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Patience, experience brought smooth realignment as NFL heeds own history

Posted: Thursday, May 24, 2001

Even many of the participants never expected the NFL's realignment to go so smoothly. An hour's discussion and a unanimous vote put in place the eight four-team divisions for 2002, when Houston rejoins the league.

''I thought we'd be here all week,'' said Bob Harlan, Green Bay's president.

It was another example of why the NFL is in the best shape of any of the major pro sports leagues.

The leadership is politically savvy and patient, and there are longtime owners who have the experience that the newer owners respect, like 84-year-old Wellington Mara of the Giants, who went through the 1970 realignment that he considers the hardest thing he's done in his 76 years of involvement with the league.

But the credit for this one goes to the NFL's best problem solver -- Dan Rooney of Pittsburgh.

The plan that was adopted was basically the first one proposed 18 months ago, when the league announced it would realign for the arrival of the new Houston franchise. It was called, simply, ''the Rooney plan.''

It made geographical sense for a league that hadn't adjusted to franchise shifts and expansion. Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans, for example, were taken out of the NFC West and placed in a new NFC South, and Arizona was taken from the East and placed in the West.

But neither did it ignore rivalries -- Dallas remained in the NFC East, with the Redskins, Giants and Eagles (and because the television people wanted the Cowboys there).

Miami remained in the AFC East to provide a warm weather site in a cold division and longstanding rivalries with the Bills, Jets and Patriots. The AFC West kept four old-line AFL teams: Denver, Oakland, Kansas City and San Diego. The NFC North is the old ''black and blue'' division: Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit and Minnesota. And the AFC North is Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Baltimore.

Overall, the philosophy was ''last in, first out,'' meaning Seattle, which joined the division in 1977, would be the one to move and Tampa Bay, which joined the NFC Central in the same year, went into the NFC South. Arizona, which had moved twice, was considered ''last'' in the NFC East.

Still, it took 18 months and one major change -- a plan that pooled all visiting team revenues to be divided equally, just as television money is shared. That way, there would be no complaints by teams moved from a division with potentially higher visiting gates.

''If we had put it to a vote then, there would have been no way,'' said a high-ranking NFL official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ''We had to let it simmer and sink in.''

So commissioner Paul Tagliabue appointed a committee, headed by Rooney and overseen by Roger Goodell, the NFL's executive vice president and the man considered Tagliabue's most likely successor. It came up with 30 different plans, many to mollify teams like Arizona and Seattle that were slated for major changes.

Were they shams? Several included scenarios that had Dallas in the West along with Arizona to mollify Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, for whom the Cowboys are the biggest draw.

Would that ever happen? ''No, not really,'' Dallas owner Jerry Jones said after the vote. ''There wasn't any way we weren't going to stay with the other teams in our division.''

Still, Tagliabue, Goodell and Rooney never scheduled a vote. Early in the March meetings, when a vote was anticipated, Tagliabue said it would be put off until just before the June 1 deadline.

Tagliabue said it was because he was so busy with Al Davis' suit against the league that he was ''out of the loop.'' But it was really because he wanted the realignment ideas to percolate a little longer.

So the league issued 13 different plans. And while the Rooney plan was labeled ''A1,'' Tagliabue insisted it wasn't the leader.

It was. It just needed time to percolate.

That worked.

On Tuesday, the owners began to discuss realignment, thinking it would be a preliminary talk and the vote would come Wednesday or Thursday. After a few minutes, Rooney got up and said, ''I think we've heard all the arguments.''

The vote was unanimous for the ''Rooney plan,'' the first one proposed. Bidwill was happy because Jones agreed the Cowboys would play an exhibition in Arizona every year. Seattle was happy because it could do the same with its AFC West rivals.

And the league was happy because it had smoothly negotiated what could have been a difficult change.

No other league could have done it as well.

Dave Goldberg covers football for The Associated Press.



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