BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn walked out of this week's NFL meeting in Baltimore with a pretty good question for her father and the rest of the NFL.
When the NFL realigns into eight four-team divisions in 2002 after Houston joins as the 32nd team, why doesn't the league place at least one big market team in each division?
"Chicago," Blackburn said. "That would be perfect for us. Cincinnati. Chicago. Cleveland. Pittsburgh. Why not? Rivalries change down through the years. There are always new ones."
Bengals President Mike Brown, her father, likes the idea. But he lived through the massive AFL-NFL merger in 1970 and saw how hard it was to wrench owners away from their old rivals. But even though the owners can't come to grips with realignment just yet, Brown feels the clubs will agree to expand the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams in 2002.
"The sense in the room is that the majority wants a better chance to get to the playoffs," Brown said. "Katie's got a good thought. But people are hard pressed to give up their preferences. We'll never get Chicago. They want to be with Green Bay, Detroit and I assume Minnesota. If I was the Bud Selig of football, I would share all away game revenue equally so then it doesn't matter if you were in a division with big, new stadiums or big markets."
That's a radical thought when it comes to the NFL's hall of power. But then, so is pulling the Bengals out of a division with Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Brown is thankful for that, but then again, "Two years ago I never dreamt the Reds would be discussed about going into a division with Atlanta, Tampa, Miami. That just doesn't seem where they should be."
Brown sees the Bengals-Steelers-Browns coalition holding up, but it gets a little sticky after that. Pittsburgh would like to be with Baltimore and Philadelphia. Cleveland is attracted to Detroit and Buffalo. The Bengals see a fit with Tennessee or Indianapolis as the AFC Central's fourth team.
But stand in a hotel lobby with 31 NFL owners, and you'll get 31 different divisions. Buffalo's Ralph Wilson doesn't want to budge from the AFC East, where he has 30-year rivalries with the big market New York Jets and New England Patriots and "we have to be in with Miami. That's our rival game. We sell it out every year before we print the tickets."
Brown understands and supports Wilson on those points. But Blackburn also has another good question when she wonders why Dallas is kept in the NFC East with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins. She also knows the answer. The Cowboys won't give up those cash cow markets and as Baltimore owner Art Modell said, "it would take an act of Congress," to break up Dallas and Washington.
"Everybody knows we have to realign," said Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy. "Everybody wants it, but nobody wants to be the team to move. 'Leave us and move everyone else.' You can't have it that way. . .Kids don't know Pittsburgh was originally an NFL team. Thirty years from now, no one will know (about the current alignment). We just have to develop new rivalries. I'm for where ever they put us. People will be upset for awhile, but hey, that's part of the game."
Brown said he can't see the owners adversely affecting any club when they finally decide by June of 2001 how to diffuse the teams. He remembers how the old Cleveland Browns went through a spate of rivals. San Francisco in the late '40s. Detroit in the mid '50s. Then it was the New York Giants by the turn of the '60s.
"In baseball a few years ago," Brown said, "it was hard to see the Reds move away from the Dodgers and the Giants. Chicago, St. Louis and Pittsburgh seemed strange. Now they seem good and getting better. The same will happen in football."
Brown doesn't want to see football dilute its regular season like the NHL and NBA, but he thinks expanding the playoffs is a minor issue. He won't say it cheapens the regular season, he admits, "It impacts it."
Colts president Bill Polian, Brown's fellow member of the NFL Competition Committee, says it will make the regular-season better because, "with a balanced schedule where everyone plays common opponents, there will be fighting for tiebreakers all the way to the end."
Brown's biggest concern with the 14-team playoff is that three games each will now have to be played on that first Saturday and Sunday, which means the late game has to be at 8 p.m. because there won't be regional television.
"That might not be so good in January in Cincinnati, Green Bay or Buffalo or whereever," Brown said.
Polian thinks the night factor can be taken care of with teams from the West Coast and domes. For example, they plotted out last season's playoffs under the 14-team format and had the Colts' home game in the RCA Dome against Tennessee at 8 p.m.
The committee appears to be leaning to a 6-4-4-2 plan in which a division champion plays six home-and-away games in the division, four games against another division in the conference, four games against a division in the other conference and two games against first-place teams in the two other divisions in their conference.
There is a small group of owners, led by the Steelers' Dan Rooney, pushing for those final two games to be reserved for rivalries. They could be geographic rivals (Jets-Giants, Eagles-Steelers, Dolphins-Buccaneers) or historical rivals, say like the Patriots-Giants or Browns-Giants.
But Brown appears to be in the majority when he says, "there's not enough rivals to go around. Most of them are already in the division, like we have with Cleveland and Pittsburgh."