- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

Sorry, Jeff Fisher, but the folks at ABC Sports hope your Tennessee Titans have a second straight tough season.

Fisher's 1999 AFC champions are the only non-playoff team from 2001 that will appear on "Monday Night Football" over the final four weeks this season according to the schedule released yesterday, and a dud game involving the Titans might help advance the campaign for flexible scheduling.

With the other Monday games over the final four weeks matching division winners Chicago and Miami, AFC runner-up Pittsburgh and playoff perennial team Tampa Bay, and fierce NFC West rivals St. Louis and San Francisco, the Dec. 16 contest between surprise Super Bowl champion New England and Tennessee might be the best bet for a late-season snoozer. And ABC and the NFL figure to need some help in their quest to obtain scheduling flexibility from the other networks.

Bowing to pressure from Sunday networks Fox and CBS, the NFL yesterday placed the concept of flexible final month scheduling on "the back burner." Last week at the NFL's annual meetings, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he hoped a test program could be implemented for 2002.

The flexible schedule plan, an idea kicked around in NFL offices for years, had been proposed to put the December's best games before the maximum numbers of viewers. Regular-season ratings for the NFL have declined in six of the least eight years.

Under the plan, ABC would have received a choice of games originally slotted for Sunday and airing on CBS and Fox to move into the higher-rated "MNF."

But Fox Sports president Ed Goren, whose network lost $400million televising the NFL the past four seasons, said the NFL didn't seriously broach schedule flexibility for 2002 until earlier this month and didn't offer anything significant in return to Fox and CBS, such as a rebate on rights fees.

"The timing wasn't right," Goren said. "I don't know if it ever will be. It all depends on how it's presented, whether it's part of a larger package or what. [But] in this [ratings] environment, everybody is trying to hold on every tenth of a ratings point."

The NFL's eight-year, $17.6 billion television contracts run through 2005. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. estimates that ABC, CBS, Fox and ESPN will lose a collective $2.9 billion on their deals, which the NFL can renegotiate after this season.

There will be 35 prime time games during the season, including the Thursday Sept. 5 opener between the 49ers and the New York Giants, and a Saturday Dec. 21 game between NFC East rivals Philadelphia and Dallas. The 49ers-Giants contest is the only Thursday night matchup, the first time there haven't been at least two such games since 1993.

ESPN, a sister network of ABC, will televise an NFL game every Sunday night during the season except Oct. 20, when there is a conflict with postseason baseball.

The offensively dominant Rams will play on "MNF" three times, along with the 49ers, Eagles, Steelers and Bears. The Patriots, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos will each make two appearances on ABC. That's 27 of the 34 spots accounted for by just 11 of the NFL's 32 teams. Of those 11 teams, only Denver, the 1997 and 1998 Super Bowl champion, didn't make the playoffs last season.

"We're certainly disappointed [with the lack of a flexible schedule], but the NFL did give us a great lineup," ABC spokesman Mark Mandel said. "We're very pleased."

For the first time since 1986, that lineup doesn't include the Minnesota Vikings, who are expected to have a second straight down year. And the Dallas Cowboys, long known as "America's Team," won't be on ABC for the first time since 1990. The Cowboys and their archrivals, the Washington Redskins, were both winless when they met on "Monday Night Football" last Oct. 15, a matchup that caused much head-scratching given that both teams had failed to make the playoffs in 2000.

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