When the expansion Houston Texans enter the NFL in 2002, the league will divide into eight four-team divisions. Here's what you need to know about the eight plans for realignment that owners are considering this week.
The discussions won't be ugly. In 1970 partisan bickering over realignment drove commissioner Pete Rozelle to have his secretary pull the winning plan out of a vase. That's how Dallas ended up in the NFC East and Atlanta in the NFC West.
This year three factors make it likely that things will go more smoothly. First, though any plan needs approval from three quarters of the teams, commissioner Paul Tagliabue has four proxy votes in his pocket from the Texans and the recently relocated Rams, Ravens and Titans. That means he needs only 20 of the remaining 28 votes to pass a plan. Second, no team will be paid to move, unlike in 1970, when the Browns, Colts and Steelers each received $3 million to switch to the AFC. Third, beginning next year the visitors' shares of the gate will be pooled among all 32 teams, meaning that the clubs in revenue-rich divisions won't earn extra road money.
Divisions will make geographic sense. No more forced rivalries like Atlanta versus San Francisco. Each conference will be divided into East, West, North and South divisions. In most plans seven of the eight East teams are in the Eastern time zone. ( Dallas will probably remain in the NFC East to preserve its traditional rivalries.) Six of the eight West teams will be on Mountain or Pacific time, while all but one of the South teams ( Indianapolis) is below the Mason-Dixon line.
Great rivalries will remain, and good ones will be born. The Bears, Lions, Packers and Vikings stay together in every plan. We'll miss those twice-yearly Sunday brunches with Warren Sapp and Brett Favre, but most proposals hitch Sun Belt neighbors Carolina, Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay in a new NFC South. Tradition will be honored too. In 1963 the AFL's Western Division was composed of the Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs and Raiders. Thirty-nine years later the AFC West will likely look exactly the same.
The NFL's only misstep has been to reject an earlier scheme for each team to play one game a year against a nearby rival from the other conference. That means that only once every four years will we get 49ers-Raiders or Giants-Jets. It also stifles the creation of new rivalries such as Jaguars-Panthers, Bucs-Dolphins and Bears-Colts. The game will grow only with the help of television, and TV loves nothing more than grudge matches. It's plain bad business that Baltimore will play San Diego more often that it does Washington.
That miscue only slightly mars the long-term picture. Assuming one of the current plans wins approval by June, give the NFL a B+ for solving a thorny issue fairly painlessly.