The Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys or St. Louis Cardinals as division rivals? Green Bay/Minnesota matchups not becoming a twice-annual affair? Both were very real possibilities during the NFL’s tense negotiations regarding the post-merger realignment.
For the Green Bay Packers and many of the National Football League’s oldest franchises, divisional alignment has been pretty consistent. Packers fans are plenty familiar with their annual meetings with the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, and Minnesota Vikings. The same goes for the NFL’s old guard franchises on the East Coast: the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Football Team.
However, if not for one fateful draw of a slip of paper, it’s possible many of those long-standing rivalries we’re all familiar with may look wildly different today.
Flashback to the late 1960s. After NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and the American Football League owners forged a merger between the two leagues and set parameters for such events as the common draft and Super Bowl, the realignment of the soon-to-be 26-team league became a hot topic. On the AFC side, that was pretty simple. The AFL’s geographical alignment and strong rivalries made for easy decisions, while the three NFL franchises that flipped conferences – the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers – easily filled gaps in the East and Central divisions.
But what to do about the NFC? After all, the league had one division featuring both Baltimore and the Atlanta Falcons alongside the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers. Additionally, the New Orleans Saints were division rivals with Philadelphia and Washington, while the Giants were paired with Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis.
After much negotiating (and some crazy alternatives), Rozelle and the league narrowed the divisional options down to five choices. That deadlock was ultimately broken by administrative assistant Thelma Elkjer, who picked Plan 3 from a slip of paper out of a bowl. That plan featured the alignment we’ve mostly grown familiar with within the last 50 years. The Central Division touted Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, and Minnesota, while the East Coast rivals were reunited alongside Dallas and St. Louis in the East. The pseudo-outlier in all this was the West, which had Los Angeles and San Francisco paired with Atlanta and New Orleans.
So, what were the other options that were nearly picked? We’ll take a look at them one-by-one. Mind you, during this process, there were some constants. For example, each proposal had the Packers and Bears in the same division. The same goes for the Rams and 49ers.
Plan 1: NFC Central – Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, New Orleans
It’s close, but no Vikings? Frankly, Plan 3 was the only one in which Green Bay and Minnesota were paired in the same division. In fact, the odds were far greater for the Packers and Vikings to end up in separate divisions. Meanwhile, Minnesota would have been placed in the NFC East with Philadelphia, New York, Washington, and Atlanta. For the West, that quartet would have been comprised of Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and San Francisco.
Plan 2: NFC West – Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Los Angeles, San Francisco
That’s right. One proposal involved the Packers not even being in the Central Division, but rather the West. However, this plan wasn’t as outlandish then as it seems today, as this quintet comprised most of the NFL’s Western Conference from 1950 until the split to divisions in 1967. As for the rest of the NFC, Minnesota was once again in the East along with the Eagles, Giants, and WFT, while the Central had a southern flair with the Cardinals, Cowboys, Falcons, and Saints.
Plan 4: NFC Central – Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay
As a whole, Plan 4 was very similar to Plan 1, as Atlanta, New Orleans, and St. Louis were the only clubs to change divisions between the two proposals. Once again, Minnesota was in the East Division, while Dallas was in the West.
Plan 5: NFC Central – Chicago, Dallas, Green Bay, St. Louis
With neither Detroit nor Minnesota paired with Green Bay and Chicago, Plan 5 joined Plan 2 as the most drastic shift from the norm. While the West was relatively normal (Atlanta, Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Francisco), both the Vikings and Lions were paired with Philadelphia, New York, and Washington in the East. That left the Packers and Bears to share a division with the other preeminent NFC power of the ‘70s in Dallas, plus a geographically close stop in St. Louis.
The Original Plan: Division II – Green Bay, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Diego
As was alluded to earlier, there were some pretty outlandish proposals thrown about. One option the AFL owners threw out at the beginning of negotiations was a complete redraw of divisions while adhering to certain conditions (i.e. the Giants and Jets in separate divisions). As a result, Rozelle did a random draw to prove how unworkable such an idea would be. Not only would the Packers have ended up with the Chargers, Saints, and Steelers and division rivals, but the Bears and Vikings would have been AFC teams in Divisions IV and VI, respectively.
So, 50 years later, we can credit many of the NFL’s long-standing rivalries to the simple actions of a single secretary.