When Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, wanted to relocate his team to Baltimore in a surprise move first reported on by the Boston Globe on November 4, 1995, the ensuing press furor and public relations mess forced the league to intercede and make an agreement with him and the Cities of Cleveland and Baltimore before the new season had barely begun. In the belated agreement, the name, colors and history of the Browns were to remain in Cleveland, while the relocated club would technically be a new league franchise; the city of Cleveland would be given another new franchise in the next few years, or a relocated existing franchise. Either way, the beloved Cleveland Browns would continue, while the Baltimore Ravens began their new history when the 1996 season started.
One of the most memorable aspects of the 1996 season was that the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, each in just their second year of existence, both advanced to their respective conference championship games. 1996 marked the third year the NFL salary cap was in force and also marked the end of multiple “dynasties” in the NFL as it was the first season since 1991 (and only the second since 1987) in which neither the Dallas Cowboys nor the San Francisco 49ers played in the NFC Championship Game. It was also the first NFC Championship Game ever that did not feature either the Cowboys, 49ers, Washington Redskins, or Los Angeles Rams.
All that was nearly overshadowed by the press feeding frenzy reporting and commenting on the rumor, between the AFC championship game up to and into the broadcast coverage of Super Bowl XXXI itself, that iconic coach Bill Parcells was planning on breaking his contract with the New England Patriots because he did not get along well with owner Robert Kraft, who had helped turn around New England's image after years of ownership that was either dismal or absent. In the event, Parcells did not even return with the players, and telephone records showed he was talking to the Jets in the days before and the day of the Super Bowl itself. This documentary evidence led to the league awarding the Patriots multiple draft picks in compensation for the "tampering" by the Jets, which is but a continuation of one-upmanship that has gone on for years between the heated rivals.
New Orleans Saints – New numbers on uniforms. On home uniform old gold numbers with white trim, and road uniforms old gold numbers with black trim, similar to team's original jerseys worn from 1967–69, but with a lighter shade of gold. 30th anniversary patch worn on the left chest.
Baltimore Ravens – New team in new city. Formerly the Cleveland Browns. Purple jerseys with white numbers trimmed in black and gold at home; white jerseys with black numbers trimmed in purple and gold on the road. Black pants worn with both jerseys.
San Francisco 49ers – New uniforms. Darker red, white pants, and updated team logo. 50th season logo on uniform.
Minnesota Vikings – Changes in uniforms. Vikings logo on sleeve ends of home uniforms. Added yellow trim to numbers.
Arizona Cardinals – New road jerseys. Black trim removed from numbers, logo removed from sleeves, and Arizona state flag moved above sleeve stripes.
Gordon McCarter retired during the 1996 off-season. He joined the NFL in 1967, serving as a line judge and back judge, before being promoted to referee in 1974. Dale Hamer, who had to sit out the 1995 season to recover from open heart surgery, took over McCarter's officiating crew.