But for the fact they play out of town on occasion, one would defy history and flatly predict a division championship for the long-suffering Pittsburgh Steelers, whose rebuilding program has now prevailed through six U.S. Presidents, 16 head coaches and 40 haggard years. The Steelers have been in the football business that long without acquiring so much as a Kewpie doll for the office trophy case. They should win at least a division this year provided 1) their pass defense improves and 2) they become tougher rumblers in rival neighborhoods.
Pittsburgh has won the un-grand total of two road games in the last three years, even though Coach Chuck Noll has steadily improved a club that might have taken last year's race but for 42 turnovers, assorted bonehead mistakes and a secondary that ranked dead last in cutting off the pass. Now, Noll is banking on maturity (evidenced best in a settled, confident Terry Bradshaw at quarterback) to eliminate youthful sins, and, even if past is prologue, there is good reason for optimism.
Bradshaw, for instance, completed 54% of his passes last year and now shows poise to match the physical skills that made him the first player drafted in 1970. He also expects a championship year as if nothing less could be expected of Pittsburgh. "We're finally going to win the games we've been throwing away and get into the playoffs," he says. "I'm in my third year now and I'm more relaxed. Experience is going to have an effect on our playing."
To complement the improving arm of Bradshaw, Noll has the NFL's best receiver combination in Ron Shanklin (49 receptions, 652 yards, six touchdowns) and Dave Smith (47 for 663 and five touchdowns). Flare patterns should also be lethal since John (Frenchy) Fuqua, a dapper clotheshorse-workhorse who led the team in rushing, also caught 49 passes. Those statistics will be even more impressive if Bradshaw has lost his penchant for throwing interceptions (22 last year) and the line finds sufficient cohesiveness to protect him and backups Terry Hanratty and rookie Joe Gilliam.
Along with Fuqua, whose exotic wardrobe tastes require the services of a seamstress with a talent for jump suits, the running game will be the province of Preston Pearson, the team's best athlete, and Franco Harris, a No. 1 draft pick.
Defense is the big problem once the play gets past a Mean Joe Greene-led front four that rocked quarterbacks 33 times and knocked off the rush at a 3.4-yard average. The Steelers were ravaged for 235 completions and 2,766 yards, all too often when the pass was launched out of scrambling panic. "It's a question of discipline when those kind of things hurt you," Noll says, hoping that a new secondary coach and the additional experience will provide an answer.
Paul Brown, whose Cincinnati Bengals suffered six losses by a total of 21 points and fell into the cellar, is relying on defensive inexperience starting with Sherman White (6'5", 255). His first four choices went for defensive help and at least three rookies may be starting before the season is out. In addition to White, who has been handed the defensive end job until he plays himself out of it, No. 2 Tommy Casanova should inherit the injured Ken Dyer's spot at safety and Jim LeClair from North Dakota is a possibility at linebacker. "We're at the mercy of our draftees," Brown says. "We need a better pass rush than the one-man thing we had with Mike Reid, and if Casanova comes through we'll have about as fast a secondary as you're going to find."
In Mike Reid, who may be the only composer of serious music who has performed both in Carnegie Hall and Riverfront Stadium, the Bengals have one of the quickest, most intelligent pass rushers in the game. "Last year was a valuable growing pain. Now we know the emotional response necessary in that kind of situation," he says. The defense is also blessed by the frenetic linebacking of Bill Bergey and superb cornerback work of Ken Riley and pro bowler Lemar Parrish.
As for quarterback, the injured Greg Cook has been listed as "unable to perform," and will probably miss the entire season, but Brown will happily make do with Virgil Carter, whose 62.2% completion average made him the most accurate passer in the NFL. Carter holds a master's degree in mathematics and has proved a valuable tutor to Ken Anderson, a strong-armed 23-year-old who may be the starter sooner than anyone expects. "They say Carter doesn't look good or that he doesn't throw the long ball," Brown says, "but no one says he isn't smart enough."
Brown also has an assortment of running backs that any foe would envy in Fred Willis, Doug Dressler, Jess Phillips, Paul Robinson and breakaway threat Essex Johnson. He could use that kind of depth in receivers. Bob Trumpy, Chip Myers and Speedy Thomas are a workmanlike group, but about all Brown has. "For this coming year," he says, "we've some new men who have just got to come through, or we'll end up in the same kind of wringer we did a year ago."
Cleveland's Nick Skorich would settle for repetition, but it yet remains to be seen if Mike Phipps can replace the hobbling Bill Nelsen at quarterback. Phipps was still having problems with defenses during the exhibition season, and while Nelsen could perform again he does so under the handicap of worse knees than Joe Namath ever knew. "He can pick a defense apart," Skorich says, "but he lacks the agility to run out of the pocket. Ideally, a Mike Phipps starting and a Bill Nelsen coming off the bench would be our best path to the Super Bowl."
Skorich has rebuilt his offensive line and expects another super season from 30-year-old Leroy Kelly, who rushed for 865 yards and 10 touchdowns. Bo Scott had 606 yards, and the receiving is in the fair hands of Fair Hooker, Milt Morin and Frank Pitts.
Cleveland's rush defense was the division's worst in '71 and it wasn't helped when Jack Gregory, a regular defensive end, played out his option and signed with the Giants. Jerry Sherk, however, could be outstanding at tackle, and the Browns may profit from odd spacing alignments and by moving around more. The linebacking is a question mark, but a secondary that was pretty good to begin with should improve through the team's No. 1 draftee, Tom Darden.
Houston has old problems and a new coach in Bill Peterson, an innovative soul from Rice. Peterson has already been horrified by the violence of the pro game—both on and off the field. In two scrimmages, Offensive Tackles Bob Wells and Elbert Drungo were lost for the year with knee injuries, shortly after Cornerback Zeke Moore broke his arm—on a closet door.
Peterson's big problem is an offensive line that is none too offensive. The Oilers were the NFL's poorest rushing team last year, with a game average of 79 yards. The average did improve some during the exhibition season. Robert (Tank) Holmes, Ward Walsh and two rookies, Al Johnson and Willie Rodgers, are all in the running to carry the ball, but somewhere someone's got to open some holes.
After a trade that sent 12-year veteran Charley Johnson to the Denver Broncos for a draft choice, Peterson had two fine sophomore quarterbacks in Dan Pastorini and Lynn Dickey. Then Dickey went down with a dislocated hip against the St. Louis Cardinals, and Peterson had a case of instant worry about quarterback depth. Pastorini, who also does the punting, figured to take the starting job anyway, but his relief man now is rookie Kelly Cochrane, a 17th-round choice from Miami. Houston's passing attack was second only to San Diego's for yardage within the AFC as Pastorini threw for 1,702 yards and seven touchdowns when the other quarterbacks weren't playing. Unfortunately, Pastorini threw three interceptions for every scoring pass, a performance that helped Houston lead the division in one category—turnovers, with 51. Better protection would improve the situation.
The Oiler receivers—Charlie Joiner, Ken Burrough, Jim Beirne and Alvin Reed—will not embarrass anyone but enemy defenses, especially on the deep-route stuff that Peterson hopes will open up his besieged rushing attack. Joiner has 4.4 speed for the football 40 and Burrough caught long scoring passes in the exhibition games. Tight End Beirne, who isn't all that fast but, as they say, plenty quick, led the Oilers with 38 receptions last year, grabbing many of them in heavy traffic. "It doesn't belong to anybody but Jim," Beirne says greedily.
Defensively, Houston has a huge front four led by Elvin Bethea, who got to the quarterback 16 times last season, and a solid linebacker cast of George Webster, Ron Pritchard and Floyd Rice. Moreover, the secondary could become superb when Moore recovers from his closet caper. Safety Ken Houston, an All-Conference, set an NFL record last year by returning four interceptions for touchdowns. With so little running, Peterson had better hope such heroics continue.