Realignment won't be a replay

5-18-01, 10:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals were key figures in the last NFL realignment drama because of their expansion franchise agreement with the league. But they don't expect quite the histrionics this time around.

The NFL realigns for the first time in 31 years next week and Cincinnati is fairly certain of two things.

First, the Bengals are going to be in the new AFC North with Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Second, the process won't be as long and acrimonious as the proceedings three decades ago in the office of commissioner Pete Rozelle.

When the NFL owners gather in an O'Hare Airport hotel in Chicago Tuesday, it symbolizes their recognition of geography in the 32-team league that opens play in 2002. But Bengals President Mike Brown won't get his geographic match for the fourth AFC North team. Instead of Indianapolis, Brown expects Baltimore or Houston to join the Bengals, Browns and Steelers in one of the eight four-team divisions.

As early as January, Brown called Baltimore the leading contender and said he expected the Ravens to be the fourth team. But he said Friday it's still up in the air and wouldn't be surprised if the expansion Houston Texans are tapped and the owners send Baltimore to the AFC South with Jacksonville, Tennessee and Indianapolis.

"Anything could crop up so we won't know until it happens," Brown said. "Indianapolis and Tennessee are also alternatives. We would be satisfied with any of the four.

"We would like Indianapolis because the fans could drive," Brown said. "But I'm not sure that would fit Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh favors Baltimore for probably the same reason and Cleveland seems to favor Houston, so I can't tell you how it's going to turn out."

But Brown knows it won't turn out like last time, when bitterness from the war between the NFL and the AFL threatened realignment of the leagues' merger.

With 16 NFL teams and 10 AFL teams, three old-line NFL clubs had to defect to the upstart AFL to make it even and give the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference 13 teams each.

Mike Brown, who teamed with his father, Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown, to bring the NFL to Cincinnati, said the club's franchise agreement spurred the owners off the realignment stalemate. Two years before the vote, the Browns wanted it put in writing that the league they would be joining would be equally realigned.

"We were a moving force to the discomfort of many in the NFL who didn't want to realign," Mike Brown said. "(Cleveland owner) Art Modell had the famous quote that to realign is emasculation. But that's what we paid for. We paid for entry into a equally divided, new league."

The Bengals' argument was so airtight that Edward Bennett Williams, the preeminent trial lawyer of his day who represented the Redskins, stood up in a league meeting and told the owners there was no way around realignment. It was in the Bengals' agreement.

In the end, ironically, it was Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore who ended up moving from the NFL to the AFC and who will probably end up forming the new AFC North with the Bengals.

Asked if the reason they moved was for the $3 million fee, Brown wouldn't guess.

"You'd have to ask them," Brown said. "But $3 million meant more then when you consider franchises were selling for $7 to 8 million."

This time around, teams can't be compensated for a move. And while Brown doesn't expect glitches, there are rumblings.

Jacksonville reportedly wants to be with Miami, or with Baltimore, and fears going into the small-market AFC South with Tennessee, Indy and Houston.

Indianapolis would like to stay in the AFC East, but the Colts were the last ones in because they moved from the NFL to join Miami, New York, Buffalo and Boston, and so they figure to be the first ones out.

Arizona reportedly isn't happy leaving the NFC East and its association with Dallas. The Cardinals look to be headed to the NFC West with St. Louis, San Francisco and Seattle.

Seattle apparently doesn't want to be the only team to move conferences, but San Diego isn't leaving the AFC West with fellow charter AFL teams Oakland, Denver and Kansas City, which began life as the Dallas Texans.

That would be four negative votes, but five more negatives are needed to block adoption of a plan because passage requires three-fourths majority of the 32 clubs.

Plus, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue holds the proxy votes of Tennessee, St. Louis, Houston and Baltimore, and he figures to cast them with the majority.

DARNAY CALL: Receivers coach Steve Mooshagian expects Darnay Scott Monday for his first voluntary workout.

"Not only do I want to see him, but we need to see him," Mooshagian said. "He knows that. His teammates need to see him out there, too."

Plus, there are the practical matters. Scott is recovering from a broken leg and he's trying to learn a new offense.

Mooshagian figures in the past that Scott has attended about half the voluntary workouts. In his best year of '99, Scott was on the field seven to 10 days in May and June, Mooshagian said. There are seven workouts left this year.

"We'll catch him up," Mooshagian said. "Next week is good because the first three days are a review of what we've installed in the offense. We'll get him up to speed, but it will be a crash course."

THIS AND THAT: If the Bengals don't get a yes soon from former defensive end John Copeland in their contract talks, they plan to fill that spot with one of three options: Former Bears defensive tackle Jim Flanigan or former Colts defensive end Bernard Whittington, both 29, or go to the wavier wire. . .

Quarterback Akili Smith's shoulder felt much better Friday as he completed most of his work and stretched his throwing. He says he'll be full go Monday.

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