What Would a Sensible NFL Realignment Look Like?

Deb LagardeCorrespondent IFebruary 6, 2009

There is talk on blogs, on ESPN, and, it seems everywhere one looks, for news about further NFL expansion. Well, it could happen, but in today's economy? Not for a while.

The thing is, if the NFL does expand, it will have to do so in a way that every division is symmetrical, which probably means an expansion to 36 teams. That probably means 18 teams per conference, which likely means going back to the old three-division format of East, Central, and West in both AFC and NFC. That means six teams in each division.

To make the schedules more varied, that would require upping the number of games to at least 18: play division rivals twice (10 games), play one division from the other conference (6 games), and "same-placed" teams from the other two conference divisions (2 games).

Or not.

But that got me to thinking about the re-alignment that occurred in 2002, when the six divisions were split into eight, four teams per division, for a total of 32 teams.

Actually, the system in and of itself is fine, and rightly accommodates for tried and true division rivalries. But the system can be made better. The problem is it will likely break up those tried and true division rivalries, and no one in the NFL wants to do that.

For instance, before the setting of the 2002 realignment there was talk, when the AFC South division was created, of moving Miami into it. That way, Miami wouldn't have to suffer the disadvantage of playing cold weather teams in the winter. That's just one example of what the NFL tried to do.

But that would have messed up the big rivalries Miami (which, during the '70s, was the most hated team in the East) had built up with the Jets and Patriots, so that notion was nixed.

Besides, that argument of weather doesn't wash when the Dolphins are a good team. In perhaps the coldest game played in 2008, at a minus-12 wind chill in Arrowhead Stadium in December, the Dolphins beat the Chiefs in an offensive lollapalooza. The score was 38-31 with more than 800 yards of total offense.)

There are good reasons for a new realignment, most of them geographical. I will explain this after showing what a possible realignment could look like. Both conferences stay the same; only the teams are shuffled a bit.

AFC East: Buffalo, Baltimore, New England, New York Jets

AFC North: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis

AFC South: Houston, Jacksonville, Miami, Tennessee

AFC West: Denver, KC, Oakland, SD

NFC East: New York Giants, Philly, Washington, St. Louis

NFC North: Minnesota, Chicago, GB, Detroit

NFC South: Atlanta, NO, Carolina, TB

NFC West: Dallas, Arizona, SF, Seattle

Now, it might make more sense to put Indianapolis in the AFC East because, when they were in Baltimore, they already were in the AFC East! But think of the possibilities. John Harbaugh of the Ravens could duel with his former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, and, as some think might happen, Ray Lewis could play his former teammates.

Plus, if the Jets can't get their QB situation worked out, the Patriots need a serious division rival for the top. After all, the Pats fans complained about why the "inferior" Dolphins made the playoffs instead of them. With my realignment, the Pats would have a worthier team to put them out of the playoffs.

The AFC North? Well, Indianapolis is just as far north as the other three. Besides, if this realignment happened, the Colts could relive that division playoff rivalry with the Steelers, not every now and then, but twice a year. You've heard of Manning vs. Brady—Manning vs. Roethlisberger is even more appealing. Beauty and finesse vs. ugly but effective! Now who can beat that?

And for you old school NFLers, the grand old Century Division rivalry between the Colts and Browns could start up again.

The AFC South would get interesting. The Dolphins ought to have an intrastate rivalry with the Jaguars, and this one is a natural in good and bad weather. That way, Pennington and Garrard can fight it out for the "Comeback Player of the Year" Award, seeing as how Pennington does well in even years and Girard does well in odd years.

And then there is that juicy thought for Texans fans: now their team can beat the Dolphins twice a year. Or, maybe, the Dolphins might one of these years actually beat Houston. Getting the Colts out and Fins in shouldn't make too much difference to the Titans, though, as Haynesworth doesn't care much whether he sacks Manning or Pennington. It's all the same to him.

The AFC West will not change, unless, of course, the Raiders get themselves a new owner. It's one of the few lineups that geographically makes sense.

In the NFC, some will say I am crazy for even suggesting breaking up the Cowboys and Redskins rivalry, but I look at it this way: unless the Pokes remodel without all the prima donnas (player and owner) they have now to distract them, their rivalry with the 'Skins will collapse anyway.

Besides, a team from St. Louis used to be in the NFC East (when the Cards were there, and it's as cold in St. Louis in winter as it is in New Jersey).

I would not have the heart to change the wild and woolly NFC North, another conference that geographically makes sense. This division must never change, unless, of course, Detroit kicks the Lions out for monumental incompetence. Or if Detroit implodes, whichever comes first.

But since the auto industry is collapsing in Motor City, who knows? Toyota might buy GM and Ford and move the team to Tokyo. Maybe new coach Jim Schwartz should learn to speak Japanese.

I also would not change the NFC South. The 2008 South was so interesting, what with all the teams vying for first at one point. And, it would be cruelty to separate Atlanta and New Orleans.

This leaves the NFC West, where I moved the Cowboys there. Last year, the NFC West was so dull, with nobody even bothering to sneeze on Arizona. Well, going to Super Bowl XLIII proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Cardinals can handle the competition, so why not give them competition for the title?

That is where the Cowboys come in. The Cards and 'Boys used to be division rivals anyway, so let's reunite these two teams. And the Cowboys seem to require an easier division to play in December. Thus, the NFL can accommodate "America's Team."

Besides, in playing Kurt Warner twice a year, Romo can see what a real Hall of Fame QB plays like.