Barring a lot of weird happenings like, oh, Joe Greene forgetting to take his mean pills and L.C. Greenwood discarding his gold football shoes, the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers could so intimidate the remainder of the division by the opening kickoff that the regular season would become academic. But this is a division where weird happenings have been known to take place. For example, the Houston Oilers have a new coach who wears a crew cut and is already a Bum, even though he has not yet lost his first game; the Cincinnati Bengals' best defensive player quit, unable to resist the lure of the almighty piano; and the Cleveland Browns have been introduced to a new formula for success: grass sniffing and cravat tying.
Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll, the man who almost never smiles or talks, enjoyed the Super Bowl triumph for the three minutes or so that it took the Steelers to carry him from the field in New Orleans, then promptly retired to his projection room for six months to pick out the malfunction in his football machine. After a complete review, however, he decided, wisely, not to tinker; in fact, Pittsburgh will start the same players who opened the Super Bowl game and will carry only three rookies. As Fran Tarkenton discovered last January, the Pittsburgh defense is the most destructive force in football; it led the NFL in fewest yards given up last season, limiting harried rivals to 219.6 per game, and also forced a league-high 38 fumbles and recorded a league-high 52 sacks. In the Super Bowl, the Steelers restricted Minnesota to 119 yards, including an embarrassing 17 on the ground.
Although Greene tops the front four in publicity, Ernie (Fat) Holmes and Greenwood had more sacks, with 11½ and 11, respectively. Mean Joe had only nine while End Dwight White had 8½ This statistic, however, is about as meaningful as number of pancakes eaten, season. They can all wolf'em down. Greenwood had decided his golden boots were meant for walking and signed with the upstart World Football League, but has since returned to the fold to keep last season's best defensive line intact. Seems the WFL couldn't support L.C. in the style to which he had grown accustomed, which is bad news for NFL quarterbacks.
The Pittsburgh linebackers hunt heads with the same ferocity as the front four; in fact, most Steelers think Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert is meaner than Mean Joe. Working between All-Pro Jack Ham and 10-year veteran Andy Russell, Lambert displayed Butkus-like tendencies as a rookie last season when he led the Steelers in tackles. What about the Butkus comparisons? "I don't go around biting fingers," says Lambert. The Pittsburgh secondary is solid but less spectacular, with Mel Blount and J.T. Thomas at the corners and Mike Wagner and Glen Edwards at safety.
Noll insists that Terry Bradshaw is the official starting quarterback after his performance in the playoffs and the Super Bowl. Sure he is—until he has a bad game or a bad half; then it will be Joe Gilliam, and when he has a few bad moments, it will be back to Bradshaw—or maybe even to odd-man-out Terry Hanratty. For passing targets, the Pittsburgh troika will count heavily on Lynn Swann and Frank Lewis, elusive John Stallworth and Tight End Larry Brown. For protection, the quarterback, whoever he is, will get hours of pocket time, compliments of the industrious but unrecognized firm of Kolb, Gravelle, Clack, Mullins and Mansfield.
Hear! Hear! The Steelers may have one trifling weakness: a lack of depth at running back behind Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Harris rushed for 1,006 yards in the regular season, then destroyed the Vikings with 158 yards to win the Super Bowl's MVP award. Bleier gained a starting job in mid-schedule, rushed for 98 yards in the AFC title game at Oakland and 65 more in the Super Bowl. Frenchy Fu-qua may help if he can avoid injuries like the broken wrists that sidelined him near the end of the 1974 season. However, onetime starter Steve Davis never reported to camp and was traded to the Jets, leaving a possible opening for rookie Mike Collier, a 215-pound bruiser from Morgan State. Preston Pearson fully expected to find a spot on the roster; if not as a running back, as a kick returner, and if not as a kick returner, as a defensive back, but he was cut this week.
Down in Houston, O.A. Phillips is this year's designated coach of the Oilers, replacing the retired Sid Gillman, who was last year's D.C. The Oilers change coaches about as often as Jack Nicklaus wins golf tournaments; in fact, they have had five different ones in the last six seasons. Phillips is easy enough to locate on the TV sidelines: he's the guy with the crew cut and the powder-blue ostrich-skin cowboy boots with the Oiler insignia. Call him Bum. Everybody does.
Last year the Oilers were floundering, per custom, until Gillman acquired Curley Culp from Kansas City. With Culp teaming up front with Ends Tody Smith and Elvin Bethea to form the best three-man line in the NFL, Houston won six of its last eight games, including a 13-10 decision over the Steelers, and finished with a 7-7 record. In the three previous seasons the Oilers won a total of six games. "Culp just walked in here, put his hands on the ground and banged heads," Phillips says. To help the overworked front three, Houston beefed up its already-strong corps of linebackers with top draft choice Robert Brazile, a 6'4", 235-pound hawker from Jackson State. "My natural instincts keep me around the football," Brazile says. "I'm not happy unless I'm on top of the guy with the ball."
Phillips has scrapped Gillman's voluminous playbook and entrusted the Houston attack to Quarterback Dan Pastorini. "We had too many plays and ran them all bad," Phillips says. "We had the worst running attack in the league. Now we'll run just a few plays and try to run them well." Maturing under the tutelage of King Hill, Pastorini started the last 10 games of the season and cut his interception rate in half. "Dan's beginning to reflect King's temperament, too," Phillips says. "No more temper tantrums." Pastorini's receivers are exceptional, particularly Kenny Burrough, Billy Parks, Billy Johnson, rookie Emmett Edwards and Tight End Mack Alston. Rookie Don Hardeman will surely make Houston's heretofore nonexistent running game go, if he plays up to his own expectations. "I'll start," Hardeman says, "and I'll make Dan Pastorini an All-Pro." The Oilers call Hardeman "Jaws," a tribute to his prolixity. They should call him "Cheeks." The week he entered training camp he came down with mumps. Phillips has tried to rebuild the Houston offensive line around Tackle Greg Sampson, but the Oilers still lack the offense to compete with Pittsburgh.
Cincinnati has a questionable defense now that Mike Reid is playing folk-rock music on the piano regularly instead of defensive tackle. Last season the Bengals failed to replace traded Middle Linebacker Bill Bergey, and the combination of no middle backers and a ward full of crippled players helped consign the Bengals to a 7-7 season. Reid, it seems, got all the publicity, which the rest of the front four resented. So now Sherman White, Ken Johnson, Ron Carpenter and Bill Kollar—the new front—can chase the ballcarriers and headlines by themselves. Cincinnati's linebacking was porous without the ubiquitous Bergey, and will be again unless top draftee Glenn Cameron can plug the middle. However, the defensive secondary, featuring Tommy Casanova and Lemar Parrish, is solid.
The Bengals have football's most efficient quarterback, computer-programmed Ken Anderson, who completed 64.9% of his passes, had only 3% intercepted and compiled 95.9 quarterback-rating points, whatever that means. Anderson's bomb game is explosive, featuring Wide Receiver Isaac Curtis, who caught 30 passes for 633 yards and 10 touchdowns, Chip Myers and Bob Trumpy. Unfortunately, the running game is so suspect that Coach Paul Brown may have to experiment with a rhinoceros backfield of Boobie Clark and Ed Williams, two 245-pound plodders. To make matters worse, Brown traded Placekicker Horst Muhlmann to Philadelphia, leaving the job to Punter Dave Green, of whom it may be said that he is a good punter. The good news is that Center Bob Johnson, who anchors a solid offensive line, has completely recovered from his broken ankle.
Up the road in Cleveland, new coach and old Packer Forrest Gregg introduced the Browns to Lombardi-style grass drills in camp, hoping to toughen them up. He also has made jackets and ties mandatory on the road, hoping, perhaps, to soften them up. The Browns may win the best-dressed team award but not much else; in fact, Cleveland may not equal last year's 4-10 record.
What the Browns need most of all is consistent quarterbacking from Mike Phipps or Brian Sipe, both of whom are being tutored by retired head coach Blanton Collier. Greg Pruitt is the running game, and the passing is so weak that the new Browns will concentrate heavily on a two-tight-end attack. Defensively, Tackle Jerry Sherk handles the middle, while 6'8", 250-pound rookie Mack Mitchell ought to help the pass rush. The linebackers are capable, particularly Bob Babich in the middle, but the secondary is depleted now that Free Safety Thorn Darden has been lost for the season with a knee injury. So forget Cleveland—unless something weird happens, of course.