Nowhere in all of pro football does any group of teams have as long a history of frustration as the Pittsburgh Steelers, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Giants and Cleveland Browns. The Steelers have never won a championship or a conference title. The Cardinals haven't won since 1948, but they have been close—so close so often that they have begun to develop a second-place complex. The Giants are mired in mediocrity, and even the Browns, who found the winning touch in 1968, are frustrated. "We all felt we should have gone to the Super Bowl," says Linebacker Jim Houston. "We've thought about it constantly since last season." The other three teams have thought about not winning at all. "We've got to win and win and win," says Steeler Receiver Roy Jefferson. "We've got to kick the losing habit and get rid of our hangup." The Giants and the Cardinals have a similar problem—no confidence. "We won four straight, and instead of sucking up our guts and toughing our way through, we worried when we'd lose," says Giant Tackle Steve Wright.
The Century could provide the tightest race in pro football, but St. Louis should take it. In 1967 the Cards were riven with racial unrest. Coach Charley Winner tore the team apart to restore order, rebuilding his defense with only a few holdovers, including Safeties Larry Wilson and Jerry Stovall, but it was worth it. "There was more togetherness last year than ever, and I'm certain it will carry over," says Halfback John Roland. Despite new personnel and players at new positions, the defense has developed into a pressing, aggressive unit. The rush line is quicker, and the linebackers have the speed to range deep against the pass. Lonnie Sanders on the right corner and Bob Atkins on the left are both very tall (6'3") and very quick, and this makes them tough to beat on a race to the goal. "Sanders' trick is to play his man like the skin on a drum—tight," says Linebacker Jamie Rivers. "It's dangerous, but there's no room for the receiver to move or catch the ball." Atkins gets out of the Army this week, but the Cardinals will probably start Roger Wehrli, their No. 1 draft pick.
St. Louis has five fine running backs led by Willis Crenshaw, the seventh best rusher in the NFL, Cid Edwards, a 230-pounder who averaged 6.9 yards per carry, and Roy Shivers, who had the ball only 53 times but scored seven touchdowns. And there is MacArthur Lane, another quick, strong back, and Roland, now fully recovered from knee surgery. Passing is another story. Working behind what may be the best offensive line in the NFL, Quarterback Jim Hart ranked 14th. He was sacked only 23 times, which made him one of the most secure passers in the pros, yet he threw for a meager 15 touchdowns. Hart has still to learn the art of picking up secondary receivers. Last year Wide Receiver Dave Williams and Tight End Jackie Smith were often double-teamed, but the acquisition of Flanker John Gilliam from New Orleans should ease the coverage.
Fortunately, there's an alternative to Hart—Charley Johnson. Hart has the better arm, Johnson the better head. "The team needs a leader," a veteran says. "There's a tendency to rally to Charley." Although Johnson has trouble hitting the deep receiver, the team has such versatility that it can win without a superior quarterback. A severe loss, though, is that of Chuck Latourette, who underwent knee surgery; he was third in the league in punt returns and punting and fourth in kickoff returns.
The Browns are the only team in the division to be weakened instead of improved. And, for a time, it seemed they would be even weaker. Tight End Milt Morin, their second-leading receiver, was supposed to miss a few games because of a disk operation, but he's back and ready to spring Leroy Kelly loose around end and pull in the lag passes. But both Quarterback Bill Nelsen and Kelly will miss retired Fullback Ernie Green, who led most of the runs and did his share of pass blocking. Ron Johnson, the No. 1 draft choice from Michigan, probably will start alongside Kelly.
Last year Nelsen took over for Frank Ryan at quarterback and gave Cleveland the best balanced offense in the NFL. "I use all the parts," Nelsen says. "That's my forte." More important, he rallied the team after it lost confidence in Ryan, who was recently waived. But following a knee operation—his third—Nelsen is hobbling, and so is the offense. Jerry Rhome, who was picked up from Dallas, is the better passer and could get the job.
Cleveland will need some defense to stay in contention. In 1968 the Browns dumped opposing quarterbacks but 26 times, the only pressure coming from Tackle Walt Johnson. They had hoped to get more by using Bill Sabatino, a highly regarded second-year tackle, but he walked out of camp, was placed on irrevocable waivers by mistake and three teams claimed him. Two backed off when it was pointed out that to do so was a violation of a gentleman's agreement Van Brocklin agreed he was no gentleman and took Sabatino for Atlanta. Meanwhile, End Bill Glass retired, and Tackle Jim Kanicki broke his leg and will miss seven games. The strength of the defense has come from the secondary, but Safety Ernie Kellermann has a broken thumb and Cornerback Ben Davis probably is out for the season with a torn knee cartilage, and he led the team in interceptions in 1968 with eight.
Once, during the war, when the Eagles and the Steelers were merged into what was humorously called the Steagles, Art Rooney looked down at the conglomerate that was his team and saw strange players in even stranger uniforms missing assignments and dropping balls. "They look different and they dress different," Rooney said, "but darn if they aren't the same old Steelers." Since then "Same Old Steelers" has become a rallying cry for disgruntled Pittsburgh fans. Abbreviated to SOS, the shout goes up every fall at the first hint of defeat.
Help, So No SOS
However, this season they are not the SOS. Pittsburgh drafted well and then hired Chuck Noll, the Colts' defensive coach, as head coach. Noll is soft-spoken but, as Linebacker Andy Russell explains, "You don't shut Chuck out, because he has something to say. Nothing is superfluous with him. Nothing's trite, and he doesn't use clichés." "Last year we had so many keys that we were locked in, frozen," says Middle Linebacker Ray May. "Now it's all simplified. Chuck laid it all out for us, and it's beautiful."
But then, Noll has some new beauties. In the 1969 draft the Steelers landed Joe Greene, a 270-pound All-America defensive tackle from North Texas State, and L. C. Greenwood, a tall, quick defensive end who will put zip into the rush line. Last year the deep secondary was dreadful. Not only were the defensive backs poor on coverage but they had bad hands. Indeed, one was called "Castanets." He is gone, along with Clendon Thomas, a Steeler institution but old and slow. Safety Chuck Beatty, a rookie and Greene's roommate at North Texas, is the most promising newcomer.
On offense, Terry Hanratty will back up Dick Shiner, who often throws off the wrong foot but has a lot of confidence and a good touch, and the receivers, particularly Roy Jefferson and J. R. Wilburn, rate high. However, the running is the strength of the offense. "Dick Hoak has the cleverest feet around—not fast but clever," says Jim Hamer, a former NFL official. "He picks his way through holes and goes farther than most backs can sprint." Hamer could be right, since Hoak's measured gait gained 858 yards last year. Fullback Earl Gros is like Hoak—an all-purpose back who gains the tough yards and can be counted on to wipe out the cornerback on sweeps, and the running has been further strengthened by the acquisition of Don McCall from New Orleans.
As Jefferson says, "All we need is confidence and a little luck and we'll be on our way to a new Steeler tradition."
"The difference between winning and losing is the ability to think big," Spider Lockhart, the Giants' free safety, said last month. "Until this year Allie Sherman treated us like pros, but we were up and down. All it takes to win is a little more execution, a little more toughness. Winners expect to win, and that's the way we should feel. It's a new deal with Allie. It's either produce or be gone."
The Giants haven't produced, but it's Allie who's gone. Last week, after New York lost to the Steelers 17-13, in Montreal, to complete a winless exhibition season ("How do you say 'Goodby, Allie' in French?" Sherman asked as he stepped off the plane), Allie was replaced by Alex Webster, the old Giant fullback (1955-64) who had been the club's offensive backfield coach.
The Tarkenton Generation
Allie Sherman being fired on the eve of Rosh Hashanah is like George Allen being canned the day after Christmas, but sympathy has to be extended to Webster, too. The feckless Giants are still a team that counts heavily—too heavily—on the offense that Quarterback Fran Tarkenton can generate. The offense would open up if the Giants had an outside threat, but they don't. Meanwhile, Webster must rely on Tucker Frederick-son, who is relying on his scarred knees. The inside slants work well because the defenses are spread to contain Tarkenton, but Bobby Duhon, Ernie Koy and John Fuqua, a hustling rookie, aren't game breakers.
Homer Jones is, and this year he may have some help. Wide Receiver Don Herrmann, a 15th-round draft choice from Waynesburg (Pa.) College, has been compared by Tarkenton to Raymond Berry, and Freeman White has been shifted to his natural tight-end position after three inexplicable years on defense. The offensive line has improved at tackle, but only Pete Case is certain at guard. This could hurt on the timing of the running plays, but it has been so much a part of the Giant situation the last few years it's apt to go unnoticed.
The greatest advance is at defensive end. Bruce Anderson has switched to the left, and rookie Fred Dryer has taken over the right side. "Dryer is an animal and the best-looking defensive end that I've seen since Carl Eller came into the league," says Tarkenton. Outside pressure is something the Giant defense hasn't had since Andy Robustelli's prime, and it could be the most significant improvement in a defense which has a powerful secondary but a linebacking corps that is always changing and "improving" but never seems to get any better. This, alas, sums up the ball club.