This is the meanest, keenest, roughest, toughest division in the league. Anything can happen? Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals—after three years of frustration at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers—will win the division title. For three reasons: squabbling among the Steelers, a pussycat schedule, and deeper talent than the franchise has ever had.
The only crack team the Bengals face—other than two meetings with Pittsburgh—is Minnesota, and they routed the Vikings in a preseason game. The Steelers, on the other hand, play three toughies—Oakland, Baltimore and Dallas—in addition to the Bengals.
Nominally, this is Bill Johnson's second year as coach of the Bengals, but he was Paul Brown's top assistant from the team's inception in 1968, so he is thoroughly at home, as are most of his aides.
Two excellent first-round draft choices, Eddie Edwards (Miami) and Wilson Whitley (Houston), both defensive tackles, have shored up the Bengals' weak rush line. Edwards is the faster of the two and, thus, the better pass rusher, while Whitley is stronger and his quick lateral moves make him the better tackier. Elsewhere, the defense is sound. The linebackers, led by Jim LeClair, are solid enough so that the Bengals will play much more 3-4 than previously, and the secondary has two Pro Bowl-ers, Tom Casanova and Lemar Parrish. The only loss on defense is Tackle Bob Brown, whose bulk will be missed on goal-line stands but who was never a strong pass rusher or much for pursuit. The two rookies more than compensate for his loss.
On offense, the key player is, of course, Quarterback Ken Anderson, and if he goes down, the Bengals can probably forget about the playoffs. But the offensive line, featuring Center Bob Johnson and Tackle Vern Holland, has matured and cohered into a virtually impermeable unit; so Anderson should not have to worry too much about being sacked. Anderson, who receives each play by messenger from the sidelines, has compiled gaudy offensive statistics throughout his six seasons in Cincinnati, but has always been error-prone in games billed as "crucial." The other linchpin in the Bengal offense is Wide Receiver Isaac Curtis, who not only has sure hands but also can block and run. The Bengals hope to get the ball to Curtis more often this season by setting him on the weak side, rather than as a flanker to the strong side, thus making it more difficult for opponents to double-cover him.
Archie Griffin, who spent last season learning the pro system, now understands why he's doing what he does, and his game has improved immeasurably. Paired with Griffin will be one or another of Cincy's multitalented running backs—big Boobie Clark (245 pounds) or quick Lenvil Elliott; Griffin's Ohio State teammate, Fullback Pete Johnson, the leading scorer in Big 10 history (58 TDs) is an exceptional blocker and rarely fumbles. The only soft spot on offense is at tight end, where injury-prone Bob Trumpy is backed by a pair of rookies.
Although Pittsburgh has beaten the Bengals in five of six meetings the past three seasons, if Cincinnati gets a split this year it will gain the playoffs as Central Division champs.
It's hard to believe, but old age and That Ole Debbil Doubt are catching up with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Center Ray Mansfield and Linebacker Andy Russell have retired, after 14 and 13 years, respectively. Cornerback Mel Blount and Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert were teed off at Coach Chuck Noll and the Rooney family, and missed all (Blount) or most (Lambert) of the preseason. It's not that two such talented men really need a full camp to play well, but the worm of discontent has a way of infecting a whole squad in very short order. The fine tuning that Noll achieved over eight seasons could go off frequency in a hurry.
Anticipating Russell's retirement, Noll used his No. 1 draft pick for a replacement, and came up with Robin Cole, a 220-pounder from New Mexico. Like Lambert and Jack Ham, he has cornerback speed and is a hard, almost savage hitter. Another rookie, Dennis (Dirt) Winston from Arkansas, adds depth at linebacker in the event of injuries.
The secondary is where the Steelers may be hurting. With Blount playing surly and the other defenders looking weak, not just in preseason but also in the playoff game against Oakland, the worries that Pittsburgh may be vulnerable to long passes seem valid. The defensive line, on the other hand, is as tough as ever with Mean Joe, L. C. Greenwood and friends. The veteran starters have been bolstered by the maturation of two "new boys," John Banaszak and Steve Furness, who earned their spurs during the injury-plagued 1976 season.
On offense, the Steelers have an eminently interchangeable lot of guards, tackles, centers and tight ends. All are versatile. Mike Webster and Jim Clack can play either center or guard, and often do. Gerry Mullins, nominally a guard, plays tackle and tight end as well. Larry Brown, the 245-pound tight end, moved in at tackle at times last year, and this year he's there permanently. His old position is now filled by 260-pound Bennie Cunningham, whose very bulk provides a screen for passes thrown his way. Quarterback and running back are sound, with Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier starting, and Mike Kruczek, Reggie Harrison and Jack Deloplaine backing up. The most impressive rookie is Laverne Smith of Kansas, who broke all of Gale Sayers' and John Riggins' Jayhawk rushing records. Lynn Swann leads a deep wide-receiver corps.
For all that, though, the parlay of a rising Cincinnati star, a tougher schedule than the Bengals' and the erosion of internal harmony will combine to keep Pittsburgh out of the Super Bowl.
The Cleveland Browns made a remarkable turnaround last season, ending up with a 9-5 record after going 3-11 the previous year. Forrest Gregg won AFC Coach of the Year honors from the AP for the feat. Yet the achievement was dubious because last year Cleveland had a soft schedule—teams like Atlanta, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, the New York Jets and, in its own division, Houston twice.
This year Cleveland must face reality. The first four games are against the Bengals (who have whupped them four times running), New England, the Steelers and world-champion Oakland, and Defensive Tackle Jerry Sherk, who may be the best in the NFL, will miss all four because of a knee injury. Later come the Bengals and the Steelers again and Los Angeles. With luck, the Browns will go 7-7.
That's not to say, however, that Gregg has made no improvements. He was smart to recognize the talent of Brian Sipe at quarterback, though he had little choice after starter Mike Phipps was hurt in last season's opener. Phipps has been traded to Chicago, giving Sipe a free rein. He has talented targets in Paul Warfield (who says he is playing the last of a sterling 14 seasons), Reggie Rucker and Tight End Oscar Roan.
Running Back Greg Pruitt, the mighty mite from Oklahoma, got his second 1,000-yard season in a row last year and is one of the most exciting runners in the NFL. But Pruitt is injury-prone and there's not much behind him.
On defense, the Browns' line will be woeful until Sherk returns, while their linebacking is merely adequate and the secondary has yet to distinguish itself. Moreover, Cleveland also got no help from the draft, in contrast to division rivals Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The Browns' special teams are inadequate, too, the punting being particularly lackluster. Put it all together and it adds up to third place.
Since 1970, the Houston Oilers have hired and fired four head coaches, four general managers, six personnel directors, 11 scouts, 23 assistant coaches, three publicity directors, three team photographers, three trainers and two ticket managers. During that period, they have had exactly one winning season. Unfortunately, this year promises much more of the former.
Houston has no offense. Last year, only the Seattle Sea-hawks had a weaker running game. After a hope-inspiring 10-4 season in 1975, the Oilers crashed to 5-9 in 1976, and Head Coach Bum Phillips knows that this year he must win or walk. He'll probably walk.
Recognizing the need for points and yardage, Houston used 10 of its 14 draft choices to pick offensive players, but only four have become starters, including top drafts Morris Towns and George Reihner on the offensive line. At the end of last season, 23 of the team's 43-man roster had been signed as free agents.
Quarterback Dan Pastorini, who vows that this will be his last season as an Oiler, will rely mainly on desperate bombs to Wide Receiver Ken Burrough and short, inconsequential passes to halfbacks behind a screen. In years past, Pastorini would scrap a play if it didn't work the first time out, which usually was the case, but now he seems a bit more dedicated. What would really help the Houston attack is a good season from punt-and-kickoff return specialist Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, who played spectacularly in 1975 but miserably in 1976. On defense, the Oilers are still all Curley Culp and Elvin Bethea on the line and Bob Brazile in back of it. Culp, too, wants out. At this rate, there'll be no one left in Houston next season.