I don’t want to get right into it, because when you talk about this subject, it provokes a lot of gut reaction, so I’ll start with a little background.
Post-merger to 2002 Realignment
Beginning with the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, there was a division known as the NFC West that included the Los Angeles Rams, the San Francisco 49ers, the New Orleans Saints, and the Atlanta Falcons.
Apart from the Saints, these teams had been in the Coastal Division with the Baltimore Colts, who I suppose were theoretically potential rivals to the Falcons, while the Saints were supposed to be potential rivals to the Cowboys.
Anyway, that all got scrambled with the merger, but it was decided Saints-Falcons was a better rivalry, partly because they joined the league only a year apart. The Cowboys were also a fairly new team but had already accelerated into a top team with one of the best hires ever, Tom Landry.
Of course, logically, one team was in the central United States and another was in the East. I guess it would have been more correct to call it the NFC West and South, but that would have been too wordy.
These four teams remained in this division until 2001, although tin 1995 it got even more ridiculous as the Rams moved to St. Louis and the expansion Panthers were added.
In the 2002 realignment, the Rams and 49ers only retained one divisional opponent apiece, and the Cardinals and the Bucs retained none.
A couple notes on the last two. After playing in the AFC for its inaugural year, Tampa Bay had joined the NFC Central in 1977. Arizona had started in the NFC East when that franchise was in St. Louis, moving in 1988.
In 2002, the Seahawks changed conferences and of course didn’t retain any divisional opponents either.
In the AFC, the Titans and Jaguars retained only one divisional opponent apiece, and the Colts retained none.
The point of all of this is to disabuse people of the notion that new rivalries can’t be formed fairly quickly and that we should not place teams into logical divisions.
The Effect of the Rams and Relocation
My primary proposal last time had the Rams in kind of a mid-South division with the Titans, Panthers, and Chiefs, so of course that idea is now obsolete.
I had thought since there were exactly four West coast teams, it made sense to put them all together, but there is a problem with that in the TV markets since the 49ers and Raiders are in the same market.
So when you have more than four teams, I think it makes sense to respect the idea that there should only be one CBS team and one Fox team in a given market. I didn’t see any reporting about this, but I suspect TV might have been one of the factors many owners switched from the Raiders-Chargers proposal to the Rams one.
Had the Raiders-Chargers proposal gone through, there would have been about six weeks where one of the two would have had to play a night game because every other week, CBS is restricted to one game on Sunday during the day. (You can get it down to six given that each team has a bye week, the two teams would play each other twice, and both networks have a doubleheader in Week 17.)
Accordingly, I have one proposal for the Chargers staying in San Diego and another in the event they move to Los Angeles.
I know it was ancient history to some younger fans; but before realignment (as indicated above), the Seahawks played in the AFC against the Raiders, Broncos, and Chiefs. I would preferably bring that back.
Why? The two closest locations to San Diego are going to be Inglewood, CA, and Glendale, AZ. I don’t agree with the idea that the Chargers shouldn’t be in a conference with either of those just because before 1970, they were in the AFL instead of the NFL.
Arizona also is in a situation that doesn’t make any sense, as can be seen on the current map.
I’ll admit that in recent years, the best intra-state rivalry in California has been the Raiders and the Chargers. However, a big reason for that is the large group of Raiders fans extending from the Bay Area to Southern California. I think the Rams moving and the Raiders staying (or perhaps moving to another state) will completely change that dynamic anyway.
If the Chargers move, I would just keep the current alignment as is. Besides, I think I have enough ideas that will challenge the status quo.
There could be an all-California division and everyone else if the Chargers move, but two reasons I don’t think that’s a good idea: (1) it would require two pairs of teams switching conferences, and (2) even if one shared market can be accommodated, two is probably pushing it.
So this is my proposal for the Western teams if either the teams stay put or it’s decided that to allow two Los Angeles teams in the same conference.
Messing with Texas
The Cowboys’ and Texans’ divisions don’t make a bit of sense, and I have no qualms about removing them from those divisions.
When the Houston Oilers still existed, they played the Steelers, Browns, and Bengals. The Texans playing the Jags, Colts, and Titans is better, but not that much better. It was really a collection of mismatches. The cities that were least appropriate for the central were removed, and the city that was least appropriate for the East was removed, and they were all put together.
The Colts are close to enough other teams that there is no reason to share a division with anyone south of Nashville for sure.
The Jaguars’ closest divisional opponent is 600 miles away even though 5 non-divisional teams are closer.
I get that Tennessee and Indianapolis worked because they were both kind of leftover mismatches and aren’t that far from one another, but the triangular divisional configuration is ridiculous.
As for the Cowboys, I have yet to see a real argument as to why that’s not a misfit that needs to be corrected. Why is it better than the Oilers in the AFC Central, the Falcons in the NFC West, the Cardinals in the NFC East, or the Bucs in the NFC Central? They were all used to it as well.
The NFL was correct in the late 1960s when it saw two teams in bordering states, the Cowboys and the Saints, and put them in the same division. Adding in a Houston team in somewhat comfortable driving distance or sub-60-minute flying distance from both only makes more sense. The Falcons would be a bit more removed, but Falcons-Saints was one thing the NFL got right in 1970. It would make no sense to undo it. Texas isn’t as close to Atlanta as Carolina of course, but it’s better than San Francisco, Los Angeles, or even St. Louis.
Given the Rams’ move back to Los Angeles, I can’t think of one alignment where I wouldn’t want this division.
Two Obvious Divisions
The first keeps together four teams that have been in the same division (which they shared with Tampa Bay years ago) since the merger: the NFC North (previously the NFC Central, or as Chris Berman calls it, the Norris Division), made up of Minnesota, Green Bay, Chicago, and Detroit.
The second one is the current NFC East minus the Cowboys. Their replacement is perfectly obvious on the map, the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore is about 40 miles from Washington and about 100 miles from Philadelphia. Philadelphia is less than 100 miles from New York. I don’t think you can get a more ideal division than that.
It would mean Baltimore changing from the AFC to the NFC, but Baltimore was never an AFL city. Apart from some overlap with Steelers fans in rural Maryland, I think Baltimore fans encounter would-be rival NFC East fans a bit more often as well. This would also make it so that the rural Maryland/Northern West Virginia/Southern Pennsylvania/inland Northern Virginia area could have the Ravens on one network and the Steelers on another.
The More Traditional Approach
Obviously, the most traditional thing to do would be to leave everything the way it is, but one of the things I’m not in favor of is radical realignment. This would be blowing up all the existing divisions and conferences as if they never existed. When I talked about the western teams, I even talked about trying to limit the number of teams who change conferences.
I call it radical realignment because that was the name for the proposals in baseball after the strike when it was suggested that teams like the Mets and Yankees should be in the same league and no attention be paid to which franchises were traditionally in which league.
But anyway, I’ve said how I feel about the 8 western teams, the 4 teams of the current NFC North, the 4 teams of my proposed NFC South, and the 4 teams of my proposed NFC East.
I have mixed feelings about the other. The more traditional approach would start by leaving the current AFC East (Buffalo, New England, Jets, Miami) in tact.
That leaves Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Carolina, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay. I would just make the teams north of the Ohio River the AFC North and those to the south the AFC South.
The More Geographic Approach
You can figure out which one of the AFC East is not like the others. Miami isn’t so close to New York, and it’s even farther from Buffalo and New England.
So why not start by putting all the Florida teams into one division instead? None of them currently have rivalries that make sense anyway.
But they need another team. While the Falcons would be ideal, I’ve put them in the NFC South already to keep their rivalry with the Saints.
The Panthers are the logical choice here. They would maintain their series with the Bucs, but it would add a team in between in Jacksonville. I know the Jags haven’t had a good season in a while, but it could evolve into something like the Saints-Falcons rivalry with two franchises of a similar age in the same general part of the football landscape. This arrangement would have the added bonus of making it so the Florida television map doesn’t look like a Jackson Pollock painting (see below).
This would require the AFC East to add a fourth team, and the remaining team closest to the coast is the Steelers, who seemingly could develop a natural rivalry with Buffalo and already have had a competitive rivalry with the Patriots, although not in the same division of course.
This would leave sort of a Ohio River division centered around Cincinnati, with the Titans to the South, the Browns to the Northeast, and the Colts to the Northwest.
I’m done. I just wanted to post some television maps of Florida from last season if you didn’t get my Pollock remark and picture. They’re not even consistent. Sometimes West Palm Beach goes with Miami, sometimes it goes with the panhandle or the rest of the country. Sometimes Ft. Myers goes with Tampa, sometimes it goes with Miami.