Winds of change
NFL will go down to deadline on realignment
NEW YORK (AP) -- The NFL, which must realign its divisions when Houston rejoins the league for the 2002 season, will go down to the June 1 deadline before making a final decision.
The league made that official Wednesday, saying the teams would not be realigned next week at the annual spring meetings in Palm Desert, Calif.
"We'll limit the plans to a reasonable number next week," said Roger Goodell, the NFL executive vice president, who is in charge of realignment. "But we will not have the final vote at this meeting. It's very complicated and we haven't been able to come up with the right formula to be fair to all sides."
Last-minute decisions are the norm for the NFL, particularly on subjects where emotions run high. Some of the older owners have said the last major realignment, when the NFL and AFL merged in 1970, was the hardest task in which they've ever been involved.
In this case, realignment probably will be voted on at a meeting scheduled for Chicago during the final week of May.
The basic format for the increase from 31 to 32 teams already is approved: eight divisions of four teams each with a 16-game schedule that will include home-and-home games within the division, four more games against another division in their conference and four games against a team in the other conference.
The other two games will be based on standings -- first-place teams vs. the first-place teams in their conference and second-place teams against second-place teams and so on.
Goodell said that some of the alignments would be similar to current ones but that there was no consensus on geography. League and team officials have said, for example, that a division like the NFC East could remain relatively intact, with Washington, Philadelphia and the New York Giants in a division with Dallas, nearly 2,000 miles away.
"Having teams that are not necessarily geographically aligned is attractive," Goodell said. "We heard that from the networks. We believe we're a national game and there's been less focus on geography than many people think."
The positive factor of the new plan is that it will guarantee teams meet once every four seasons. Under the current system, teams can go many years without playing each other. For example, Miami and Denver met only once between 1983 and 1997, depriving fans of seeing John Elway against Dan Marino at the height of their careers.
These meetings also might end the annual debate about instant replay.
George Young, the league's vice president for football operations, said he sensed a consensus for extending the current system beyond the one year that's been the norm. Replay was voted in for the 1986 season, out after 1991 and returned in a new form two seasons ago.
"We think we're in position now to approve replay for more than one year," said Young, who as general manager of the Giants and co-chairman of the competition committee, was one of the leading opponents of the system.
Other than that, there are likely to be only minor adjustments to the rules.
"Our consensus is that there is a high level of competition," Young said. "We'd like to keep it that way."