Let's Not Punt Yet


Imagine a Super Bowl in which the referee keeps moving the goal line back 10 yards each time one of the teams gets close to scoring. The mildest term a fan would use is "unfair." It's hard to escape the feeling that's what the National Football League is doing to Baltimore -- and Memphis and Jacksonville, too. Tuesday was supposed to be decision day on the two new franchises. It was, for Charlotte. As for St. Louis, it got extra time to get its ownership structure in order.

Discouraging as the delay is, it is not reason to slink away quite yet. Divining what was in the minds of the NFL owners is as risky as Kremlinology used to be. Maybe it was a device to help St. Louis, as the cynics are arguing. Or maybe the owners were so deadlocked they needed a breather. A look at the map shows one of the points that is probably bothering them. Baltimore is hemmed in by other NFL teams, Charlotte and St. Louis stand out in vast hinterlands unblessed by an NFL franchise. After 12 hours in what was probably a smoke-filled room, the owners' vision may have been more cloudy than onlookers realized.

Where do we go from here? For the next five weeks, we wait but don't necessarily sit still. All of Baltimore's competitors, and the Glazer family that hopes for a franchise here, sweetened their bids in the final days. Baltimore has put forth an excellent proposal, probably the best on paper of the five.

Still, there may be room for improving it here and there without giving away the store. Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Herbert J. Belgrad, the Stadium Authority chairman who did a superb job in orchestrating the region's bid, can be counted on to look hard at those options in the coming weeks. And perhaps to listen to other prospective owners who might want to join the Baltimore effort at the last minute, as happened in St. Louis.

Furthermore, with all these attractive offers left lying around after the second franchise is awarded, it would be natural for some of the present owners to examine them carefully. The expansion process has raised the book values of existing franchises. And the obvious eagerness of the three losing cities gives some of the owners maneuvering room. They can think seriously of moving for better deals in the frustrated cities, or they can at least convince their present hosts they might do so, unless . . .

The next five weeks won't be easy, for local fans, for Mr. Belgrad and the hundreds of volunteers who put in so much time making Baltimore's case. The worst thing Marylanders can do would be either to grovel or bluster. This metropolitan area made the best of a very strong case for a franchise. This isn't any longer the city with the fragile psyche that was devastated by the removal of the Colts 10 years ago. We know we're major league. If the NFL doesn't, it's the league's loss.

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