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Moving made easier

NFL expects only minor bumps along final road to realignment.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 2001


ROSEMONT, Ill. -- During the last attempt to draw new divisions, when the NFL and AFL merged in 1970, commissioner Pete Rozelle settled the marathon session by having his assistant, Thelma Elkjer, pull the realignment from a jar.

When owners gather in Rosemont today through Thursday to finalize a plan for eight four-team divisions, the change won't come by chance.

With the expansion Houston Texans joining the league in 2002, NFL owners essentially have drawn seven very similar outlines from which to choose.

"I would say I think a lot of people have been surprised because of the war stories from 1970," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said.

"That was a unique time. It was two different leagues, and a lot of emotion was built up because of those rivalries. I think with our situation, owners looked at realignment as win-win for the league."

But several teams, reluctant to move out of their divisions and break up rivalries, will try to force their own agenda.

Rest assured the Bucs will not be one of them.

Tampa Bay already is resigned to moving from the NFC Central to a new NFC South that would include three former NFC West teams -- Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina.

So owners essentially will have to settle a few disputes.

Either Baltimore or Indianapolis will be selected to join Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville in the new AFC South. The remaining team will be paired with Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the AFC North.

The Seahawks will lobby to stay in the AFC West with rivals Oakland and Denver. But it appears more likely that Seattle and Arizona will be asked to relocate to the NFC West with San Francisco and St. Louis.

Cardinals owner Bill Bidwell, who says he relies heavily on filling his stadium with games against the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, is bent on remaining in the NFC East.

Making the passing of realignment much easier will be the owners' decision in January to pool 40 percent of the visiting share of gate receipts and divide it equally among the 32 teams. That took away worries from teams with smaller stadiums that losing division rivals would cost them too much financially.

Among the attractive elements of realignment will be a rotating schedule that will produce 14 common opponents for each team in its division. Every team will play against another division from each conference, with the remaining two games against teams in their conference with the same standing from the previous year.

"The best of the division rivalries will be maintained," Tagliabue said. "And the upside is the common opponents and the equity that it produces."

A proposal requires 24 votes to pass. But Tagliabue holds proxy votes for St. Louis, Baltimore and Tennessee -- all teams that relocated in the 1990s -- plus Houston.

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

NFL's new look

One of the most popular of the NFL's seven realignment plans:

NFC

EAST: Dallas, New York Giants, Philadelphia, Washington

SOUTH: Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans, Tampa Bay

NORTH: Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota

WEST: Arizona, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle

AFC

EAST: Buffalo, Miami, New England, New York Jets

SOUTH: Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Tennessee

NORTH: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh

WEST: Denver, Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego -- Source: ESPN.com

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