(March 23, 2001) - It is a complex process that already has been at the heart of considerable thought and discussion.
This week, realignment moves to even greater prominence in the collective psyche of the NFL, as 32 clubs gather in Palm Desert, Calif., for the league's annual meeting.
Divisions won't be realigned during the four-day session that will also be attended by all 32 head coaches, as well as club executives.
However, there will be much more talk and greater focus on how to position teams - in a way that is best for the league and for fans - when the Houston Texans begin play in 2002. By resolution, the full ownership must approve of a realignment plan (by three-quarters majority vote) no later than June 1 of this year.
NFL executive vice president Roger Goodell said "well over 30" proposals have been considered by the league's realignment committee, which is headed by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and includes owners Bill Bidwill of Arizona, Lamar Hunt of Kansas City, Michael McCaskey of Chicago, Jerry Richardson of Carolina, Dan Rooney of Pittsburgh, Wayne Weaver of Jacksonville, and Ralph Wilson of Buffalo.
"At this league meeting, we will be trying to get that down to a reasonable number, and then begin the process of trying to determine the specific plan that we'll eventually adopt by a full membership vote," Goodell said. "We spent a significant amount of time, between two league meetings last fall with our ownership, and another in January, going through various scenarios, various plans to maintain the rivalries that we have - as many as possible - and to create as many new rivalries as possible.
"We have just over two months to complete the process. But we've had a very careful, step-by-step approach to realignment."
Those steps include:
- Expanding from the current six divisions (five of which have five teams each and one of which has six) to eight divisions of four teams each in 2002.
- Adopting a 16-game scheduling format that allows for greater rotation of opponents and minimizes the importance of being in a particular division. Under the system that will be in place in 2002, every team will play every other team at least once every four years and, on a home-and-home basis, at least once every eight years.
One flaw in the present system is that teams can go more than a dozen years without facing each other. As an example, from 1983 to 1997, there was only one game between Denver and Miami, making the marquee quarterback dual between John Elway and Dan Marino a rare occurrence.
"From a competitive standpoint, we'll be doing away with the fifth-place schedule, where, in some cases, you had some competitive inequity," Goodell said. "Fourteen of the sixteen games will be based on common opponents. Only two of the sixteen games will be based on where you finish in your division the prior year." *
Approving an economic package that allows the 32 clubs to equally split the combined visiting team's share of gate receipts for each season. "Now, it doesn't matter which division you're in, from the visiting-team's share standpoint," Goodell said. The package also prohibits financial compensation for teams that change divisions.
No major rules changes are likely to be recommended to owners by the league's competition committee, which includes co-chairmen Dennis Green of Minnesota and Rich McKay of Tampa Bay, as well as Bob Ferguson of Arizona, Jeff Fisher of Tennessee, John Mara of the New York Giants, Ozzie Newsome of Baltimore, Bill Polian of Indianapolis, and Mark Richardson of Carolina. And there is a good reason for that.
"Overall, the consensus is that the NFL is enjoying a very high level of competition right now," said George Young, the NFL's senior vice president of football operations. "The state of the game is excellent from a statistical point of view as well."
For the seventh consecutive season, scoring averaged more than 40 points per game (41.3) and there were more than 150 plays per game (153.7). Competition continued to be as balanced as ever, with 44 percent of games decided by seven points or less and six different division champions from 1999, when there were five new division winners from the previous year.
As always, instant replay will be discussed. However, it might finally stop being a topic of annual debate at future meetings. According to Young, the competition committee might recommend that the use of replay be extended beyond its one-year status because of how efficiently it has performed over the past two seasons.
"The committee and the clubs do not want a replay system that unduly interferes with the pace or the length of the game," Young said. "In that regard, the system of the past two years has been successful, with less than one stoppage per game and the ability to correct the obvious error on big plays."
Last season, play was stopped 247 times in 248 games, with 83 reversals. In 82 games (33 percent), there were no stoppages.
The competition committee has also spent considerable time in recent meetings addressing unsportsmanlike conduct and taunting. It plans to speak with all clubs about making both matters a point of emphasis in officiating, including a clearer definition of actions that violate the league's unsportsmanlike conduct/anti-taunting rules.
"The committee, our clubs, and our players all recognize the concern many people have about the sportsmanship in sports today, and our obligation to set the right example," Young said. "The (annual) survey we did with our clubs identified this as an issue that we should address. We received the same message from the NFL Players Association, whom we met with (during last month's scouting combine) in Indianapolis.
"The game is in overall good shape. But we are still striving to improve it and ensure we are presenting it in the most professional manner possible."