The Pro Football Year in Review
The Associated Press
December 20, 1995
The Rams and Raiders moved from Los Angeles. The Browns and Oilers have packed their bags. The league is suing two owners, and the owners are suing back.
Oh yes. San Francisco won a record fifth Super Bowl last January, finally moving Steve Young, the league and game MVP, out from Joe Montana’s shadow.
That’s an afterthought for the NFL, in which the action off the field was often as riveting as the action on it.
NFL owners, in their search for riches, may finally have destabilized what had been the most stable league in American professional sports.
The two key figures were Dallas’ Jerry Jones and Cleveland’s Art Modell.
Modell, long a “league man,” stunned his fellow owners when he announced Nov. 6 that he would move the Browns to Baltimore from Cleveland, where they had been one of the NFL’s most tradition-laden fixtures.
The reason: a $220 million state-of-the-art stadium with luxury boxes, a $75 million relocation fee and revenues from parking and concessions. They would replace an antiquated stadium and help Modell make up what he claimed was $21 million in losses the last two years trying to keep up with the Joneses in the free agent market.
Modell’s announcement came two months after Dallas’ Jones had challenged the NFL’s most sacred concept: revenue sharing.
He did it by signing unsanctioned deals with Nike, Pepsi-Cola and American Express, and suggesting that revenue from merchandising be taken from the pool of shared revenues.
That gave Jones and “America’s Team” a major financial advantage because Dallas leads the league in marketing and he immediately exploited it, using cash from those deals in the $13 million signing bonus he gave Deion Sanders.
The result: a $300 million suit by the NFL followed by a $750 million counter suit by Jones.
But that’s only part of the problem for Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who said when the Browns’ move was announced: “Our object always is to stay out of court.”
Early this season, the league sued Al Davis and the Raiders, who moved back to Oakland from Los Angeles during the offseason because the NFL wants the team to share revenue from personal seat licenses. Davis, of course, sued right back — it was his victory in the suit that resulted from the Raiders’ 1982 move to Los Angeles that opened the way to what’s now known as “franchise free agency.”
Earlier, the league did stay out of court. But it did so only by backing down after it had refused in March to allow the Rams to move from Los Angeles to St. Louis. The Rams, St. Louis and the state of Missouri threatened suit, and the team is now in the city abandoned by the Cardinals for Arizona in 1987.
By the end of the year, moves seemed to be the trend.
Not only had the Browns announced a move, but the Oilers proposed to move from Houston to Nashville, perhaps as early as next season. They would play in Memphis while a Baltimore-like stadium is being built for them.
Tagliabue, meanwhile, said he wanted teams in Los Angeles, as well as Cleveland and Baltimore, which had been abandoned by the Colts against league wishes in 1984.
So, Seattle was looking toward Los Angeles; Tampa Bay toward Los Angeles, Orlando and perhaps Cleveland; and Arizona, where Bill Bidwill failed to find his pot of gold, toward Los Angeles or Cleveland.
Some critics suggest that the moves could have been avoided had the league chosen Baltimore and St. Louis as expansion cities.
Instead, they chose Jacksonville and Carolina, which began play this year with considerable success. The Carolina Panthers had won six games by late in the season, doubling the total by any other expansion team — and the Jacksonville Jaguars had three victories.
That may have been a result of absolute parity — a league diluted by expansion, a salary cap and free agency.
As the 1995 season unfolded, there were only two teams that stuck out — defending champion San Francisco and its arch-rival, Dallas, which had won the previous two Super Bowls.
But both had their troubles.
Injuries hurt the 49ers early, and the lack of depth caused by free agency was apparent as they began 5-4, losing at home to Carolina. But their season turned Nov. 12 in Dallas when they jumped to a 17-0 lead in seven minutes and beat the Cowboys, 38-20, their third straight win over Dallas since Barry Switzer took over for Jimmy Johnson.
That game also turned the season sour for Dallas, 8-1 and a 14-point favorite going in.
It marked the first of three losses in five games for the Cowboys, including its second to Washington, which had won just two others all year and a game in Philadelphia. In the second, Switzer went for a first-down on fourth and 1 from his own 29 and two minutes left. He failed, lost and was vilified in Dallas and around the country.
But more than the scorn for Switzer, it dropped the Cowboys behind the 49ers in the race for the home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs and kept the surprising Eagles, under Ray Rhodes, in the race for the NFC East title.
In the AFC, the big surprise was Kansas City, supposed to be an also-ran after the retirement of Joe Montana.
But Steve Bono, Montana’s caddie in both San Francisco and Kansas City, stepped into the void and led the Chiefs to three come-from-behind overtime wins early. They clinched the AFC West with four weeks left in the season.
The AFC’s other surprise was Buffalo, which dropped to 7-9 last season after four straight Super Bowl losses. It came back to the verge of winning the AFC East despite a rash of injuries and the loss for three weeks of coach Marv Levy, who underwent surgery for prostate cancer.
As the season wound down, the Chiefs and Bills, along with Pittsburgh, had won their divisions in the AFC. San Francisco, Dallas, Philadelphia, Green Bay and Detroit were the major NFC contenders — the Lions coming on strong from 3-6 to 9-6 after owner William Clay Ford gave coach Wayne Fontes a “playoffs-or-else” ultimatum.
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© 1996 The Washington Post Company