NFL realigns emotion

5-22-01, 6:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

ROSEMONT, Ill. _ The last time the NFL realigned, it was so hard and so bitter and so haphazard that the owners had to form the divisions from slips of paper plucked from a vase.

On Tuesday, 31 years later, it was so easy and so orchestrated and so planned, the owners pulled the new NFL out of their pockets.

They met for barely an hour here at a hotel hard by teeming O'Hare Airport and it was done.

Eight divisions from East, West, North, South. Four teams each. Seattle moves from the AFC West to the NFC West. Expansion Houston settles with AFC Central and East refugees Jacksonville, Tennessee and Indianapolis.

All those did say, "Aye."

See you in 2002.

"The acrimony from 30 years ago was because we didn't know the 10 owners from the AFL," said Art Modell, the outgoing owner of the Baltimore Ravens who sat in on that 1970 realignment as owner of the old-guard NFL Cleveland Browns.

"Totally different circumstances," Modell said. "We hated the AFL then. We fought with them for players, for fans. It was a passion. We know each other now. When you don't know people, it's difficult to do business."

These owners know each other so well that they have formed U-Haul Divisions and are pitting old teams against old cities.

In the NFC West, there is St. Louis, which lost the Cardinals to Phoenix, teamed with Arizona. In the AFC South, there is Houston, which lost the Oilers to Nashville, teamed with Tennessee. In the AFC North, there is Cleveland, which lost the Browns to Baltimore, teamed with the Ravens.

"I don't think there's a problem," said Steelers president Dan Rooney, an influential member of the league's realignment committee. "We couldn't look at the situation that were personal choices, or things like that. We all had to do what was best for the league."

There were some hurt feelings. Bob McNair, owner of the Texans, said the NFL is going to have to stock his expansion team with a different formula if the league expects the club to compete in three years in the AFC Super South of the Texans, Jaguars, Titans and Colts.

And Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver was stymied in his top two choices. Teaming with Miami or Baltimore in the AFC South.

Still, most owners felt like Bengals President Mike Brown, who said, "I couldn't be more satisfied," even though he didn't get everything he wanted.

"This time around, there's a feeling we're all in the NFL," Brown said. "It's not us vs. them like it was back then."

Brown, who also sat in the 1970 realignment, voted for the plan even though he wanted Indianapolis instead of Baltimore in the AFC North.

Even though Modelll moved Brown's long-ago love, the Cleveland Browns, to Baltimore.

Even though Modell fired his father, Hall-of-Fame

coach Paul Brown, to fuel the Cincinnati-Cleveland rivalry.

But it also means that there is still a historical thread in the AFC North.

"They were part of it up in Cleveland and now they're part of it again," Mike Brown said.

Modell is to step down in three years in favor of Steve Bisciotti. But current Cleveland president Carmen Policy says the thread is "what helps make the rivalry."

And there is some history. The Bengals' first post-season game was in Baltimore on Dec. 26, 1970 in the 17-0 AFC Divisional Playoff loss to the Colts.

Talk about coming full circle. The Bengals have been blanked on their last two trips to Baltimore.

Rooney pushed Baltimore into the AFC North for a variety of reasons. He liked the East Coast market and the fact Ravens and Steelers fans can drive to the games.

Plus, both Modell and Rooney wanted to keep the historical connection. Their families have been in the same division since the year John F. Kennedy was elected president.

"As a life-long Baltimore fan, it's extremely significant to be with Cleveland," Bisciotti said. "We've won and lost championships playing against each other. The memories are there for the towns.

"And I have to credit Art because he supported me all the way on that publicly. The only thing he was thinking about was what was best for the team and the city and you have to hand it to him for that."

Modell shrugged when asked if it concerned him the Ravens were in house with Cleveland, a city he no longer visits.

"Why should it concern me?" he asked. "I was there for a few years."

Bisciotti and Policy, the next generation, think it's pretty much water under the bridge.

"I think when there wasn't a team there it was a problem," Bisciotti said of Cleveland. "But now that they are back in the league and they have their colors and their records and their stadium, I don't think the feeling is what it was."

Policy has already begun discussions with Bisciotti about special travel and ticket packages that will be available only to fans living in Cleveland and Baltimore when the two teams play.

"It's behind us," Policy said. "I know there were some hard feelings in Cleveland. But now the team is back and even though we haven't done that well on the field, now I think they see some progress developing.

" I think if you ask the people of Cleveland, they'd have preferred Baltimore in our division," Policy said. "I preferred Houston, but it wasn't a significant preference. So much of this is losing its personalized intensity. It's become a rivalry based on where it should be, primarily on the field. The rivalry had its origins in the emotional trauma that may been suffered by Cleveland, but it's not as great now."

Rooney's committee did much of the roadwork for the past three years that paved the way for Tuesday's rubber stamp. Phone calls. One-on-one chats. Small meetings during the bigger meetings.

But Houston's McNair is going to have to be soothed. He says the league can't stock his team like the NFL did Jacksonville and Carolina in 1995 and Cleveland in 1999.

"The landscape is different," McNair said. "There's not as many veteran free-agents available or starting players available in the (expansion) pool. . .The general quality of players available has been reduced. It's in the best interest of the NFL for us to build a competitive team in a relatively short period of time. It serves no purpose to have a repeat of Tampa Bay."

McNair is calling for the stocking issue to be re-visited at a later meeting, but admits he doesn't have solid answers, either.

He'll be playing against Jacksonville in the AFC South, which Weaver doesn't mind. But he wanted to get another big market team in there and was pushing for a division of Baltimore, Tennessee, Houston and Jacksonville.

"Clearly my choice was option three, but once you can't get what you want, you have to extract what you can," Weaver said. "My colleagues disagreed with me. So you negotiate the next best option for you. You can't be adamant. It doesn't make sense to be adamant with these guys.

"You negotiate with logic and try to make your points, then the guy sitting across from you says, 'You know I don't want to be in that division, either,"' Weaver said. "Then another guy says, 'I want you to be over here.' At some point you say, 'What can you get done that serves everybody?' Everybody has to make some compromises."

So they did. Which is why they pulled it out of their pocket and not a vase.

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