he relaxes. He's busy working with his NASCAR team that will start its second season next month.

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