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NFL owners approve realignment in 2002

Only Seahawks will change conferences

ROSEMONT, Ill. — When the NFL decided a year and a half ago to realign into four eight-team divisions, one plan seemed the simplest.

That plan, enacted unanimously by the owners on Tuesday, little more than a week before the June 1 deadline, will begin in 2002, when the expansion Houston Texans become the league's 32nd team.

Why did it take so long? A high-ranking league official who requested anonymity noted that it took that long to convince the owners this plan was best for them.

"We couldn't look at personal choices," said Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who shifted from the NFL to the AFC when the NFL and AFL merged in 1970. "A lot of people wanted a lot of things. I think this is best for everyone."

Rooney, in fact, is credited with coming up with this alignment, which contains fewer geographic anomalies than the current lineup. It also keeps 22 of the teams in their current divisions. Five of the eight divisions have four teams from the old alignment, with the most drastic change moving Seattle from the AFC West to the NFC West.

It also places two expansion teams in the same division with teams that abandoned their cities — Cleveland with Baltimore and Houston with Tennessee.

"I'm glad it came out that way," said Bud Adams, who took his Oilers out of Houston after the 1996 season and eventually turned them into the Tennessee Titans.

The lineup:

AFC East — Buffalo, Miami, New England, New York Jets.

AFC North — Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh.

AFC South — Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Tennessee.

AFC West — Denver, Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego.

NFC East — Dallas, New York Giants, Philadelphia, Washington.

NFC North — Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota.

NFC South — Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans, Tampa Bay.

NFC West — Arizona, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle.

In addition to Seattle, the team most affected might be the Cardinals, who move out of a division with Dallas, the only team to draw capacity crowds in the desert. Arizona owner Bill Bidwill fought hard to stay in the same division with the Cowboys but said he was happy after the league agreed to a new scheduling format for exhibition games that will retain old rivalries.

Bidwill was even happier after Dallas owner Jerry Jones said he would be glad to play the Cardinals in an exhibition game every year they aren't scheduled to play in the regular season.

"I'm very happy that Jerry agreed to do that," Bidwill said. "The NFC West fits for us geographically."

Seattle president Bob Whitsitt, said the same, noting that the Seahawks will have preseason games against the Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs and Raiders, whom they've met in the regular season so often. "I think this is good for the league and good for the Seahawks," he said.

Another plus for most of the owners is the new scheduling format, under which every team will meet every other at least once in four years. There will be six home-and-home divisional games; four against teams in another division within a conference; and four more against a division in the other conference on a rotating basis.

The final two games will be against conference teams based on the previous year's standings: first against first, second against second, and so on. For the time being, there will be six teams from each conference in the playoffs — the division winners and two wild cards.

In the end, the biggest surprise in the plan was the speed with which it was done.

Although various proposals had been under study for 18 months, no vote was expected until Thursday. But there was only an hour's debate and the consensus was to get it over with.

"I think everyone realized that everything that could be said had been said," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said.

There also were memories of the problems of the last realignment 31 years ago, brought to the fore by old-timers Rooney, the Giants' Wellington Mara and Baltimore's Art Modell.

"That old realignment was the toughest thing I've been through," said the 84-year-old Mara, who has been involved with the NFL since starting as a ball boy for the Giants when his father bought the team in 1925.