It's not over till it's over. Mayor Kurt Schmoke invoked the old cliche Tuesday night after the National Football League put off a decision on the second new franchise. He's right. It may be third down and 20 to go with the clock running out. But winning touchdowns have been scored in the last seconds, and that can happen in this competition.
Perhaps not even the NFL owners know all the reasons they awarded one of the new teams to Charlotte but failed to agree on the other. Probably there was a mixed bag of reasons. Although it could be argued that the five-week delay was designed to give St. Louis more time to get its ownership situation in order, there could be other factors. One is simply that no city had the 21 votes, and the owners did not see any prospect that the required three-fourths majority could be achieved Tuesday.
There are some obvious reasons for the NFL owners to have hesitated, though their relative importance is not yet clear. One is the problem for Baltimore that has been evident from the start: We're in the middle of a cluster of other NFL teams. Charlotte was perceived as a growing city in a vast, sports-starved region. St. Louis sits in the nation's heartland, with huge distances to the next NFL city. St. Louis' roster of potential owners has changed almost weekly in recent months. What seems to be the dominant group emerged only in the final days, and it has some legal tidying up to do. Baltimore may be muddying the waters by advancing two potential owners on equal footings.
So what do we do now? Nothing at all is one possibility. By any standard Baltimore put forward an excellent proposal, arguably the best of the five cities. But it could probably be improved. The Stadium Authority's original proposal left open the possibility of building more sky boxes and installing more premium seats if it seemed likely they could be sold. That prospect looks more solid after the quick sellout of choice seats last summer. That could raise the ante for visiting teams.
Just as a new prospective owner surfaced in St. Louis at the last minute -- and at least one other was in the wings -- Baltimore officials could find themselves looking over other possible entrants beyond the two already in the contest. Whether a new face would strengthen Baltimore's appeal is one of the more difficult decisions Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Herbert J. Belgrad, who has superbly guided the local campaign, will have to make in coming weeks.
Since the Colts were removed 10 years ago, a lot has happened here to make Baltimore more secure in its self-image. We know we're a major-league city; the NFL may just need a little more time to find that out.