Spanning New Horizons
The NFL likely will cut the field of expansion hopefuls from eight cities to four or five by the summer, with the final decision on which two cities will be awarded franchises coming next fall. The bet here is that Charlotte, St. Louis, Baltimore, Memphis and Jacksonville will make the cut, with Charlotte and St. Louis getting the franchises and Baltimore finishing a very close third. The logic behind the NFL's expanding into North Carolina and returning to Missouri:
? Charlotte: "I think we're a market without a weakness," says Mark Richardson, who heads up the group of investors seeking to bring a team to Charlotte. It's hard to argue with him. Charlotte is rumored to be the first choice of powerful NFL Properties, the marketing and merchandising arm of the league, because of the sports mania that is prevalent in the Carolinas. The Charlotte Hornets of the NBA have played before 125 consecutive sellouts, and sales of their merchandise have been high. The Carolinas incorporate six of the top 150 TV markets in America, and the nearest NFL franchise is 240 miles away in Atlanta.
? St. Louis: The city, county and state are politically united behind this campaign, which is the sort of support that was not in evidence in the mid-1980s when Bill Bidwell was threatening to move the Cardinals. NFL higher-ups like St. Louis's bid for many reasons: One of the three major partners involved in it, former Bears great Walter Payton, would be the first high-profile black in an NFL ownership group; fringe partner Fran Murray, who would become involved in the franchise after he has gotten the $38 million he is entitled to from the sale of his stake in the Patriots, has made lots of friends in the league by not going to court to press for his money from financially strapped New England majority owner Victor Kiam; and one of the league's biggest TV advertisers, Anheuser-Busch, is headquartered in St. Louis.
Grading the Young Guns
Which of the three meteoric teams of 1991 will emerge as the best of the lot in 1992? Here's how we rank their prospects:
1. Cowboys (11-5 in 1991). The average age of the Dallas starters is 27.04, eighth youngest in the league, and already coach Jimmy Johnson's youth movement is having an impact. The Cowboys played five rookies (defensive linemen Leon Lett, Tony Hill and Russell Maryland, linebacker Darrick Brownlow and cornerback Larry Brown) in their goal line defense late in the season against the Redskins and Saints. Dallas won both games. The heart of the offense—quarterback Troy Aikman (25), wideout Michael Irvin (25) and running back Emmitt Smith (22)—is young, and Dallas has six picks in the first three rounds of the '92 draft.
2. Falcons (10-6). Atlanta still turns the ball over too often (it had 36 giveaways in 1991, eighth highest in the league), and coach Jerry Glanville still doesn't have a strong running game. But the Falcons are the sixth youngest team in football (26.78 years), with a maturing quarterback ( Chris Miller) and excellent receivers. What Atlanta needs—in addition to ballcarriers—are some ferocious and skilled players to fit into Glanville's aggressive defensive philosophy.
3. Lions (12-4). Detroit has the best back alive in Barry Sanders, but it's unclear who their quarterback of the future is. Also, the Lions' best pass rusher, linebacker Mike Cofer, will be 32 next year and is coming off a knee injury. But there are good signs: Detroit is a young team (average age of starters is 26.56, fourth youngest in the NFL), the rush defense is terrific, and the special teams might be the best in the league.
Stars of the Future