The Central Division is a collection of masked marvels," says Art Rooney Jr., the Pittsburgh Steelers' vice-president. "All four teams could be contenders, and until the season is well under way and the disguises are off, there's no telling who's for real."
Cincinnati, however, has one recognizable marvel: Head Coach Paul Brown. Like Vince Lombardi, Brown is worth points when the oddsmakers figure the line. Supposedly left behind by the game, he has turned up in the van. While everyone was regarding the pocket as holy writ, the Bengals put in a rollout offense quarterbacked by Virgil Carter, who was found wanting by both the Bears and the Bills. The knock on Carter is that he can't throw the deep out. So, except for an occasional long fling, which is about all the defenses allow today, Cincinnati sprints, rolls and grabs every safe yard the zone will give up—short gains, because Carter cleverly exploits the under zones, using passing for ball control. The attack is constantly shifting, and when the defense guesses sprint, Carter drops back and throws to Tight End Bob Trumpy, the Bengals' closest thing to a superstar.
As a change of pace, Brown will use his latest Wunderkind, Ken Anderson, a classic drop-back passer out of Augustana College (enrollment 1,800). Then the Bengals are apt to go long to Trumpy or Speedy Thomas and, when he returns, Chip Myers, the team's leading receiver last year. Myers broke both arms in an exhibition game and will probably have to sit out four games. The running game is based on quick, wide pitches to the pony backs, Jess Phillips and Paul Robinson.
"Our game looks more like Southeast Conference offense than any pro team's since Tom Matte led the Colts," says Bob Johnson, one of the NFL's finest centers. But the tricky, behind-the-back hand-offs and pitchouts compensate for a weakness. The line play is woefully uneven. After Johnson, there is 12-year Tackle Ernie Wright and after Wright the deluge. But aggressive blocking and exceptional teamwork help stem the flood. Everyone pulls—guards, tackles and, on some plays, even the center.
The Bengal defensive line is equally spotty and plays are aimed away from the strength—Tackle Mike Reid and Defensive End Royce Berry. One of Brown's theories is to be strong down the middle, like a good-fielding baseball team, and this is the key to Cincinnati's defense: right smack in the center stands Middle Linebacker Bill Bergey, an explosive red-dogger who is also nigh impossible to run against. Two fine cornerbacks, Ken Riley and Lemar Parrish, enable the Bengals to play more man-to-man. This, in turn, allows the linebackers to concentrate on the run and the blitz and to be less concerned with pass coverage. Anchoring the deep secondary are quick Safeties Fletcher Smith and Ken Dyer. Speed and, once again, an acute sense of teamwork enable the Bengals to run down their mistakes and successfully hide their weaknesses.
For the first time in years, scouts followed the Steelers around the exhibition circuit like scavengers in the wake of a ship, getting a line on the personnel before the cuts. This is a sure sign the 1971 Pittsburgh team has talent. And it does, with more speed and greater size than ever before. The Steelers have not won a championship in 38 years in the league, and the Rooney boys, Art and Dan, have turned the search for players into a crusade. "We've changed our philosophy," says Art. "Of course, we've done that several times before and nobody noticed the difference. Under Buddy Parker we traded everybody, constantly, but especially draft choices. Then we went for the best player available at a position we needed to fill. Still, the Steelers went nowhere. Now we just take the best athlete available regardless of the position. The last few years we've come up with fine athletes. Whether we have enough for a championship only time and Coach Noll can tell."
Until now Chuck Noll, a professorial looking man with a bent for French cooking and horticulture, has been calm and patient. Now, as he says, "School is out." The Steelers' fortunes in the wide world depend on Quarterback Terry Bradshaw. He has the arm and a capable set of receivers—Ron Shanklin, Dave Smith and rookie Frank Lewis—but he cranks up and lets 'er rip too often. Or else he freewheels unnecessarily and scrambles out of the pocket. But worst of all, he tends to be overwhelmed by the profusion of pro defenses.
Last year Bradshaw's protection was as often miss as hit. This year there is a new set of starting tackles—Jon Kolb and Rick Sharp—who will share time with team captain John Brown. This means Bradshaw should leave the running to the often brilliant John Fuqua and the frequently injured Preston Pearson. Off the field, Fuqua (he likes to be called Count or Frenchy) has been seen wearing a skintight lavender jump suit, a cape, a gypsy hat and twirling a glass cane. On the field, he was the fifth-best runner in the AFC. "Confidentially," he says, "between you and me, I'm planning on leading this league in rushing. I mean the whole NFL, and playing in a championship, too. Now. This season."
The strength of the Pittsburgh defense is a very tough, experienced front four, led by Mean Joe Greene, the man who hates crowds but increasingly finds himself double-teamed. Noll hopes to make better use of L. C. Greenwood, who specializes in rushing the passer on the outside, and has switched Lloyd Voss and the Big Geezer, Ben McGee, from end to tackle. This should ease Greene's claustrophobia. The secondary is improved by the addition of either of two aggressive safeties, rookies Mike Wagner and Glen Edwards. The Steelers' linebackers are vulnerable, and the team will be handicapped by ineffectual pass coverage, particularly when the linebackers must help out.
In his first year as head coach of the Houston Oilers, Ed Hughes frantically traded for what he calls more "physical aggression" in his two lines and he got it. He wanted big men. He got big men. The defensive line is now staffed by monsters: newcomers Ron Billingsley (6'7", 270) and Mike Tilleman (6'6", 280), and old hands Pat Holmes (6'5", 250) and Elvin Bethea (6'3", 262).
They should beef up what was a plenty tough defense to begin with. The outside linebackers, Ron Pritchard and George Webster, are extremely active against either the pass or the run, but Middle Backer Garland Boyette is merely adequate. The secondary has the speed and the combativeness, especially at cornerback, to play either man-for-man or zone.
Just how well the Oilers will do depends on an offense which faltered for several years and finally fell apart. Of all the Central teams, the Oilers have the most experienced quarterback, Charley Johnson. But if the Oilers are to go anywhere, Johnson will have to return to his early St. Louis form. Charley says he can do it. "I have been the victim of a negative psychosis," he explains. "I became acutely aware of the negative things written or said about me. I started to tell myself you can't throw deep, you can't roll out, Charley Johnson, you're just not tall enough." He does have the wide receivers to work with in Ken Burrough and Charlie Joiner—that is if his surgically scarred right shoulder doesn't hinder him from throwing long. If he can't, there are two fine young passers who can, Dante Pastorini and Lynn Dickey.
Cleveland's new head coach, Nick Skorich, is one of those unsung heroes, a fine assistant who worked long in the shadows waiting for the chance to be boss. Once before he had the opportunity, but that came when he succeeded Buck Shaw at Philadelphia with the Eagles on the way down. Unfortunately, the Browns appear to be going downhill, too. Poor Skorich! At quarterback he has Mike Phipps, who is unproven, and Bill Nelsen, who is proven but wears a brace on his right knee and a scar on his left. His offensive line has more experience at left tackle and right guard than even George Allen might want. Between them, Dick Schafrath and Gene Hickerson have played 27 years in Cleveland uniforms and both have slowed down.
"Phipps has everything to be a great quarterback, but he has yet to see the hot steel poured," says Skorich. "He needs time to pick out his receivers, and that's what he's not getting." But then the blocking for the Cleveland sweep, the Browns' bread-and-butter play, isn't what it once was either, as Leroy Kelly can attest. Bo Scott, the other running back—which is the only billing anyone ever gets when he plays in the backfield with Kelly these days—is also a strong runner, but is not the blocker needed to make the sweep go. Another Bo, last name Cornell, the No. 2 draft pick, may be. The Browns' receivers, Tight End Milt Morin recovering from back surgery, Wide Receiver Gary Collins nursing rib injuries, Fair Hooker and Frank Pitts, obtained from Kansas City, are all first rate and, if the former pair are fully recovered, Nelsen (or Phipps) can count on two of the best.
The defense also has its problems. The line is young, the best of the bunch being Walt Johnson and Joe Jones, and the linebackers lack size and strength, although they are quick and play zone coverage well. This year the responsibility will be even greater, at least at left cornerback where rookie Clarence Scott has replaced Erich Barnes who, after 13 years in the pros, could no longer keep up with the fast wide receivers and was taxied. Meanwhile, Safety Walter Sumner has trouble covering the big tight ends and often loses the battle for the ball. Poor Skorich!