The 2002 NFL Realignment had a lasting impact, especially over a decade and a half after the Houston Texans debuted in the AFC South, evening the count for each conference to sixteen teams.
When the Cleveland Browns returned in 1999, the league had an odd number of teams for the first time since 1966, when the Atlanta Falcons joined the league and the NFL was stuck with fifteen teams.
So, from 1999-2001, the NFL had fifteen teams in the NFC and sixteen in the AFC, with the Browns rejoining the AFC Central, giving the division six teams and forcing at least one team to have a bye-week, even on Week One.
Thus, when the Texans joined the NFL in 2002, a new scheduling format was released along with the league’s most radical divisional realignment since 1970 when the AFL and NFL merged into one.
2002 NFL Divisional Realignment
So, what exactly happened in 2002?
- The NFL expanded from six to eight divisions, with four divisions in the AFC and four in the NFC.
- The AFC and NFC Central were retired, now known as the AFC and NFC North, respectively.
- A new South division was created for both conferences.
- The Indianapolis Colts moved from the AFC East to the AFC South.
- The Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Baltimore Ravens made up the new AFC North.
- The Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars also migrated to the South from the old AFC Central.
- The expansion Texans were placed in the South, to become a division rival with the Titans, the City of Houston’s former team.
- The Seattle Seahawks were transplanted from the AFC West to the NFC West.
- The Arizona Cardinals joined the Seahawks in the NFC West, amid protests due to the team’s historic rivalries with the NFC East.
- The Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and New Orleans Saints joined the newly created NFC South from the NFC West.
- The Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, and Minnesota Vikings made up the new NFC North.
- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers joined the Falcons, Panthers, and Saints in the NFC South. Tampa Bay had also been part of the AFC West upon joining the NFL in 1976.
Quite the radical realignment indeed, which has remained the same since 2002. Under the new alignment, each team played their division rival twice, with one home game and one away game against each. Each division played another division within their conference once every three seasons, and each played another division in the opposite conference once every four seasons.
Teams would alternate home and away games with each cycle. For instance, if the Browns played the AFC West, they would play in two home and two road games. Three years later, they would play the teams they played at home three seasons prior on the road, while playing home games against the teams they played on the road. Ditto for their games against the NFC teams, except this would occur every four seasons.
Finally, the teams in the same conference that finished in an identical spot in their respective divisions made up the final two games. If the Browns finished third and played the AFC West that season, they would play the teams that finished third in the AFC East and AFC South.
Over the course of eight seasons, every NFL team would have played in every other team’s home stadium at least once. The 2002 cycle ended in 2009, while the cycle began again in 2010 and lasted until 2017. 2018 marked the beginning of the third cycle.
Reebok and Alternate Jerseys
Prior to 2002, the NFL didn’t have an exclusive uniform provider. Instead, each team signed independent deals with uniform manufacturers. It wasn’t uncommon to see brands like Nike, Reebok, Puma, Russell Athletic, and others provide uniforms for different teams.
In 2002, the NFL signed a deal with Reebok. With the deal Reebok announced that every team would don a new uniform for the season and beyond. However, numerous owners voiced their opposition to the announcement, forcing Reebok to back out and supply the uniforms as is for the season.
Two teams, however, took up Reebok’s proposal; the Buffalo Bills and the Seattle Seahawks. Judging from the way these duds, and they were duds, looked from 2002 through 2010 (2011 for the Seahawks), we can thank mercy all thirty-two teams didn’t receive a makeover. However, in Reebok’s defense, the expansion Texans went with a more traditional look, so perhaps it wouldn’t have been as bad as indicated with the Seahawks and Bills.
Truth is, we’ll never know, however, what’s not to say there wasn’t an indication?
In 2002, something called third jerseys were released, as the NFL urged many teams to adopt such looks, which became more apparent over the 2000s. Let’s take a hard look at some of these third jerseys:
- Cleveland Browns: Added a jersey featuring an orange base, white numbers, brown dropshadow, with brown and white striping at the sleeves.
- Carolina Panthers: Added jerseys that still exist to this day. Carolina blue base with black midseam striping at the shoulders along with silver outlining, white numbering, and black outlines. This was a modified version of the team’s proposed 1995 home jersey.
- New Orleans Saints: Added gold jerseys which served as an inverse of their home, black jerseys.
- Denver Broncos: Added orange alternates which now serve as the team’s primary jersey.
- In 2003, the Falcons would join the party with third jerseys, along with the Lions (black jerseys), Eagles (black jerseys), Patriots (silver jerseys), Dolphins (orange jerseys), Texans (red jerseys), Titans (powder blue jerseys, later became the team’s primary).
- We would see this occur in 2004, 2005, and so on, as teams looked to add third uniforms.
- Finally, the final maneuver in 2002 came when Reebok did answer calls to tighten the jerseys which would in turn reduce holding calls. This would mess with shoulder stripes for some, which became notable on the Indianapolis Colts‘ look.
The NFL has not realigned again since 2002 (nor have my Browns been in the playoffs since at the time of this writing on July 25th, 2019). In 2012, the NFL dropped Reebok in favor of Nike, where rumors of a massive uniform change for the 2012 season took hold upon the NFL. However, when Nike released new uniforms for all thirty-two teams, every team but the Seahawks received subtle changes that were barely noticeable. The only real changes occurred along each teams’ collar, yet some, such as the Steelers and Packers, saw no change at all.
However, Nike did experiment with their own version of alternate jerseys with the NFL Color Rush, which was granted a test run in 2015 and made a permanent fixture a year later in 2016. This lasted until 2017, when the NFL did away with it due to mixed to negative fan reaction.
Ironically, some traditional fan bases, such as that of Cleveland and Pittsburgh, actually embraced the Color Rush while others, such as that of the Washington Redskins, completely refused to wear the uniforms and instead went with a monochromatic look of their burgundy uniform.
2002 was a Season of Change that affected the entire landscape of the NFL on both the competitive and aesthetic side of the game.