A year ago at this time, Baltimore's die-hard football fans were on the edge of their imaginary club seats.
The Rams had announced their intention to leave Los Angeles and were weighing offers from Baltimore and St. Louis. Everyone thought the Raiders would be next to bolt. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were for sale, and two Baltimore investment groups were knocking on the doors of Tampa Stadium.
This fall, the news from the football front is very different: all quiet.
Depending on whom you talk to, the relative lack of publicity is either a canny strategy by Maryland officials or telling evidence that Baltimore's 10-year campaign to rejoin the NFL is dwindling down to its final months.
John Moag, a Baltimore-based Capitol Hill lobbyist named this year as Maryland Stadium Authority chairman, says excess publicity would kill the city's chances. Accordingly, he has kept many of the details quiet and demands a letter of confidentiality from prospective teams before entering into talks.
And that's not the only thing he and Gov. Parris N. Glendening are doing differently from their predecessors. By declaring a willingness to delete funding for a Baltimore stadium next year, Glendening has reversed course from former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who tenaciously fought to get the money and threatened to veto any bill to revoke it.
Glendening's strategy establishes a deadline for the long-running drama, forcing a team considering a move to act or lose what may be the most lucrative stadium option in the country. Of course, it carries a risk: What if a team becomes available next year?
"It's an entirely different effort than what had gone on before," Moag said.
That's not to criticize the previous strategy, Moag said. But the state's NFL drive had been designed to get one of the expansion teams awarded in 1993. That required publicity, to get people to rallies, sell tickets to a preseason game and collect deposits in a premium-seat sales campaign.
"That was, of necessity, a very public process. The process now has to be a lot quieter, a lot more one-on-one. A lot more businesslike," Moag said.
He declines to name the teams he is talking to, but says that there are eight or nine teams looking for the financial salvation a new stadium can provide. "I'm neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I'm just working hard," he said.
Others familiar with the process say that there is a bumper crop of teams considering a move and that Baltimore's chances may be as good as they've ever been -- although no one should start packing for a tailgate party. Most prominantly mentioned: the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns and Seattle Seahawks.
Also considered prospects are the Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Oilers.
"I really believe that the strategy has the potential to bring a team here. I think it was well-thought-out. . . . I think something is going to happen soon," said Louis Grasmick, owner of Louis J. Grasmick Lumber Co. and an investor in a Baltimore NFL expansion bid several years ago.
Thomas Guilfoil, general counsel for the Cardinals, said: "I think it's a cinch that Baltimore will get a team."
He said his opinion is based not on insider knowledge, but on the great number of teams unhappy with their stadiums and the attractiveness of Baltimore's offer.
The Baltimore Cardinals? Guilfoil said only that Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill is unhappy with his stadium and that Baltimore's offer is the best in the country.
"If you put those two facts together, it might give rise to speculation that there might be contact, but I could not %o comment on that speculation," he said.
Browns owner Art Modell also declined to comment on any interest the Browns may have. But he said, "I do think something may work out for you soon."
With the move of the Rams to St. Louis, Baltimore is the only potential franchise site with public funding in place to build a stadium. It is also, aside from Los Angeles, the biggest market without the NFL. But the Washington Redskins continue to oppose a team here, and the league is loath to add a second franchise to the Baltimore-Washington area.
That's why most people think the league is unlikely to approve a resolution requested by Glendening and Moag, which would guarantee a relocated or expansion team for Baltimore at some unspecified date in the future. The resolution must get the backing of 23 of the 30 team owners. It is scheduled for a vote at the NFL's Nov. 7 and 8 meetings, but Moag, who has concerns with the wording of the resolution, said he may ask for changes or a delay.
Several NFL sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say there are supporters of the legally binding measure, but almost certainly not the 23 needed for passage. The measure would require the league to do one of two things it generally resists: creating a new franchise or abandoning a market in favor of Baltimore, a city it passed over in expansion two years ago.
Some see the resolution as a sort of Hail Mary pass by Glendening to demonstrate that he tried everything before he deletes the stadium funding. One team owner said he thinks the league is bringing the matter to a vote to assemble a defense against a possible lawsuit by Maryland.
"Some people think it is a setup," said state Sen. John Pica, chairman of the Baltimore senate delegation.
"I think it's wrong to push the NFL to a vote. I don't think they are of the ilk that likes to be pushed, and I don't think they like to begin the expansion process," said Pica.
More than one local critic of Moag and Glendening's policy of secrecy -- which extends to such one-time power players as Peter Angelos and the Greater Baltimore Committee -- suspect it could mask a half-hearted attempt by a governor who fears becoming associated with a losing effort, and may even favor getting the Redskins to his home county of Prince George's.
But Moag says that he has been busy, and that the Nov. 7 resolution is only one of several avenues being explored to get a team. "We are going at the NFL in a number of directions," Moag said.
One NFL source said Moag has kept in contact with the league's New York office, where he is viewed as a businesslike, no-nonsense representative of the city.
Moag acknowledges meeting with a number of NFL officials and owners, including Carolina Panthers owner and former Baltimore Colt Jerry Richardson, but declines to discuss the details.
Max Muhleman, head of a Charlotte, N.C.-based sports consulting business that helped bring that city a basketball and football team, said, "I hear of too many places where old John surfaces" to believe he is not trying to get a team.
"I think John Moag is doing it just right -- the quiet, behind-the-scenes thing. . . . My personal feeling is in November or December something good is going to happen," he said.
Moag said his end-of-the-year deadline is based on political realities, even though the stadium funding is ensconced in law and will not expire. Only a bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor can take it away.
Most of the funding is in revenue bonds, which can be used only for projects that make money, not for schools or prisons that are built with general obligation bonds.
Pica said he would filibuster a deauthorization bill, especially if some of the money ends up being used for Redskins stadium infrastructure instead of another project for Baltimore, such as an arena.
As for his secrecy, Moag said it keeps the city from being used by teams that want to scare local officials into funding stadium improvements.
PD "If you are going to play in Baltimore, you are going to play by
Baltimore rules. The governor has made it clear to me that I have until the end of the year to make the deal," Moag said.
"I think we're going to be butting up against the deadline. I hope we will know one way or the other in December. If we need to go to the last day of December, then so be it," he said.