Unanimous NFL vote officially puts Tampa Bay in NFC South in 2002.
By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- The Bucs enthusiastically accepted their assignment Tuesday to the NFC South, a move they hope to make with a caravan of fans following them to play regional rivals in Atlanta, New Orleans and Charlotte beginning in 2002.
The unanimous vote on realignment came after only an hour of meetings with owners. The plan won the approval of even the displaced franchises.
"A shorter trip will help you in the long run over a 16-game season," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "The closeness I think helps the fans and generates a little interest. And it'll save me on tickets not playing in Detroit and Minnesota."
Though the Bucs were among nine teams, including expansion Houston, that were assigned new rivals for the 2002 season, half of the eight four-team divisions remained intact.
The new NFC North is a smaller version of the NFC Central with Green Bay, Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit.
Those teams were almost as glad to see the Bucs move on, especially after Tampa Bay's recent move upward in the standings.
"Well, I'm going to miss going to Tampa," Vikings owner Red McCombs said. "I'm not going to miss going down there playing the Buccaneers. Okay with us, them moving somewhere else. That's a trip I can take without going down to play them."
The Bucs, who have reached the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, would seem an immediate favorite to dominate the South against franchises not rich with winning traditions.
Atlanta reached the Super Bowl in 1999, but it is in transition and hopes quarterback Michael Vick will lead its renovation. New Orleans is an upstart, winning the NFC West last season for first-year coach Jim Haslett and quarterback Aaron Brooks. Carolina, which had immediate success by reaching the NFC Championship Game in its second season, is undergoing a youth movement under coach George Seifert.
"I think the traditionalist side of me is disappointed," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "Our division was tremendous with so many great matchups and rivalries. The "Black and Blue Division" says it all. I'll miss playing at Lambeau Field, but you have to play who is on your schedule.
"And when I think of the new division with teams like Atlanta, you think of getting the opportunity to compete against Michael Vick, and a team like New Orleans, which has turned the corner and turned the franchise around."
The teams most affected by the realignment are Seattle and Arizona, which move to the NFC West with San Francisco and St. Louis. Cardinals owner Bill Bidwell lost his rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys, a team that helped fill Sun Devil Stadium when it visited.
But the NFL implemented a plan to use two preseason games to retain old rivalries. And the league plans to make the first rotation of conference opponents for displaced teams opponents from their old division. Translation? Expect to see plenty of the Vikings, Lions, Packers and Bears the next few seasons.
"It is disappointing because we'd like to atone for (the Bucs) having our number lately," Bears owner Mike McCaskey said. "But our fans liked going down to Florida, and there were a lot of Bears fans down there, and we could aways count on a warm welcome.
"I think we keep our black and blue division rivals. Our fans would really be disappointed if we couldn't play the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings."
The format for the playoffs hasn't been determined. But for the time being, the number of playoff teams in each conference remains at six, the four division winners and two wild cards.
The Bucs had been agreeable to changing divisions almost from the outset. But what convinced vice president Brian Glazer to move was witnessing nearly 15,000 Bucs fans cram the Georgia Dome for a game at Atlanta last season.
"It was amazing. And that's what made us very comfortable with this change," he said.
"I think being close enough to where our fans can come, I think it has an impact on the game. I think it had a big impact with all the Bears and Packers fans at our home games for so many years. Now we're going to spread it to other teams. We're going to do to other people what they did to us."
So get the oil changed, check the tread on the tires and get ready for some road trips, Bucs fans.
"I think it will be fun for our fans and look at the schedule and say we might be able to go to Atlanta or New Orleans or Carolina," Dungy said.
"It'll be a good division. I think you look at it now and you see what New Orleans did last year. You've got Dan (Reeves, coach), who's been to five or six Super Bowls. Seifert has won two Super Bowls.
"You have coaches that are good, organizations that are good. I just don't think it'll be any different. You'll get in there, and there will be good rivalries, dogfights, and hopefully it'll be the same type of battles we had in the Central where if you were competitive in that division, you were at the top of the NFC."
- Compiled by Rick Stroud, John Martin.
Back to Sports