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The Real Action Around NFL Starts After Super Bowl Is Over

January 24, 1988|MIKE RABUN | United Press International

SAN DIEGO — The Super Bowl provides a nice interlude in the National Football League because it allows fans to focus on what is happening on the field.

For a brief period there can be escape from the movement of franchises, changing of coaches, strikes, lawsuits and the ongoing debate on the merits of instant replay.

As the National Football League season nears a conclusion, it is clear the league is in transition. Just how much of a transition there is going to be remains to be seen and, as has often been the case, the amount of change rests in the hands of the courts.

In terms of tranquility, this has not been the best of NFL seasons.

The second strike in five years ravaged the league and has led to the most critical lawsuit in NFL history.

The two most memorable pictures from this season will probably be the one of whoever makes the big play in the Super Bowl and the one of Kansas City Chiefs' Paul Coffman and Dino Hackett standing in the back of a pickup truck with shotguns in their hands as they rode past the entrance of Arrowhead Stadium during the walkout.

The month-long strike was mishandled by the union and was crushed by league owners, who decided to keep playing games with replacement players. Rather than hold out all season, the players came back to work and their union filed an anti-trust suit that, if successful, would dramatically alter the way the NFL does business. The suit was filed in Minneapolis and some sort of preliminary ruling, perhaps one ordering a jury trial, could come down before the Super Bowl is played.

"This (the suit) is going to last for a period of time," said Dallas Cowboys' president and general manager Tex Schramm. "They seem to be projecting that it will take at least two years (including time for appeals).

"But as far as the effects of the strike are concerned, I think the league rebounded in a hurry. And we did so because of two things. One was the fact that although they may have been hectic, we did sustain interest through the replacement games. And the other was that this strike was much shorter than the last one."

The suit will hang over the heads of NFL officials for months to come, but Schramm said he did not think the daily routine around the league would be affected during the litigation.

"I don't think it involves the day-to-day operation of the football teams," Schramm said. "It doesn't affect the coaches and players and the drafting and signing of players. It might affect people like myself and those at the league meeting level who have the responsibility concerning the lawsuit and the various other things. But that's all.

"And I don't think the strike affected how the season came out. I haven't heard anything like, 'Well, if it hadn't been for the strike we would have been in the playoffs.' The teams that got there seemed to be the one that deserved to get there. One team (Minnesota) lost all three replacement games and did very well anyway."

But if the strike and its resulting lawsuit are now backburner issues, there are others in the forefront.

Expansion is a constant topic, the NFL suddenly finds itself without a team in St. Louis and has one in Phoenix and the use of instant replay as an officiating tool is facing yet another vote.

Transition is also being found on the field since the New York Giants' climb to the top was quickly followed by a fall to the bottom. San Francisco and Chicago both exited the playoffs early this year while Indianapolis and New Orleans were both surprising entrants in the Super Bowl derby.

Expansion, it seems, is unlikely until some settlement with the players is reached.

"I don't think anything can be done until the players situation is resolved," Schramm said. "I can't speak for the commissioner, but it is conceivable we might have a committee study the candidates for expansion.

"And although some people are talking about realignment, I'm not sure there is any sentiment toward that. I don't see anything happening as far as realignment is concerned just because of the St. Louis move."

The move of the Cardinals from St. Louis to Phoenix puts an NFC East team in the extreme western part of the country. A glance at the map might suggest it would be better to move Atlanta from the NFC West to the NFC East and then put Phoenix in the NFC West.

Such attempts would likely be fought by teams in the NFC East which would probably rather play in Phoenix (big stadium, large attendance and nice weather) than Atlanta (small stadium and even smaller crowds).

"When you get on an airplane these days," Schramm said, "it doesn't make any difference where you fly."

Instant replay is ending its second season and there are growing indications that enough votes can be found in March's league meetings to end the experiment. A key play in the Super Bowl could wind up determining the fate of instant replay.

"I think it is going to be an interesting decision when the time comes," said Schramm, who originally pushed the idea past the league owners, "because it is clearly popular with the fans. I think it has become popular with the media, too. And I think television has found out it is not as horrible as they thought it would be. It adds dimension to their coverage.

"So the people who have these philosophical reasons why they don't like it will have to search deep on what is in the best interest of the game."

The best interests of the game would be served by putting on quality contests for those who want to see them and reduce the amount of publicity generated off the field.

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