ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- Amid signs of support within the NFL for a move of the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore, league officials yesterday pledged a vote on the issue within weeks.
"We will move this in the next few weeks to a resolution," said NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "It's not going to be a long-term situation. We're in a position to move this by early February."
Mr. Tagliabue's comments to reporters capped a day of presentations to NFL owners by the Browns and Cleveland, after which city leaders struck a conciliatory tone, asking their enthusiastic fans to stop the barrage of faxes to team owners and pledging to negotiate a "mutually satisfactory resolution" by mid-February.
"We believe the meetings with the league and the owners provide a basis for continuing discussions to achieve our goal of a mutually satisfactory resolution of this matter," Cleveland Mayor Michael White said at a news conference.
Cleveland fans got a lot of sympathy from the owners, but they didn't get much hope that they'll be able to keep their football team.
After listening to the presentations, the owners publicly praised both sides.
"I wish I was Solomon," said Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, "so I could work it out for both Art [Modell, Browns owner] and the city of Cleveland."
"I know there is a lot of sympathy -- no, sympathy isn't the right word -- there's a lot of resolve to have a team in Cleveland," said Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Cleveland will support a team and really should have a football team," said St. Louis Rams president John Shaw, who engineered his team's move from Los Angeles last year.
"If I were a judge, I'd be scratching my head," said New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson.
Privately, though, the owners and league officials had a different message.
Mr. Modell's arguments carried the day because his lawyer, Robert C. Weber, documented Cleveland's failure to build a stadium.
"Art's lawyer blew the city away," said one team official.
The consensus among owners and league officials is that when the owners vote, they easily will approve the move. Under NFL bylaws, a team can move only if three-quarters of the team owners approve.
The city, team and some owners had hoped for a vote yesterday, but Mr. Tagliabue said there was not enough time to consider all the issues involved.
Cleveland has filed suit to force the Browns to play there through the end of their stadium lease in 1998. The case is set for trial Feb. 12, and Mr. Modell has asked the league to vote before then. He has threatened to sell off his best players and play as a "lame duck" if forced to stay in Cleveland through 1998.
Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich, who participated in the Cleveland presentation yesterday, predicted the league will not permit a lame-duck situation. "This is going to be resolved one way or the other," Mr. Voinovich said.
Mr. Tagliabue said: "What's the point of dragging out three or four years of court cases in Baltimore and Cleveland? The fans would like us to have teams on the field, not teams of lawyers in courtrooms."
Owners held out little hope that Cleveland will get a new team without a new stadium.
"Me personally, I wouldn't want to move there [unless there's a new stadium]," Mr. Benson said. "I think the only solution is that they've got to build a new stadium."
The owners also discounted reports that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were negotiating to move to Cleveland this fall -- unless there's a new stadium proposal in place.
Cleveland and league officials denied that any talks are taking place with the Buccaneers. The Cowboys' Mr. Jones said: "That has never been brought up. I've never had a credible person mention Tampa Bay moving."
Malcolm Glazer, who owns the Buccaneers, has declined to comment.
In the past, Mr. White has said he wouldn't accept a settlement without getting a new team immediately, but he was more vague yesterday, saying he doesn't negotiate in public. The mayor would say only that he expects to continue discussions with the league within 48 hours.
"I don't telegraph negotiations," Mr. White said.
Owners and league officials say a range of options is being considered, from simply letting the Browns move and promising Cleveland a new team when it builds a stadium to giving one city or the other an expansion franchise. Few owners expressed an interest in forcing Mr. Modell back to Cleveland, where the response to his announced move has been hostile.
Mr. Modell reportedly has received numerous death threats. Mr. Weber told NFL owners that Mr. Modell requires 24-hour security at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., and no longer opens his own mail. He also reportedly was accompanied to the hotel for the meetings by bomb-sniffing dogs.
"You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube," said Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, a member of the league's influential finance committee. "I wish they never left. However, that's not the case. They have left. The idea of them staying there is hard to see."
Browns officials were upbeat after yesterday's meeting.
David Hopcraft, Mr. Modell's spokesman, said: "I think Art is confident that he meets the criteria and will get a yes vote."
"I felt good that the owners, when they heard the facts and saw the documents, many said to Art it was a very good presentation and 'We understand better now.' Many were surprised at the level of rhetoric and violence that's been aimed at Art. He's one of them getting threatened."
Mr. Hopcraft also said Mr. Modell wasn't upset at the prospect of a two- or three-week delay.
However, Maryland's contract with the team allows the Maryland Stadium Authority to sue the league if its approval is not "forthcoming promptly."
Stadium authority chairman John Moag flew to Atlanta last night to consult with Mr. Modell. Mr. Moag would not say last night what the state planned to do. The state cannot begin construction of the Baltimore football stadium until the NFL approves the move.
In their closed-door presentations, the city and Browns went through the league's nine-point guidelines for relocation, passed in the wake of the Raiders' move from Oakland to Los Angeles.
Highlights of the chronology of the Cleveland stadium conflict, as presented by the Browns to NFL owners yesterday:
* Art Modell forms Cleveland Stadium Corp. in 1973 to lease and operate Municipal Stadium.
* Stadium Corp. spends $34 million in improvements and interest on loans for improvements to Municipal Stadium from 1973 to 1995.
* In 1989, city leaders tell Mr. Modell that, if he supports the Indians' move to a new stadium, they will address his needs next.
* In 1990, a stadium for the Indians and an arena for the Cavaliers are approved and opened in 1994 at a cost of $435 million.
* In 1991, construction is begun on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum at a cost of $92 million.
* On Jan. 8, 1994, Mr. Modell tells Cleveland Mayor Michael White he no longer can wait for a new or renovated stadium and can't put more money into the stadium.
* In June 1994, Mr. White promises the Browns a deal by Labor Day.
* In December 1994, Mr. White names a task force of city leaders to solve the Browns' problems.
* In May 1995, the mayor's task force produces a plan for a new stadium, but the mayor rejects the financing plan and cost estimates as too low. He names another task force to try again.
* On Nov. 6, 1995, Mr. Modell announces he plans to move the Browns to Baltimore.
* On Nov. 8, 1995, Mr. White delivers the city's first proposal for stadium renovation to the Browns.