Relocation is a (usually unfortunate) part of the sports world. The NFL is no stranger to that with three teams — the Rams, Chargers, and Raiders — all picking new homes in the last few years. SB Nation NFL is looking at the fallout and ramifications of team displacements throughout NFL history, and what moves could be coming next in a relocation-themed week.
A few decades ago — before Tom Brady was a household name, and Bill Belichick was a coaching legend — the New England Patriots were no juggernaut. They barely even stuck around in Boston.
The franchise made appearances in the AFL Championship in 1964 and Super Bowl 20 in 1986, but lost both. When the 90s began, the Patriots were one of the NFL’s worst teams. New England finished with a 1-15 record in 1990 and almost matched that level of ineptitude with a 2-14 season in 1992.
Unsurprisingly, not many people wanted to go to the games.
No team had fewer fans show up during the 1992 season. The Patriots averaged 38,551 fans per game — well south of the now-demolished Foxboro Stadium’s 60,292 capacity. For one December game against the Colts, the Patriots couldn’t even get 20,000 people to show up.
So it wasn’t too shocking that the Patriots were in the relocation crosshairs, especially when they had a revolving door of owners at the time.
First, the Sullivan family sold the team to Victor Kiam in 1988. Not long after, Kiam sold it to James Orthwein in 1992.
Orthwein was born and raised in St. Louis, and bought the Patriots specifically with the goal of moving the team to his hometown in Missouri. Had he succeeded, the NFL would probably look much different today.
How Robert Kraft killed the St. Louis Stallions
The Cardinals relocated from Chicago to St. Louis in 1960 and stayed in the Gateway City for 28 years before heading to Phoenix.
A few years after losing the Cardinals, the city got its chance at a replacement when the NFL decided in 1991 it would expand from 28 teams to 30. The list of candidate cities was whittled down to St. Louis, Baltimore, Charlotte, Jacksonville, and Memphis. St. Louis missed out when Charlotte was awarded the Panthers and Jacksonville landed the Jaguars.
So Orthwein stepped in.
The city of St. Louis already broke ground on a stadium — called The Dome at America’s Center at the time — as part of its expansion bid. Orthwein decided that he’d take his newly purchased Patriots and move them out of Massachusetts after the 1993 season. They were to become the St. Louis Stallions.
Orthwein even designed a logo and made hats to celebrate the move.
Just one problem: Foxboro Stadium owner Robert Kraft.
Kraft, a longtime Patriots season ticket holder, scooped up ownership of the stadium at a bankruptcy sale in 1988. The Patriots had a lease with the stadium through the 2001 season and Kraft refused to let Orthwein break the deal.
“People have offered me all sorts of money for the lease,” Kraft said in 1994, via the New York Times. “But I let it be known that I wouldn’t sell at any price.”
Orthwein was stuck. When Kraft offered $175 million for the team — a then-record amount not just for the NFL, but all sports franchises — Orthwein reluctantly gave up his Stallions pursuit.
“I’m not going to be the most popular man [in St. Louis],” Orthwein said, via the Times. “I’m going to still do the best I can for my hometown to help them get a team. As far as owning a team, I’m done with that.”
He didn’t have to wait long for St. Louis to get a team. A year after his attempt to send the Patriots to the Midwest, the Rams announced a relocation from Los Angeles to St. Louis.
But let’s imagine for a second that Orthwein pulled it off. What if Kraft’s ironclad lease wasn’t quite so impossible to get out of?
What if the Patriots actually became the Stallions?
Orthwein’s unsuccessful relocation bid left Boston with a football team and St. Louis still without one. If it were the opposite, it’s hard to imagine Boston — a city with historic, cornerstone teams in every major American sport — being without an NFL team for very long.
That leaves two more relocations that likely would’ve happened as a consequence of the St. Louis Stallions coming into existence:
The Baltimore Rams
The simplest conclusion is that the Rams would’ve moved to New England to fill the void left by the Patriots’ departure. But it wouldn’t have been that easy.
The Rams’ move to St. Louis was helped by the fact that a new stadium plan was already in place in Missouri, and that Stan Kroenke was ready to purchase 40 percent of the team. It still wasn’t a popular decision and was rejected in a vote by other NFL owners. After the Rams paid $30 million to the league and the city of St. Louis threatened a lawsuit, the NFL finally gave in and allowed the Rams to move.
Boston would’ve been a relocation candidate, no doubt. It would’ve had competition, though. St. Louis, Baltimore, and even Hartford, Conn. were all battling for the Rams when their owner, Georgia Frontiere, announced they’d leave LA.
The city in best immediate shape to land the Rams with St. Louis out of the mix probably would’ve been Baltimore. Maryland approved plans for a new stadium ahead of time (ultimately, resulting in Baltimore getting the Browns, who became the Ravens). So in this alternate timeline, they would get the Rams one year earlier than they got the Ravens.
Boston Browns New England Patriots
Browns owner Art Modell was also the owner of Cleveland Stadium, which was shared with the Cleveland Indians. But when the baseball team began playing at Jacobs Field in 1994, Modell had one less tenant, and much less revenue.
The losses became too much and in November 1995, he announced the Browns would leave Cleveland for Baltimore.
Cleveland was pissed and sued the Browns for breaching their lease. The NFL, the Browns, the city of Cleveland, and the city of Baltimore all negotiated a settlement that said the Browns would be “deactivated” for three years and re-established as an expansion team in a new stadium.
Let’s assume in this case that it’s Boston that does dealings with Modell in the mid-90s and claims the Browns. And just like real life, the team is forced to change its name and colors to make way for the Browns to have a rebirth in 1999.
Well, why not just become the Patriots again? That’s clean and tidy.
In this scenario, we now have the:
- New England Patriots (owned by Art Modell)
- St. Louis Stallions
- Baltimore Rams
And a bunch of history remains the same. The Browns still re-emerge in Cleveland, Houston still gets the Texans, Nashville still gets the
Oilers Titans, and LA still has to wait two decades for anyone to venture west again.
The Broncos probably need to come up with a different logo when they go through their rebrand in 1997, though. The NFL can’t really have two horse head logos now that the Stallions exist.
As for that Belichick-Brady dynasty that’s been kicking everyone’s ass in the 21st century? It’s still possible that it all happens in New England — especially considering Belichick was the Browns’ coach during all the relocation drama and could’ve led the team through the move.
Recreating the success he’s had in the last two decades also assumes Modell could make the same good decisions that Kraft has made at the helm. Ehh ... don’t count on it.
More than 25 years after the St. Louis Stallions’ proposal, the Rams have returned to LA and St. Louis is once again without a team. Plenty else has changed in the last quarter century, but the end result is an NFL that doesn’t look that much different.
Except for the Patriots. They went from a terrible team on the verge of leaving New England to an unstoppable dynasty.