NFL realignment

Saturday, May 26th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

When the proprietors of the NFL convened last week to realign the league, moving member teams around like so many chess pieces, it was a routine bit of business, devoid of any real passion.

That's because most of this deal had been done well in advance of the formal vote, the better to prevent any last-minute nastiness. Neatness counts in the buttoned-down, modern NFL.

It was not always thus. The last time the league had a meaningful realignment, it took three marathon meetings in two cities to get the thing settled. This was the 1970 merger that ended the war between the NFL and AFL, and even in peace there were still some frayed feelings on both sides.

There had been four long-days-journey-into-night sessions in Palm Springs, Calif., followed by two more multi-day meetings in New York. After they were over, the participants were presented with commemorative certificates by the league, football's version of merger Purple Hearts.

At one point, commissioner Pete Rozelle was so frustrated by the gridlock that he ordered the doors locked, creating a distinct incentive for settlement. There would be no beds, no clean clothes, no showers until a solution was in place. One of the more memorable snapshots of that episode was Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt, sleeping on a couch, a white flower gently placed on his chest by one of the other owners.

This shotgun marriage of the 16-team NFL and 10-team AFL was no simple matter.

There were a number of speed bumps along the way, not the least coming when the New York Jets won the 1969 Super Bowl, causing some of the more militant AFL types to wonder if they really needed this merger after all. Maybe, they said, the whole idea ought to be scrapped. When it was pointed out that the older league had more teams, bigger stadiums and a better television deal, cooler heads prevailed.

Then, there was the issue of numerical equality for the two conferences created by the merger. Each would need 13 teams, requiring three establishment NFL teams to switch over and align with the upstart AFL. There were no volunteers, but after about $9 million of persuasion was placed on the table, Pittsburgh, Cleveland (now Baltimore) and Baltimore (now Indianapolis) agreed to make the move.

Next there was the matter of putting together divisions. The AFC fell into place rather quickly. The NFC was another story.

Each of the 13 remaining NFL teams had its own agenda and without the financial inducement that had lured the Steelers, Browns and Colts away, none was in a hurry to yield.

Every team wanted a pushover team on its schedule. Ever team wanted a warm-weather team in its division. Ever team wanted old rivalries maintained.

It might still have been going on, if it had not been for Rozelle and his secretary, Thelma Elkjer.

The commissioner had a history. He knew how to solve these deadlocks. He had already used the lock-them-in-and-let-them-stew strategy. This time he came up with a new wrinkle.

On a blackboard, he listed five division variations. Each of them had pluses and minuses for the teams. No team would get everything it wanted. No team would be terribly burned. This is called compromise.

Now the commissioner placed five pieces of paper into a vase and summoned his secretary. Elkjer reached in a pulled out No. 3, the only one that kept the Black and Blue Division _ Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota _ intact. Each of the other plans had the Vikings moving to the NFC East.

There is some irony here.

When the current, more orderly realignment was completed last week, there was the original NFC Central, back together again, with a new name _ NFC North _ and no warm weather interlopers like Tampa Bay to interfere.

The division isn't really the same anymore, though. There are domed stadiums in Minnesota and Detroit, providing the frozen tundra's football teams with a distinctly more moderate climate these days.


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