After moving year, NFL will never be the same

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's likely to be remembered as the 12-month, 18-day span that changed the face of the NFL.

When league owners voted 23-6-1 on Tuesday to approve the Houston Oilers' move to Nashville -- pending the approval of Nashville voters Tuesday -- it was the fourth time since April 12, 1995, the owners have approved a move.

That's when they approved the Rams' move from Los Angeles to St. Louis by the same 23-6-1 vote after first rejecting it a month earlier on the grounds that the Rams didn't meet the guidelines.

The threat of a $2 billion lawsuit quickly changed the owners' minds. That was followed by the vote last July 21 by a 23-0-5 count to approve the move of the Raiders from Los Angeles back to Oakland and the 25-2-3 vote on Feb. 9 to approve the Cleveland-Baltimore deal.

It's not exactly a coincidence that three of these votes were approved by the 23-vote minimum. Once there are seven negative or abstaining votes -- Raiders owner Al Davis abstained on all four votes on the grounds the NFL can't stop franchise moves -- no owner wants to be the eighth negative vote to trigger a lawsuit.

Those four votes have shown the owners aren't going to attempt to block any move.

Houston mayor Bob Lanier was so convinced the owners would approve the move that he skipped the meeting to watch an NBA playoff game.

Even though the vote was a foregone conclusion, it still took six hours of debate before the matter was resolved. That's because commissioner Paul Tagliabue tried to get the owners to approve a resolution that would give the league control of the Houston market.

It would have been similar to the resolution they previously passed giving the league control of the Los Angeles market so a team would have to get permission from the league to start negotiations.

The problem was that the owners weren't sure they could enforce such a resolution and many owners aren't keen on putting more power into Tagliabue's hands. It didn't even come up for a formal vote because it was obvious from an informal show of hands that he didn't have close to 23 votes.

Some owners were annoyed that Tagliabue didn't give them any advance notice of this provision.

"It was a big surprise," one owner said. "They should send out a resolution in advance and let us know what we're in for so we have some time to reflect. It didn't sit well with much of the ownership."

Also, the owners agreed that $5 million of a potential $25 million relocation fee the Oilers could pay will go into a fund that will guarantee the visiting team $500,000 for each game at the Astrodome the next two years. Since the Oilers plan to play there as a lame duck, they don't figure to draw big crowds.

It's still uncertain whether the Oilers will pay any relocation fee. The city of St. Louis still is suing to get paid its $29 million relocation fee on the grounds that the Raiders didn't pay one when they went back to Oakland.

Tagliabue will have to explain in court next year why the Oilers supposedly met all the league's moving guidelines even though he said the Rams didn't.

Now all that's left is the approval of the voters in Tennessee Tuesday of $80 million in bonds that are part of the $292 million stadium construction plan.

The polls show the measure is leading and Mayor Philip Bredesen cleverly has declined to argue that economic benefits will offset the cost of the stadium. It's too easy for economists to point out that an open-air football stadium used 10 times a year can't be justified on a cost basis.

He's arguing, instead, that an NFL team will enhance the city's image.

Assuming the vote passes, the NFL will leave Houston -- the nation's fourth largest market and the 11th largest TV market -- for the 33rd market.

It will be another example that stadium deals -- not market size -- drive the NFL these days.

The lame duck

Just in case there was any doubt about it after coach Bill Parcells was stripped of his power over personnel decisions, he officially became a lame-duck coach when New England owner Bob Kraft confirmed the two had agreed to eliminate the final year of his contract in 1997.

The contract Parcells originally had negotiated with former owner James Orthwein had a penalty clause in it if he didn't fulfill all five years. Now he's free to walk at the end of this season.

The question now is whether Kraft will promote Bill Belichick, who was hired by Parcells as an assistant after he was fired by owner Art Modell when he moved the Browns to Baltimore, to replace Parcells.

Belichick is obviously Parcells' choice, but Kraft may want an offensive-oriented coach to work with quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Belichick's dour public image may not help his cause with Kraft either.

Showing up

Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens' top draft pick, showed up all three days at the team's weekend minicamp.

That may not seem like much, but it's more than the player they bypassed, running back Lawrence Phillips, did. Phillips arrived in St. Louis for minicamp with a swollen right hand -- he said he injured it moving furniture -- and then didn't show for the final session Sunday.

Phillips rented a limo and stayed out much of Saturday night with the team's other first-round pick, Eddie Kennison, and they both overslept.

Coach Rich Brooks was terse in his comments about their absence.

"I'd have preferred that both of them be there, but they weren't. We don't know much more than that. It's something we'll address the next time they're here," he said.

Privately, Brooks was livid because the Rams took a gamble on Phillips in the first place, considering his record of violence against his former girlfriend.

They're wondering now if he's irresponsible on top of everything else.

Phillips left town without commenting, but his agent, Mitch Frankel, said, "He realizes he made a mistake there, and he's not going to let it happen again."

That's what Frankel said about Phillips before the draft.

Meanwhile, Phillips' Nebraska teammate, Christian Peter, who was dumped by the Patriots after they drafted him when they investigated his record of violence against women, finds out this week if any team will claim him off waivers.

The Patriots are trying to get their fifth-round draft pick back for next year on the grounds the league's security file didn't include all of Peter's past problems.

Peter's problems were so well-known, though, that the Patriots staff should have alerted Kraft in advance. It turned out the owner -- who publicly said he would never draft Phillips -- had never heard of Peter before the draft.

Since Peter isn't a first-round talent like Phillips, there may not be many teams willing to take a chance on him.

Pub Date: 5/05/96

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