NFL closes in on format

5-22-01, 11:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

ROSEMONT, Ill. _ Steelers President Dan Rooney said Tuesday morning the NFL owners could strike quickly and approve a realignment plan by the end of the day Tuesday.

As his fellow owners convened here for the first session of this week's league meetings at an O'Hare Airport hotel ballroom, Rooney said only two issues stand in the way of the eight-division, four-team lineup that begins play in 2002.

Rooney said the owners have to resolve which team moves from the AFC West to the NFC West, Seattle or San Diego, as well as which team joins Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the new AFC North.

But that's easier said than done, as indicated by a straw poll in the lobby minutes before the meeting:

_Bengals President Mike Brown agrees with the current Bengals.com fan poll and supports Indianapolis joining Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. But he would accept Baltimore, Houston, or Tennessee, and says the Super Bowl champion Ravens and the expansion Houston Texans are the front-runners.

_Rooney is pushing for Baltimore to come in with the Bengals, Browns and Steelers because of historical connections and driving distance.

_Houston owner Bob McNair wants his expansion team in the AFC North so the city can bask in the defunct Oilers' old rivalries. Even though he admits Houston "isn't even in North Texas. But if Dallas is in the NFC East. . ."

Yet McNair, who owns a Triple Crown stakes horse, figures it's a long shot against Baltimore and thinks the new Texans could end up in the AFC South's "Super

Division," of Jacksonville, Tennessee and Indianapolis

_Tennessee owner Bud Adams, who moved the Oilers from Houston to Nashville five years ago, also wants his Titans to stay in the AFC North because of the current AFC Central rivalries.

The Bengals would welcome Tennessee before Houston and Baltimore, but Adams also said he doesn't think other Central teams will go for the Titans. If he can't go North, Adams would vote for Indianapolis to go in the North while the Titans go in the AFC South with Houston, Jacksonville and Baltimore.

The problem is, Adams, along with the re-located owners of St. Louis, Houston and Baltimore, doesn't have a vote. Those four votes belong to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and he'll swing them to the majority.

"If it gets to a close vote, to get a deal done the vote will be what's best for the league," Adams said. "Either way, it's all right with me."

Adams, who originally didn't want to play Houston twice a year and travel to the city where he still lives once a year, can apparently feel the shift of the membership that wants him south.

"It would be a good rivalry," Adams said of Houston-Tennessee.

Rivalries are why McNair wants to hook up Houston with Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh because his fans died with those matchups in the AFC Central of the '70s, '80s and early '90s.

"I don't have a problem with that if they put Tennessee in the North, but some in the old AFC Central won't like that," McNair said.

He's leery of going to an AFC South that could have Jacksonville, Tennessee and Indianapolis.

"The only point I'm making is that we're the weakest team in the league ending up in the strongest division," McNair said. "At least make sure we've got some players so we can compete. That's all we want to do.

"We're sort of cannon fodder for the next coupe of years," McNair said. "Everybody wants us. All we want is some players."

Although there is the feeling of a quick resolution Tuesday, McNair echoes how hard it really is.

"Not everyone," McNair said, "will be satisfied."

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