Fourth Down, Goal to Go


Baltimore's strong point in the contest for a new National Football League franchise was in the strength of its financial package, the appeal of the city and the stability and resources of its two prospective ownership groups. It's not yet clear what the metropolitan area's weaknesses were -- if any -- but it would be dumb to undermine the city's strengths in a panic effort to mend perceived flaws.

Disappointment over the failure to gain the second NFL franchise after Charlotte won the first is understandable. The region put on a strong case, with solid numbers and demonstrated fan enthusiasm to bolster its claims. Alone of the five candidates, Baltimore did not go through a crisis of ownership or financing during the final phase that led up to last week's decision day.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and leader of the football campaign, have wisely paused to take stock before plunging ahead with changes in the package presented to the NFL leaders Tuesday. Plainly the package was not enough to get Baltimore 21 of the 28 votes. But neither was anyone else's, except for Charlotte.

Unless you assume a predisposition among the NFL owners to pick St. Louis come what may, as some people in the other four cities believe, the competition for the second slot is still to be won or lost. And it can just as easily be lost by hasty scrambling as it can be won by cool calculation.

If it is clear that some features need strengthening, the package can be improved. Raising the ante with more money may be the least likely area for improvement, though it could be done. From the start, the Maryland Stadium Authority has said it could increase the number of sky boxes and premium seats, thus raising the payout for visiting teams.

Although there has been persistent gossip that the NFL has reservations about either or both of the prospective Baltimore ownership groups, there is not yet persuasive evidence of that. But if the Baltimore leaders' inquiries indicate that is a problem, they appear to have other viable candidates on the sidelines ready to take over.

It still looks like fourth and 20 for Baltimore. But if the quarterback calls the right play, the game can still be won.

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