The Cleveland Browns, champions of the Century Division in 1967 and patsies in the playoffs, are caught up in a youth movement. They added 12 rookies to their 40-man roster last year and by necessity will add almost that many again this season. Four starters were gone before training camp began. Defensive End and Captain Paul Wiggin has retired to be an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers. Linebacker John Brewer retired, then signed with the New Orleans Saints, and two players, Guard John Wooten and Defensive Back Ross Fichtner, were dropped by Owner Art Modell after Fichtner, promoting a golf tournament, failed to invite any of the Browns' Negro players and Wooten decided to make an issue of the matter.
Add to this imposing list of absentees injured Ernie Green, one of the best combination runner-blocker fullbacks around, and it is obvious that the Browns will have a new look for 1968, if not necessarily a better one.
The quarterback, of course, will be the same. Gray, scholarly Frank Ryan hobbled to a surprisingly good season on two bad ankles in 1967; the ankles destroyed his mobility and made him a sitting duck for blitzers. He should be considerably better this year with the ability to run for his life added to his other skills. Behind Ryan is another veteran, acquired from the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is Bill Nelsen, and he should give the Browns at least as good backup strength as they had with Jim Ninowski. As a plus, he is much younger than Ninowski, a factor to be considered in view of Ryan's age—32. Nelsen, who was hampered by injuries during his career at Pittsburgh, has developed into a strong backup for Ryan and adds strength at this position.
Until Ernie Green was injured in the first preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams, the Browns could reasonably claim to have the best starting backs in football. Leroy Kelly led the league in rushing with 1,205 yards, and Green added 710. Both were good receivers, as well. Green suffered a knee injury, the exact extent of which was still undetermined at the start of regular-season play. If he comes back, the Browns once more will have the most effective ground game in the East. If not, the replacements drop off sharply in quality.
The first-line pass catchers are excellent. Gary Collins at flanker, Paul War-field at split end and Milt Morin at tight end compare with the best in football. Morin was hampered last season by injuries, but the Browns expect him to. become one of the great tight ends. He is 6'4", weighs 245, has speed enough for deep patterns and strength enough to flatten an enemy end or linebacker when he is blocking ahead of a ballcarrier. Warfield and Collins, of course, have bedeviled defensive backs as a team for four years and seem to improve from season to season.
The loss of Wooten may have done serious damage to the Cleveland offensive line, which was not too deep to begin with. John Demarie, a second-year man from Louisiana State who was a substitute tackle in 1967, has done fairly well as a replacement for Wooten, but the club lacks depth behind the starting line. Aside from Demarie, the others are all veterans who have been playing together for some time. They are Monte Clark and Dick Schafrath at the tackles, Gene Hickerson at guard and Fred Hoaglin at center. Behind the starting offensive line, Collier must scratch for really capable deep strength. Injuries would hurt here.
There could be two new faces on the rush line if sophomore Jack Gregory shows enough to beat out veteran Bill Glass at end. Replacing Paul Wiggin at the other end is Marvin Upshaw, a first draft choice from Trinity University of San Antonio. Upshaw may also contribute to the conclusion of the longest career in pro football history—that of Lou Groza. He has been handling Cleveland kickoffs, long the prerogative of the 44-year-old Groza, who is entering his 18th season as a pro. If the Browns can find a reasonably accurate place-kicker, Groza may at last hang up his kicking shoes.
The interior of the defensive line is set and solid with Jim Kanicki and Walt Johnson, both young, big and experienced. The reserve strength is good, and the Browns should have no worries here.
The linebacking seems solid, too. Jim Houston and Dale Lindsey will be on the outside, with Bob Matheson in the middle. Houston, in his ninth year, lends the trio the needed wisdom; Lindsey has played three years and Matheson only one. Behind them are three highly regarded rookies: John Garlington of LSU, Wayne Meylan of Nebraska and Tom Beutler of Toledo. Meylan, at middle linebacker, seems the most impressive of the three.
The loss of Fichtner will cause considerable shuffling of defensive backs. Head Coach Blanton Collier must not only replace Fichtner, but he must find a new cornerback, as well. Mike Howell, a regular at right corner but not a good tackier, will bid for Fichtner's free-safety spot while Ben Davis, who led the NFL in punt returns last season, will be tried out at Howell's old spot. The other cornerback will likely be Erich Barnes, who has been around quite awhile but still has speed and a sincere desire to jolt receivers. Ernie Kellermann is a veteran strong-side safety. If anyone breaks into this quartet, it probably will be Jim Bradshaw, a safety acquired from the Steelers. Reserve depth will come from a promising rookie group of Tom Schoen of Notre Dame, Al Mitchell of Morgan State and Nate James of Florida A&M.
Although Don Cockroft, a combination punter-placekicker who was on the cab squad in 1967, has been given another test, it's likely that Gary Collins will do the punting again. He finished 15th in the league in 1967, but a bad knee hampered him and he is a better punter than that. Upshaw and Morin can kick field goals. In exhibition games, an AFL reject, Errol Mann, was kicking both field goals and extra points, but then the Browns cut him, indicating they still count on Groza.
The Browns should win their division handily. If they go any farther it will be because they have heard—and heeded—Blanton Collier.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
With six 1967 starters missing from their defensive team, with a quarterback in only his second season and with a widely discussed racial problem to complicate matters, the St. Louis Cardinals do not appear ready to take over the leadership of the Century Division.
Coach Charley Winner is trying to rebuild a defensive unit which dropped from first in 1966 to 10th in 1967 in total yardage allowed. He has traded away the two cornerbacks—Pat Fischer and Jim Burson—and is looking for better speed at those positions because the Cardinals were badly hurt on long touchdown passes in 1967. Not all of the fault lies with the cornerbacks, of course. The St. Louis defensive ends did not put much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and one of them, Joe Robb, has been traded to Detroit. Sam Silas, who made the Pro Bowl team in 1966, was an effective pass rusher in 1967, but he has gone to New York in exchange for a future draft choice. The Cardinals have veteran Chuck Walker and two good youngsters, Fred Heron (6'4", 250) and Bob Rowe (6'4", 260), to work at the tackle posts. It is likely that Dave Long will take over for Robb at defensive left end. Rookie Joe Schmiesing of New Mexico State will be the starting defensive right end, but the Cardinal defensive line must be rated as a question mark.
The linebacking situation is no better. Ernie Clark, acquired in the trade with Detroit, provides experience and ability on one corner. Larry Stallings, who will get weekend passes from the Army in order to play, and Dave Meggyesy, a six-year veteran, will share the right side.
Replacing Dale Meinert in the middle will be rookie Jamie Rivers, with Mike Strofolino, who came to the Cards from Baltimore and spent the last two seasons on the cab squad, backing him up. Rookies would provide depth here.
The Cardinals' defensive backfield once was one of the best in the league, but now only Larry Wilson and Jerry Stovall are left, and Stovall looked as if he would have to miss a couple of early games with an injured thigh. If so, Mike Barnes will take his place. A rookie from Grambling named Bob Atkins, who is 6'3" and weighs 212, will probably start at the left cornerback position. He has tremendous speed and the reflexes needed. Either Bobby Williams or Brady Keys, who was with Pittsburgh for years, will be at the other corner.
The St. Louis offense sputtered during the last half of 1967 when young Jim Hart, forced to take over after Charley Johnson was called up for military duty, began to throw interceptions. It is reasonable to assume that the experience he gained in 1967 will make him a better quarterback this year, but quarterbacks do not develop in a year or two. Johnson hopes to use accumulated leave days to get away from the Army at least part of each week, and, if he could return, the Cardinal attack would improve considerably. But Winner, the head coach, is understandably reluctant to use a part-time quarterback, even as a backup man. However, the rookie quarterbacks have not shown enough promise to make Winner prefer them to even a part-time Johnson.
If Hart settles down or Johnson can get loose long enough to play, they will not lack for good targets. The most dangerous tight end in the league last year was Jackie Smith, who stands 6'4", weighs 233 and has speed. The Big Train caught 56 passes for 1,205 yards in 1967, second high in the NFL. Bobby Joe Conrad is back as one of the wide receivers, along with a rookie from Miami named Jerry Daanen and Dave Williams, who had flashes of real brilliance last year.
The offensive line is regarded as one of the very best. Here is one place where Winner has made no changes and needs none. Big Tackles Bob Reynolds and Ernie McMillan provide bulwarks against the charge of the defensive ends, and Winner has an assortment of guards, headed by Irv Goode on the left side of the line and Rick Sortun on the right. Veteran Guard Ken Gray, who had a knee operation in June, may be ready early in the season. Bob DeMarco is a perennial All-NFL at center.
Johnny Roland, one of the most exciting young runners in the division, has recovered completely from knee surgery, which put him on the bench at the end of the 1967 season. Before he was hurt he had run for 876 yards, fourth in the league, carrying the ball a whopping 234 times. He may get quality help from the first draft choice of the Cardinals, MacArthur Lane of Utah State. Lane, a 6-foot, 220-pounder, showed well with the All-Stars against Green Bay, running with good balance and power, and, if he can move into the Cardinal starting backfield beside Roland, the club will have a strong all-round ground threat. Prentice Gautt retired after the 1967 season, but Willis Crenshaw is back, along with Roy Shivers and Cid Edwards, a rookie out of the taxi squad, to give the Cardinals relief in the back-field. The kicking is excellent, both for field goals and kickoffs (Jim Bakken) and for punts (Chuck Latourette).
The racial problems which beset the Cardinals seem to have been solved by trades, conciliation and the creation of a players' committee of six to handle any disputes between the coaches and the squad. Chuck Drulis, who was the target of criticism by some of the St. Louis black players, is still on hand; he has gone to great pains to assure the Negro group that he was never consciously a racist, and his word in the matter has been accepted.
The team morale in training camp seemed good, and there were no untoward incidents. Unfortunately, with the best will and the finest morale in football, the Cardinals would still have trouble overcoming the handicaps of a flood of new people on defense and a still un-proven quarterback on offense.
Anyone looking for a good long shot in the NFL should consider the Pittsburgh Steelers. Every football dynasty creates its spin-offs in assistant coaches promoted to the top job; the first spin-off from the Green Bay dynasty was Line Coach Bill Austin, who took over the Steelers two years ago and has labored mightily since. He was handicapped at first because the Steelers had spent draft choices profligately for aging veterans. Now he is beginning to reap the rewards of a sound scouting system.
For the Steelers, as for every pro club, the key to success lies in the quarterback. Austin is going with Kent Nix, a 23-year-old youngster from TCU who is in his second season. Nix sets up as quickly as any thrower in the business, and his release is lightning fast. Bill Nelsen, who started last season as the Pitt QB, threw 165 passes, was caught for a loss 22 times. Behind the same offensive line, Nix threw 268 times, was caught only eight times. In his last three games, against the formidable rush of Detroit and Green Bay and the marshmallows of Washington, he was not caught at all. He had a good rookie year, and Austin is betting on him for the future. He could be one of the great quarterbacks of the next decade. Backing him up is nothing; if Nix gets hurt, scratch the Steelers.
He will play behind an offensive line that is maturing into one of the strongest in the East. Ralph Wenzel, Bruce Van Dyke and Larry Gagner are all 24 and in their third year with the pros. Sam Davis, 23, was a rookie last year. The first draft choice of the Steelers was another offensive lineman—USC's Mike Taylor. He could bolster a good set of offensive tackles led by Fran O'Brien and Mike Haggerty. Ray Mansfield and Bob Whitlow are both capable centers.
Running behind this promising line are some equally promising backs. Veteran Earl Gros, whose career has been marred by injuries, has shown speed and the ability to bowl over tacklers when he is well. Bill Asbury, a 230-pounder in his third pro campaign, is only half a step behind him. A 210-pound sprinter from San Diego State with the unlikely name for a runner of Don Shy can provide the outside speed the Steelers need. Shy is in his second season and, if he can learn to control his balance as he uses his speed, he could lead the Steelers in ground gaining.
The Steelers have four good, deep receivers on the flanks, with Roy Jefferson probably the best of the lot. Jefferson has been a bit erratic in the past, but he has had more good games than mediocre ones and, at 6'2", 210, he carries uncommon authority for a wide receiver. The other two veterans, J.R. Wilburn and Dick Compton, lack the speed of Marsh Cropper and Roy Jefferson, but both of them have exceptionally quick moves and sure hands.
John Hilton, the starting tight end for the Steelers, is potentially in the class of a John Mackey or a Mike Ditka. He has surprising speed for his 220 pounds, he catches well in a crowd and he has good hands. He needs to improve his blocking, but he appears to be working on it. Behind him are two good young players.
Austin is pretty well set on defense. He has a seasoned line, even after dealing John Baker to Detroit. The starters are big and wise: Ben McGee (four years' experience, 260), Chuck Hinton (four years, 260), Lloyd Voss (four years, 260) and Frank Parker (six years, 270), an ex-Brown. McGee is enormously strong, all of them are quick.
The Steelers have two-thirds of an exceptionally good set of linebackers. Bill Saul, in the middle, is a deadly tackier against the run and has increased his range against passes. Andy Russell is rated almost on a par with Green Bay's Dave Robinson on the outside, giving away only weight. But the other outside spot has not measured up. John Campbell and Rod Breedlove alternate there, but Ray May, a 1967 rookie, may push both of them aside.
The secondary defense is pretty well set and pretty good. Paul Martha, a controversial first draft choice for the Steelers four years ago, is beginning to prove his worth as a free safety. Clendon Thomas is a tried and capable strong safety, if not a sensational one. Marv Woodson is set on one corner. Bob Hohn will play the other. The Steelers have no problems in their pass defense, as far as the deep men are concerned.
The Steelers are hurting when it comes to kicking. Jim Elliott handled the punting last year. He did so badly that the Steelers experimented in training with a golf pro named Tom DeRosa. DeRosa's punts were mere chip shots, and so the Steelers gave up on him and made a trade for Bobby Waldon from Minnesota. They lost their fine placekicker, Mike Clark, to the Dallas Cowboys and now have Bill Shockly from the AFL.
Austin feels that at last the team is beginning to mature, and he may be right. Eight of the players on his offensive club, including the quarterback, were in their first or second season as pros last year. All of them are back, a little bigger, a little smarter and a little more sure of themselves. They have already made most of their mistakes and have learned their lessons. In a division with only one sound club—Cleveland—the Steelers could be a surprise.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
When the Saints came marching into the NFL last season, they opened with a flourish of trumpets and a roll of drums. Under the fierce goading of Coach Tom Fears, the new club won five of its six exhibition games, then managed to win three regular-season games, as well. It was a surprisingly strong start, and Fears may find it hard to provide a suitable encore in 1968, even though the club should be better—if only for experience, and for the fact that Fears has some idea where his talent lies. He has moved to shore up the big deficiency of the 1967 Saints—safety—by acquiring Ross Fichtner from the Cleveland Browns and Elbert Kimbrough from San Francisco.
"The safety spots were the glaring weaknesses last year," he says frankly. "Not only on pass defense, but on tackling as well. I could show you movies where we could have won two more games if we had had better tackling by the safetie."
There should be an improvement in the secondary. Kimbrough has taken over at strong safety, and Fichtner will play the weak safety. Dave Whitsell will be at right cornerback again, and two youngsters, John Douglas and Gene Howard, have been impressive at left corners.
Fears bolstered his linebacking, the strong point last year, with the addition of veteran John Brewer, obtained from Cleveland. Ted Davis appears to be set at one outside spot, Les Kelley at the other. Fears has a wealth of strength with Fred Whittingham at middle backer and Brewer and Steve Stonebreaker available as backup at the other outside posts.
The New Orleans defensive line is surprisingly strong for a team in only its second season. Two big young tackles—Dave Rowe (23, 6'7", 280) and Mike Tilleman (24, 6'6", 280)—create a solid center, and Rowe is quick enough to help the pass rush. Another young giant, rookie Willie Crittendon (23, 6'5", 275) has shown enough to earn a job as the swing tackle, relieving either of the starters.
At defensive end, Doug Atkins, the ex-Bear who is beginning his 16th pro season, is playing with more gusto than he has shown in years. Brian Schweda, the young man who played end last season and was the steadiest performer on the line, is back, but he and Atkins have no proven replacement now that Dan Colchico, acquired from San Francisco, is out for the season with an injured Achilles' tendon. A rookie, Tom Carr, will spell the 38-year-old Atkins.
Fears still needs to improve the offense before the Saints can be rated as genuine contenders. An off-season trade sent Quarterback Gary Cuozzo to the Minnesota Vikings. It was a wise move for the Saints and for Cuozzo, a classical drop-back passer who relies on the line to protect him. With the Saints' line, he had no protection. Bill Kilmer, a scrambler, was by far the most effective Saint quarterback in 1967, and he has taken over the job for 1968. New Orleans has acquired Karl Sweetan from the Detroit Lions to back Kilmer up, but it is unlikely that Sweetan will unseat him.
The running backs last year were sturdy but not fast enough to pose a breakaway threat. Jim Taylor, who cost New Orleans a first draft choice, is still a formidable blocker and a bristling runner for short spurts, but he is no deep threat. The most pleasant surprise during the preseason games was free agent Tony Baker, a stumpy powerful runner who carries 230 pounds on a 5'11" frame and does it with agility. He looks like an animated fireplug when he runs, but he has unshakable balance and he could make a big difference in the Saints' ground attack. Baker came up from the Des Moines Warriors of the Professional Football League of America. He led that league in rushing last year and may lead the Saints this year.
Behind Taylor and Baker—or beside them, as the case may be—is a gaggle of competent runners, none of whom have shown exceptional ability. The Saint rushing will be sound but, saving Baker, not spectacular.
The spectacular arm of the Saint arsenal should be the air attack, where the addition of Dave Parks, whom New Orleans acquired in a trade with San Francisco, giving up Kevin Hardy and next year's first draft choice in the process, makes an already dangerous set of receivers more feared. Dan Abramowicz, the rookie whiz of 1967 who caught 50 passes for six touchdowns, will probably move to flanker, vacating the split-end spot for Parks. Monty Stickles, another ex-49er, is slated for tight end, where Kent Kramer played last year. Stickles is known primarily for his sure blocking; as a receiver he is limited to short passes. John Gilliam provides speedy relief for the wide men, and Ray Poage is also available, although he lacks real speed. If Kilmer, who is football's answer to a knuckleball pitcher, can get the ball to his talented catchers, the Saints should have a really good passing attack. Kilmer may be another Bobby Layne. Layne's passes sometimes traveled end over end, but they were almost always on target.
Kilmer needed his considerable running ability in 1967 to survive and probably will have to depend on his legs more than his blockers again this season. The offensive line is eager and some of it is young, but it has not developed the cohesion and thrust which mark a good line. Del Williams, in his second season at right guard, has a bright future in the NFL, and Jake Kupp, the other guard, has useful experience. Joe Wendryhoski, a five-year man, has the job at center. The tackles have been barely adequate, and an experiment in moving Crittendon to offense failed. The line does not block sharply enough to sustain a ground attack, and this puts an added burden on the passing.
One place where the Saints have no worries at all is in their kicking game. Pencil-thin Charley Durkee handles kickoffs and placekicks well, and Tom McNeil was tied for second in the NFL in punting.
The Saints are improving rather rapidly for an expansion team, but they are still a couple of years away.