People have no idea how different NFL history could be today based on luck and happenstance. Everybody knows the Chicago Bears missed out on a Hall of Fame quarterback in 1970 when they lost a coin flip to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That landed them the #1 overall pick which they used on Terry Bradshaw. As it turns out, that year was also pivotal for another reason.
It was the year the NFL officially merged with the rival American Football League (AFL). While some might think the process went smoothly at the time, it was anything but. There were a ton of roadblocks that could’ve derailed the process. Even after it happened there were problems. When the new league had to realign by NFC and AFC conferences, some teams needed to be paid to move to the AFC.
Then there was the matter of divisions.
Joe Browne, a longtime NFL office member, was there when the discussions went down. Owners were deadlocked on which teams should end up in which division. So it fell to commissioner Pete Rozelle to find a solution. It involved five different possible alignments, his trusted secretary Thelma Elkjer, and a flower vase.
“Finally, the big moment arrived. Thelma entered the room, but quickly left to get an empty flower vase to hold the five pieces of paper. Pete had shown the numbered slips to a couple of the owners to confirm that there were five different numbers which corresponded to those on the board. He didn’t want an upset owner to subsequently accuse him of having the five slips all contain the identical number which would reflect Pete’s own preferred alignment of teams. (That’s a trick they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School!) At this juncture, the only two Americans the owners trusted were President Richard Nixon (pre-Watergate) and Thelma.
Without even a drumroll, Thelma reached in, pulled out a slip and announced that the winning plan was number 3. Owners squinted at the chalkboard to see where their teams were in Plan 3.”
Chicago Bears history came close to being very different
That moment led to pretty much the division formation fans know today. One featuring the Bears, Packers, Vikings, and Lions. Owners of those teams weren’t too happy about it. Mostly because it meant few warm weather breaks during a season. Thankfully two of those teams would end up in domes by the 1980s. So it worked out. What nobody knew was just how close it came to being so, so different.
How different? Take a look at what Plan 2 would’ve had in store for them.
Just imagine. The Bears would’ve had to make not one but two trips to the west coast every single year just to play a divisional game. That is the sort of madness the NFL was flirting with at the time. Thankfully the football gods delivered some common sense to the drawing.