NFL to try realign play; Tagliabue calls for 8 four-team divisions; Ravens may stay put


When the NFL realigned the National Football Conference after the 1970 merger, the owners could never agree on one plan.

They finally narrowed the options down to five, put them in a bowl and had then-commissioner Pete Rozelle's secretary pick out the one the teams still use 29 years later.

Except for the addition of Tampa Bay to the NFC Central in 1977 and Carolina to the NFC West in 1995, the NFC remains unchanged. The AFC remains unchanged except for the addition of Seattle to the AFC West and Jacksonville to the AFC Central.

That is all likely to change by June 2001. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue made the surprising announcement yesterday that the league will be realigned into eight four-team divisions by that time to prepare for Houston's entrance into the league in 2002.

It may be time to get a bowl out again because it's not going to be easy to get any plan approved because it's such an emotional issue.

As recently as last March, Tagliabue wrote off realignment, saying, "There is no groundswell of support."

Tagliabue knows what a headache realignment is and didn't seem to be too eager to tackle it.

But the alternative would be two six-team divisions and four five-team divisions when Houston enters the league in 2002.

The teams in six-team divisions are in virtual islands. Over the next three years, the six teams in the AFC Central will play 30 games against the other five teams in the division and only 18 against the other 25 teams in the league.

It can even be an advantage for the teams at the top of a six-team division. If Jacksonville, Tennessee and Pittsburgh go 6-0 against the Bengals, Browns and Ravens, it would be an advantage for them in the wild-card race.

So far, the Steelers and Titans are 4-0 against the bottom three teams and 1-3 in their other games.

The result is that the climate for realignment is becoming warmer.

League officials have already tentatively talked about a plan that might be called Realignment Lite. Under this plan, 20 teams would remain in their current divisions.

It might be described the last-in, first-out plan. The two 1976 expansion teams, Seattle and Tampa Bay, would leave their divisions, the AFC West and NFC Central, respectively. Indianapolis would leave the AFC East, Arizona would leave the NFC East and two teams, probably Tennessee and Jacksonville, would leave the AFC Central.

Those six teams and Houston and the five NFC teams would be combined in three divisions.

Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona and St. Louis would probably be in an NFC West Division, with New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay forming a new NFC division and Jacksonville, Tennessee, Houston and Indianapolis in a new AFC division.

But getting such a plan approved won't be easy. To start with, Arizona owner Bill Bidwill will vote against leaving the NFC East even though it doesn't make much sense from a geographical basis for his team to be grouped with them. Dallas is an automatic sellout when the Cowboys visit.

Seattle may not be keen about leaving the AFC, although one AFC team has to switch to the NFC because Houston has been placed in the AFC.

One big battle could be in the AFC Central. When Cleveland came into the league, the league guaranteed it would remain with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in any realignment.

Baltimore, whose owner, Art Modell, gave up his realignment vote when he moved from Cleveland, would make sense as the fourth team on a geographical basis.

It would seem logical for Tennessee and Jacksonville to move out on a geographical basis. But Titans owner Bud Adams has been in the division since the 1970 merger when he was in Houston and is not likely to want to move.

"It's an emotional thing," said Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese. "You look at it and say, 'wait a minute, we can't imagine not playing Pittsburgh. It's something we should do every year.' "

Even Jacksonville, only in its fifth season, has developed an instant rivalry with Pittsburgh and might balk at the idea of leaving.

It doesn't help that Tagliabue isn't noted for working the back rooms and building coalitions. What he has to sell is that teams can quickly develop new rivalries and what looks like an advantage now may not be one five years from now.

Houston wins

Houston, without a team since the Oilers left after the 1996 season, wins an expansion franchise with a record $700 million bid.

New look?

Under a plan being studied by NFL officials, 22 teams would remain in their current divisions and 10 teams would be in new divisions. How a new alignment might look (*-in new division):

AFC East, AFC Central

Buffalo, Ravens

New England, Cincinnati N.Y. Jets Cleveland

Miami, Pittsburgh

AFC West, New AFC division

Denver, Houston*

Kansas City, Indianapolis*

Oakland, Jacksonville*

San Diego, Tennessee*

NFC East, NFC Central

Dallas, Chicago

N.Y. Giants, Detroit

Philadelphia, Green Bay

Washington, Minnesota

NFC West, New NFC division

Arizona*, Atlanta*

St. Louis, Carolina*

San Francisco, New Orleans*

Seattle*, Tampa Bay*

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