- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Over the years, the NFL has become as clubby as the Elks or the Knights of Columbus except, of course, for nonconformist Al Davis. Gone are the old grudges that grew out of the war with the American Football League. Most of the current owners don't go back that far anyway, and the NFL's unprecedented profitability keeps everybody relatively fat and relatively happy.

The proof of this is that the league's latest realignment was accomplished with a minimum of teeth gnashing. When the deck was last shuffled before the 1970 season, there was unending discussion, much caffeine consumption and some residual bad feeling. Three NFL teams the Colts, Browns and Steelers were essentially bribed to join the AFL clubs in the newly formed American Conference, and Pete Rozelle's secretary settled the argument over how the National Conference would be structured by reaching into a vase and pulling out one of five plans.

It was "the toughest thing I've been through," Giants owner Wellington Mara recalled yesterday.

In contrast, the realignment that will go into effect in 2002, when the Houston Texans tee it up, prompted so little debate at this week's league meetings that it was voted on two days ahead of schedule. And the changes are fairly dramatic, too. Nine of the current 31 teams will find themselves in new divisions a year from now. One of them, Seattle, will be in a new conference.

The new NFC South was cobbled together with clubs from the NFC West (Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans) and Central (Tampa Bay). The new AFC South, featuring expansion Houston, took teams from the AFC East (Indianapolis) and Central (Jacksonville and Tennessee). Arizona along with the Seahawks switched over to the NFC West. There was a lot of movement.

But in the end, you didn't hear a peep out of anybody. You know why? Because this realignment makes sense and doesn't disrupt any of the marquee rivalries. That's one of the reasons the NFL has been so successful; its owners have always been Big Picture guys, willing to make individual sacrifices for the good of the whole.

What's interesting about the league's new framework is that it continues to keep the old AFL family together. The Bills, Patriots and Jets are still in the (AFC) East Division, just as they were from 1960 to '69. The Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers are still in the West Division. This was a big bone of contention during realignment talks in the late '60s. After spending a decade battling for credibility, the AFL didn't want to see its league broken up and scattered all over the NFL.

When that didn't happen, the Jets' Paul Rochester, speaking for many players no doubt, said he was pleased that "we still maintained most of our AFL identity. It's a tougher league, but that's what we want. It's good for the fans, it's good for the owners and it's good for the TV contracts. And that means it's good for us, because more income for the owners will mean more income for the players. But the important thing is our AFL identity. If the Jets hadn't won the Super Bowl, the AFL would've been swallowed up."

So for history's sake, if nothing else, we should applaud this latest realignment. The original Black and Blue Division (Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota) has been restored with Tampa Bay being shipped out. On the local front, the Redskins will still play the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles twice a season, just like always. There's something comforting about that. I'll miss the December trips to Phoenix, but I won't miss the mile-high press box atop Sun Devil Stadium (which, thankfully, will soon be replaced by a new palace).

Something else to think about: Would the grouping in the NFC South Falcons, Panthers, Saints, Bucs have even been conceivable before the proliferation of domed stadiums? Fortunately, they play indoors in Atlanta and New Orleans, otherwise you would have had to call it the Heat Prostration Division.

I love it that schedules will be fairer now. Bad teams won't be rewarded as much for being bad (by being given a bunch of games against other bad teams). I love it that Baltimore and Cleveland are still in the same division, the renamed AFC North. Jilted Browns fans should be allowed to root against Art Modell a while longer. I feel sorry, though, for Houston being lumped with the formidable Titans, Colts and Jaguars. Those first few years aren't going to be much fun, are they, Charley Casserly?

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