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Competitive Balance Is a Fitting Legacy for Rozelle

Super Bowl XXXI will be played on Jan. 26, 37 years to the day Pete Rozelle was hired as NFL commissioner, and for “Parity Pete,” would there be any better tribute than a Carolina-New England grand finale?

Rozelle, the architect of competitive balance in the NFL, would have loved this weekend: 21 teams still alive in the race for the playoffs; fans in Jacksonville excited about a 7-7 team that still has a chance; Indianapolis, Washington, Oakland . . . across the country everywhere there are still all kinds of competitive possibilities.

“He didn’t like the word ‘parity,’ ” said Don Weiss, former NFL executive director and longtime working companion of Rozelle. “In too many people’s mind, that word was associated with mediocrity, and he didn’t like the use of the word. He used to say people were just too lazy to say ‘competitive balance,’ and ‘parity’ fits better in headlines.

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“Competitive balance will be his legacy, although I would hope people would look beyond that.”

There have already been a number of wonderful things said about Rozelle, who died last week of brain cancer, but with two weeks left in the 1996 football season, Rozelle’s handiwork is everywhere.

Keep it exciting, give everyone a chance to accomplish the impossible. The defending champion Dallas Cowboys will have to advance to the Super Bowl with a playoff victory on the road, and the San Francisco 49ers could be reduced to wild-card status. Name a sure-fire pick to win the Super Bowl and there will be 15 disagreeing opinions.

“I remember the day Pete came to me and said, ‘Can you make a schedule that will give the lesser teams a better chance to compete?’ ” said Jim Kencil, a former Rozelle aide and New York Jet executive. “That’s when we came up with the fifth-place schedule. Pete always wanted to see balance, but I never heard him use the word ‘parity’ in all my years with him.”

Some sports fans appreciate the Yankee and Celtic dynasties, but Weiss said Rozelle learned at an impressionable age that dominating success doesn’t necessarily translate into popularity or ticket sales.

“His experience with the All-America Conference and the Cleveland Browns from 1946-1949 was very telling,” Weiss said. “The Browns absolutely dominated, won all four championships, and in those early championships they were drawing huge crowds [more than 60,000]. By their fourth year, there was hardly anybody [22,550] there. The fans stayed away in droves and that was a great lesson for a young man growing up in that era.”

Rozelle, a man of vision in understanding the impact of television, made the game available throughout the nation every Sunday and Monday. To keep an audience’s interest, he needed a competitive game.

“Pete’s gotten a bad rap,” Weiss said. “People thought we were delighted to have everyone finish 8-8. There was nothing further from the truth. It was just competitive balance, and it meant everything to Pete and the league because that’s what keeps people coming to the games--the idea that their team can beat another team, yes, on any given Sunday.”

Last Sunday--only two days after Rozelle’s death--the New York Giants went into Jimmy Johnson’s backyard in Miami and won. Seattle bumped off playoff-bound Buffalo and Tampa Bay--Holy Rozelle, Tampa Bay!--slapped around Washington. On Monday, Oakland stunned Kansas City.

“Pete Rozelle was constantly preaching about how important it was for the expansion teams to be competitive,” said John Thompson, general manager of the Seattle Seahawks when they joined the NFL. “He fought hard to make a lot of changes to give us a chance. You see what a wonderful job Carolina is doing, but in our third year we went 9-7, and in our second and third years of competition we beat the Raiders four games in a row. That’s like Carolina beating San Francisco.”

But could Rozelle be commissioner today? Would Los Angeles still have football? Would Dallas owner Jerry Jones be running around unchecked? Would the Browns have moved?

“I was thinking about that the other day,” Kencil said. “My initial thought was, he probably couldn’t have been commissioner today. But you know what? Pete could have handled it.

“He’d hate some of the things going on now. What a lot of these owners don’t understand is the reason they have such a high-priced franchise is because Rozelle made it valuable. He took a crappy product and made it into something great. Some of these people have lost track of some of that.”

Said Weiss, “One of the reasons he got out when he did [1989], was he saw that coming. He saw what was going to happen in Dallas. He saw the changes that were going to make it more difficult to maintain league unity. The court challenges had taken so much out of him, and from those experiences, he came back changed, a little bitter.”

Rozelle, a champion of football fans with the desire to give them a product with integrity and competitive balance, fought Raider owner Al Davis from moving to Los Angeles, and lost. The defeat marked the birth of franchise free agency and the opportunity for owners to blackmail fans into supporting their teams or else.

“Pete went to court with the idea of showing the fans that we supported them,” said Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers’ owner. “There were a lot of people who said it was going to be a tough fight. But Pete always did what he felt he had to do. He didn’t win, but, in reality, his fight showed the man.”

Weiss was one of the first NFL executives to learn that Rozelle was leaving the league. He said Rozelle’s announcement drew silence from those in attendance.

“It was very emotional,” Weiss said. “I hadn’t seen Pete cry, and he was in tears.”

The games go on now, but come Jan. 26 in New Orleans, Weiss would like to see Rozelle honored at the biggest game of them all.

“As long as it doesn’t interfere with the game,” Weiss said. “He would never stand for that.

“It would be a fitting way, because maybe that was the one thing he was proudest of--seeing how the Super Bowl developed. That would be a fine final tribute.”

BULLETIN-BOARD FODDER

Green Bay defensive back LeRoy Butler, known as the best interview in the Packer locker room, had the team’s public relations staff squirming this week.

So do the playoffs come down to Green Bay and Dallas in the long run? Butler was asked.

“No, Dallas isn’t even in our class anymore,” Butler said. “We can most definitely beat them in Lambeau. Now if you say, ‘Can we beat them in Dallas?’ I’ll give you a different answer.”

The Cowboys have defeated the Packers seven in a row in Dallas.

IT’S ONLY A GAME

Philadelphia Coach Ray Rhodes, who has watched his team lose four of its last five games, was asked what it would be like to be the Jets’ Rich Kotite, who has lost 29 of his last 33 games.

“I’d be out of the business,” Rhodes said. “I’m serious. I’m just being honest with you. I’d find another profession. I’m talking personally, for Ray Rhodes, because I’ve lost a lot of games already and it’s put me in a situation where my thought process has been on the scary side. What would I do if I was left in a room with a lot of stuff--blades and knives and guns--what would I do? That’s scary to think about.”

STIFFS R US UPDATE

--After throwing one touchdown pass and 10 interceptions in Tampa Bay’s first six games, quarterback Trent Dilfer has nine touchdown passes and seven interceptions in the last eight games.

--The Cincinnati Bengals, 1-6 under Coach David Shula, have gone 5-2 with Bruce Coslet in control.

--The Raiders cut kicker Jeff Jaeger to start the season, and last week he signed a three-year, $1.42-million contract with a $400,000 signing bonus to remain with the Chicago Bears.

--Minnesota quarterback Brad Johnson is earning $400,000 this season, although he is the NFL’s highest-rated quarterback. Johnson becomes a free agent at season’s end and wants to be paid $3.5 million.

--Wide receiver Robb Thomas was cut by Seattle in August, went home for a month and then signed with Tampa Bay. Thomas, who had 34 catches in four NFL seasons, now has 31 receptions and a new three-year contract.

DOWNHILL EVER SINCE

Rick Venturi began his coaching career at Northwestern with a 0-0 tie against Illinois--and he should have retired.

Venturi, 0-6 as Saints’ coach, is 2-47-1 in his career as a head coach.

His lone pro victory was over the Jets, of course, in 1991, and by a point, of course, 28-27. His Northwestern team defeated Wyoming in a romp--27-22.

RISING STAR

Carolina quarterback Kerry Collins won’t celebrate his 24th birthday until the end of the month, but after completing 22 of 37 passes for 327 yards with three touchdowns against the 49ers, he proclaimed, “I think I’ve turned the corner.

“I feel great about where I am as a quarterback right now. I don’t think that’s going to waver either. I don’t think this is a fluke by any stretch of the imagination. I’m confident enough where I feel this is something that’s going to happen for a lot of years.”

Collins, from Penn State, was the No. 5 pick in the 1995 NFL draft, and his two-year record as a starter is 14-9.

SAY WHAT?

After the Packers drilled the Broncos, 41-6, Denver running back Terrell Davis looked into the TV camera and said, “This game was a test of our character.”

And the Denver announcer replied, “Would you like to take that back? I mean, if this was a test of your team’s character, you guys flunked.”

Davis stood by his remark.

EXTRA POINTS

--The Baltimore Ravens have blown second-half leads seven of the last nine weeks in losing, and this week Baltimore plays Carolina, the league’s best second-half team, having outscored foes 165-53.

--The Bears have lost four tight ends because of injuries and are now going with Kerry Cash. Said Cash, “I’ve taken out a million-dollar life insurance policy.”

--In the last 22 years, not one team ranked last in defense has gone to the playoffs. The Redskins rank last.

--Raider owner Davis went public last week, criticizing Kansas City running back Marcus Allen. Allen isn’t responding, but Chief General Manager Carl Peterson said, “Quite frankly, I don’t think many people are paying attention any longer to Al Davis.”


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