The race in their division resembles a children's crusade. Each of the teams is young and growing, but Cleveland's children are a bit bigger, wiser and more talented. (But one large, blond, confident, sweet-throwing prodigy, name of Terry Bradshaw could make them a bit sadder, too.) A blend of youngsters and proven veterans (there were 11 rookies on last year's team and there will be seven more this year), the Browns are set not only for this season but many to come. "We've had a great changeover with no drop-off in performance," says Tight End Milt Morin. "You never hear us talk of rebuilding. We're young, we should improve and there's only one way to go. Up."
One of the strongest offensive teams in football, the Browns should be even better this year with the addition of the stack I to their attack. An admitted copy of the Kansas City formation, Cleveland will use it perhaps 25% of the time and run from it about a quarter of that. "We have very specific reasons for putting it in," explains Offensive Coordinator Nick Skorich. "First, it will give us more flexibility. Here we're mainly concerned with freeing Leroy Kelly more. Teams have been overplaying against our sweep. With Kelly coming out of the stack they won't be able to key on him so easily. We'll even run him out of the fullback position, so they won't be able to overload against him automatically. Second, it will help create hesitation in the defense. You give them only a limited time to set their formation and almost no time to automatic into a new one. And third, we figure a lot of teams will be going to it in the future. It will help our defense get used to seeing it. It's a matter of self-defense."
Behind the frills, the basics will be the same; an attack evenly balanced between the running of Kelly and Bo Scott and the passing of Bill Nelsen. Kelly's talents are irrefutable, and the passing, despite the trade of Paul Warfield to Miami, will still be as good as any. There is a plethora of receivers—Gary Collins, Morin, Chip Glass, Fair Hooker and Homer Jones (whom the Browns acquired from the Giants)—to run Skorich's intricate offense. The Brown attack differs from many, with patterns developing across the field at successive intervals rather than simultaneously, and led to the best balance in the old NFL (last year Collins caught 54 passes, Warfield 42 and Morin 37). Jones, a free-lancing receiver when he was with New York, has had trouble adjusting to the Cleveland system, so Hooker, who worked behind Gary Collins last year and was a pleasant surprise during the preseason, will probably start.
The only change in the tine offensive line will be Joe Taffoni, a backup man for three years, replacing the retired Monte Clark at right tackle. The other four interior linemen—Tackle Dick Schafrath, Guards Gene Hickerson and John Demarie and Center Fred Hoaglin—are proven regulars.
The defense will be greatly altered, however. "We hope to become more aggressive," says Linebacker Jim Houston, "to change our character, to become a more offensive defense."
"It's no secret that the Cleveland Browns have been offense-oriented for years," adds Defensive End Jack Gregory. "Everyone thinks we've been carried by them for the last couple of years. That kind of talk's going to change."
Last season the Browns played contain defense, but more by necessity than by choice. Before the season they lost two starting backs to injury and replaced them with rookies. "We had to cover up these weaknesses," said Defensive Coordinator Howard Brinker. "We had to help them out by dropping off our linebackers. This hurt us against the run." And with Safety Ernie Kellermann's sprained ankle on the mend and Right Corner Walt Sumner more experienced, Cleveland can be more aggressive.
Besides the new personality, there is a new person. Oklahoma State rookie Jerry Sherk replaces the traded Jim Kanicki at right tackle, joining last year's starters, Ends Gergory and Ron Snidow and Tackle Walter Johnson. Houston, a Pro Bowl pick as left linebacker, moves to the middle to beef up a weak spot; Dale Lindsey, who was tried in the middle last year, moves back to the right side and John Garlington goes from right to left. "The biggest switch is mine," says Houston. "I have new reads and new responsibilities. The others shouldn't have any trouble."
The changes have worked well and, barring injury, the Cleveland defense will be set for the first time in three years. "Our techniques have always remained the same," says Brinker. "But for the past couple of years we've been shifting personnel, experimenting, looking for people to do the job. We've had to cover up our weaknesses by pulling from our strengths."
The most successful team in history, Cleveland is now the most traveled as well, moving this year from the old NFL, into which it moved from the All-America Conference. "You know everyone's going to be trying to knock our blocks off," says Jim Houston. "We're the Establishment moving in."
Springtime in Houston
The Houston Oilers are also capable of knocking off Cleveland. "This club reminds me an awful lot of Dallas in '65," says backup Quarterback Jerry Rhome. "We've got young players just beginning to find themselves, ready to blossom." Indeed they are young—14 starters have three years' experience or less—but if they do bloom it will be under the leadership of a nine-year veteran, Charley Johnson. "Getting Charley from St. Louis is the biggest single thing we've done since we've been here," says Head Coach Wally Lemm, a onetime Cardinal himself.
A 50-50 team the past two years, the Oilers became disenchanted with young Pete Beathard, whom they peddled, along with All-Pro Cornerback Miller Farr, for Defensive Back Bob Atkins and Johnson, who was just as disenchanted with St. Louis, where he alternated with Jim Hart. "Here I feel I can help," Johnson says. "And that's a good feeling—to get a chance. Some people don't need to have others have confidence in them. I do. And I didn't feel it in St. Louis."
Johnson is a proven winner and he will have plenty of help in trying to overtake the Browns. The receivers have speed in Jerry Levias, Charlie Joiner, Mac Haik and Jim Beirne, and the short threat in one of the league's better tight ends, Alvin Reed. Woody Campbell, Hoyle Granger and Roy Hopkins give the Oilers a powerful running attack.
"We still have to establish that we can drive and score," says Johnson, "to be able to use 10 plays in a drive, to come at you, come at you, come at you, then maybe sneak one big one in, then come back at you again, like the Packers used to."
Though the offense looks better because of Johnson, the Oilers will have to improve on defense, especially on their pass rush, if they're to make a serious run at Cleveland. The ends are well set, with Elvin Bethea and Pat Holmes, but the tackles have been, and are, a problem. The linebackers, anchored by All-Pro George Webster, are the strength of the defense, but the fine deep backs are run ragged because of the weak, undependable rush up front.
"This team has its best years still ahead of it," says Johnson, "but I'd like to see a championship this year. I have profound optimism."
Pittsburgh, too, is optimistic, and—yes, again—because of a new quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, who appears to be the real thing. In July its optimism was geared to improving on last year's 1-13 record. Last week a division title didn't seem at all farfetched.
The keys are Bradshaw, the No. 1 draft choice, and a defense now oriented to the complexities second-year Head Coach Chuck Noll favors. (Noll coordinated the blitzing and stunting Baltimore defense in 1968, which carried the Colts to the Super Bowl.) "Last year it was, you know, SOS [same old Steelers] and all that," says Defensive Tackle Mean Joe Greene. "I don't believe in jinxes, but people would always figure the Steelers would find a way to lose. And we did. This year we won't." Bradshaw, who took over the team in the second exhibition game, is of the same mind. "I didn't come here to be just another Joe, another guy on the team," he says. "I came here to win."
The offense should improve despite the trade of temperamental-but-talented Wide Receiver Roy Jefferson to the Colts. Willie Richardson, equally talented and temperamental, came in return, joining Running Backs Preston Pearson (also acquired from Baltimore) and John Fuqua (from the Giants) to give the offense an almost total face-lifting. There are also a couple of nifty rookies: Ron Shanklin, a wide receiver out of North Texas State, and Hubie Bryant, from Minnesota, who is being used mainly to return kicks. The defense, young and strong, is at its best in the line, which is centered around Greene. Last season was a learning year and one of trial. With the offense weak, the defense had to play far too long. This year, being more knowledgeable and with an attack that will afford them a rest once in a while, it should be greatly improved.
A Cook Too Few
Cincinnati, which looked as though it might finish behind the Browns in its third year of existence, received a heavy blow when Quarterback Greg Cook's troublesome right shoulder was operated on five weeks ago, putting him out for the season. He was an emotional, as well as a technical, catalyst, and without him Cincinnati is a different team—but not as bad a one as it first seemed. Sam Wyche, who took over for Cook, led the Bengals to a 31-24 exhibition win over the Browns, and he will be backed up by Virgil Carter. Paul Robinson and Jess Phillips are two good running backs. Bob Trumpy may be the best tight end in football and the line, though young, is talented. So the Bengals will still be able to put up a fight.
Coach Paul Brown's first two draft choices last year were Defensive Tackles Mike Reid and Ron Carpenter, which is indication enough of where the team was weakest. The nucleus of the defense is Bill Bergey, only in his second year, yet already a fine middle linebacker. But it is still learning through experience, which will be even rougher with the added pressure it will have due to Cook's absence. "There's no quick way to build a winner," Paul Brown says. "You have to put it together slowly." Without Cook make that very slowly.