NFL Votes to Realign in 2002
NFL owners, riding high in the wake of a landmark court victory over the Raiders, glided into a new era Tuesday, unanimously approving realignment for 2002.
Representatives from each of the 32 teams, meeting in Chicago, had planned to spend Tuesday debating the merits of seven realignment options before putting them to a vote today. Instead, they acted with uncharacteristic decisiveness and came to an agreement within hours.
“As hard as it was, it was a win-win situation,” Jacksonville Jaguar owner Wayne Weaver said. “We all had our personal agendas, but at some point you have to look at the good of the league. Change is hard, but we all tend to look at the worst side of it.”
After next season, the league will be divided into eight four-team divisions with North, South, East and West groupings for each conference. Although Seattle is the only team that will switch conferences--from the AFC to the NFC--several teams will switch divisions or join newly formed ones.
The retooled NFC West, for instance, will have the Seahawks, San Francisco, St. Louis and Arizona, which moves from the NFC East. It’s a big change for the 49ers, who routinely lead the league in frequent-flier miles as part of the current NFC West, which includes the Rams, New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina. After next season, the 49ers no longer will have to leave on Fridays for road games in their division.
“I’ll be able to watch my kid play high school football on Friday nights,” 49er Coach Steve Mariucci said.
In January, NFL owners removed a major stumbling block on the path to realignment when they adopted a new revenue-sharing plan. Under the new rules, which take effect in 2002, the 40% gate receipts earned by each visiting team in all regular-season and exhibition games will be pooled, with the money then distributed equally among all 32 teams.
Some teams needed more convincing. The Cardinals initially resisted the move to the NFC West, in part because it meant giving up lucrative division home games against Dallas and the New York Giants.
The Cardinals came around, and the NFL made some concessions too. In order to keep long-standing rivalries alive, the league has reserved the right to control some of the exhibition-season scheduling to do so. The Cowboys, for instance, have agreed to play an exhibition at Arizona start
ing in 2002 and stretching into the foreseeable future.
Also, for the first season of realignment, the league plans to start the rotation of non-division games by pitting former rivals. So the Raiders might play the Seahawks in 2002.
The current scheduling system is imperfect at best. From 1983 through ’97, Miami’s Dan Marino and Denver’s John Elway faced each other only once. The Raiders have played at Pittsburgh once in the last 20 years. Green Bay and Washington have not played since 1988, and the Redskins last played host to the Packers in 1979. Tampa Bay has never played in Buffalo.
Realignment will take care of that. During an eight-year cycle, every team will play every other team at home and away. And, at least once every three years, a team will play every other team in its conference.
One owner conspicuously absent from the meetings is Oakland’s Al Davis, who Monday lost his court battle with the NFL over the rights to the L.A. market.
Raider senior assistant Bruce Allen, representing the team in Chicago, was asked to leave a morning meeting so officials and owners from other teams could discuss the verdict.
“Things just got started here and I’ve already gotten kicked out,” Allen quipped.
When they emerged from their meeting, owners were reluctant to talk about the legal victory or Davis. Even Jones, a rare Davis ally and someone who seldom ducks a question, uttered “No comment” when asked about the situation.
If the league has adopted a no-gloating stance, Washington owner Daniel Snyder didn’t get the memo. Shortly after the verdict was announced, he told the Washington Post, “Mr. Litigious loses again. The league has clearly defined its position on Los Angeles, and has been upfront all along with it. I really wish we were playing Oakland next year.”
The Post also spoke to New England Patriot owner Robert Kraft, who described the suit as “a shadow that has hovered above us for so long, and a lot of us never understood why it was necessary. As owners, we are so lucky to be in this business. We only compete against each other for three hours on Sunday.
“I just don’t understand why we’ve been through the process we’ve just been through. Why would anyone want to ruin it? There’s enough to go around for everyone. This is a great relief for all of us.”
It’s no wonder, then, that the owners had such an air of solidarity about realignment, which had been bubbling on a back burner for 18 months.
“When we had our committee meeting this morning, we saw that we were able to put everything together and come out of there with a real strong recommendation,” Pittsburgh Steeler owner Dan Rooney said. “So we thought we could get it.”
Put simply by Baltimore Raven owner Art Modell: “Frankly, it’s a no-brainer.”
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2002 NFL Realignment
East: Dallas, New York Giants, Philadelphia, Washington
South: Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans, Tampa Bay
North: Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota
West: Arizona, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle
East: Buffalo, Miami, New England, New York Jets
South: Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Tennessee
North: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh
West: Denver, Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego