Out of Alignment
Two new teams will join the NFL next September, but realignment has stalled—at least for '95. It's a near certainty that the Jacksonville Jaguars will begin play in the AFC Central and the Carolina Panthers will join the NFC West, and if that doesn't make sense to you, well, neither will this: Though logic would dictate that the Indianapolis Colts of the AFC East trade divisions with the Tampa Bay Bucs of the NFC Central, that won't happen. The reason: "That would give us three dome teams in a five-team division," says Green Bay president Bob Harlan.
Each of the four NFC Central teams north of Tampa wrote to commissioner Paul Tagliabue to tell him of their concerns about playing on the domes' Astro-Turf surfaces.
That position all but kills the chance for two great rivalries to develop in the coming years. Chicago and Indianapolis—less than 200 miles apart—now play, at most, once every three years, as do Tampa Bay and Miami, which arc separated by only about 270 miles of swimming pools and golf courses. A trade between the divisions would pit these natural antagonists against each other twice a year. But in the NFL, tradition and the self-interest of owners rule the realignment game.
Don't try to teach your kids geography by looking at a map of the NFL. For instance next fall, if the Rams move to Baltimore, which is one of the cities the franchise is considering, the NFC West would have three teams—Atlanta and Carolina would be the others—in the Eastern time zone. And no one has thought of New Orleans as the West since the Louisiana Purchase. In this division only San Francisco makes geographical sense—and pity the Niners their travel budget.
Arizona should be in the NFC West, but owner Bill Bidwill loves his rivalries with teams in the NFC East. Dallas should be in a Central or West division, but owner Jerry Jones also likes the sort of gerrymandering that retains the old NFC East grudge matches.
Five teams from among Atlanta, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Carolina, Miami and Tampa Bay should constitute a Southeast division. But if the league can't even orchestrate a Tampa-for-Indy trade or an Arizona-for-Atlanta swap, what chance is there for a truly revolutionary restructuring? Zip.
According to NFL rules, three quarters of the league's 30 owners must approve realignment, and Denver owner Pat Bowlen says there are at least 10 or 11 owners adamantly opposed to even minor changes. "You have to be realistic about it," Bowlen said after a late-September NFL meeting that featured debate about realignment. "You look around the meeting room and say. We're not going to get the votes to get it done. We are well advised to just slot the expansion teams in and get on with our lives."
Land of the Free
How odd that several teams that seemed to have been ravaged by free-agent Kisses in the past couple of seasons—Atlanta, the Giants, Philadelphia—have gone through the first third of '94 playing over .500. Atlanta lost four key players in cornerback Deion Sanders, wideout Michael Haynes, tackle Chris Hinton and quarterback Chris Miller. The Giants lost a boatload of starters, including special teams ace Myron Guyton, cornerback Mark Collins and quarterback Phil Simms, because of the salary cap. And during two off-seasons the Eagles lost prime defenders Reggie White, Seth Joyner and Clyde Simmons as well as running back Keith Byars and defensive back Andre Waters, both of whom were team leaders.
Maybe it isn't so odd. The early lesson here is that the star player isn't as irreplaceable as we had thought. Take the Eagles. Center David Alexander has said that this is the first year since he joined the team in 1987 that he has felt totally comfortable in the locker room, which had been a fractious place because offensive and defensive players didn't get along. Insiders think that coach Rich Kotite is glad to be rid of some of the high-profile players because they retained their loyalty to Buddy Ryan even after he was fired as coach.
New players like defensive end William Fuller and linebacker Bill Romanowski have been totally committed to Kotite ever since they arrived. "Keith Byars made one statement when he left that I couldn't believe," Kotite says. "He said, 'They're dismantling a great team.' How can you say that! We didn't win a playoff game with those guys."
Kotite is correct when he says the game "is played with heart and determination, not glitz and stars. The game has to be played from the neck up." You need talent, but less-talented players working in harmony might make teams better.
A Buddy Ryan-coached team hasn't allowed a 100-yard rushing game to a back since 1989. The streak continued Sunday, even in the Cowboys' 38-3 romp, when Emmitt Smith and Lincoln Coleman of the Cowboys were held to a combined 79 yard by Ryan's Cardinals....
Barring a surprising turnaround, the sun is setting on Jack Pardee's coaching tenure in Houston. In the first five weeks of the season Oiler players ripped offensive coordinator Kevin Gil-bride, and cornerback Cris Dishman said publicly that the Oilers weren't good enough to turn their season around after starling 1-4. How can Pardee allow such mutinous outbursts? Gilbride had been Pardee's heir apparent, but friction has developed with owner Bud Adams, who wants Gilbride to play tight end Pat Carter more. Gilbride has to be agonizing over the fact that the Oilers would not let him out of his contract to take the top job at the University of South Carolina last year....
Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf is one of the few league executives openly critical of the relatively generous plan that has been adopted to stock the two expansion teams. "The older expansion teams were never afforded this kind of opportunity," he says. "The new expansion clubs could be contenders by the second season and maybe even the first, and I don't think that what an owner paid for his franchise should play that big a role in determining how quickly his team can be competitive."
The End Zone
Maybe it really is time for the Rams to leave Los Angeles. Brian (Kato) Kaelin, who has parlayed living in the guest house on O.J. Simpson's property into his 15 minutes of fame, was a guest of the Rams at their game in Green Bay on Sunday. He flew home on the team charter after the Pack beat L.A. 24-17.
The owners won't let a Buc like Trent Differ (12) develop a natural rivalry with Miami.
Shaun Gayle (23) helped the Bear D achieve its goals—number 6, in particular—against the Saints.
Like most teams, the Bears have specific statistical goals that they hope to achieve every week. In their training complex are magnetic boards used to illustrate coach Dave Wannstedt's game-stat targets for offense (12 goals), defense (13) and special teams (10). When a goal is met in a given game, a 2¼-inch Bear-helmet magnet is affixed, signifying success. Failure means that the space is left helmetless.
These days a large rectangular piece of black posterboard covers the results for the first three weeks of the season. In embarrassing losses to Philadelphia and Minnesota in Weeks 2 and 3, the Bear defense surrendered a combined 72 points and achieved only four of 26 goals. So Wannstedt ordered the funereal shroud and told his troops that they were starting a new season.
It may be sophomoric, as many motivational techniques in sports are, but the Bears got the point. "We saw it as an opportunity to start the season over," says defensive tackle Chris Zorich. The Bears are now 3-0 in the postblackout era. Here is how the Bear defensive goal list looked after Sunday's 17-7 win over New Orleans, with an X marking the spot of each goal fulfilled.
*Big plays are plays of at least 25 yards