AFC Central

AFC Central

September 07, 1980

Pittsburgh has a major problem: the NFL won't let Chuck Noll have a 60-man roster. Personnel men around the league watch the Steeler cut lists like stockbrokers studying the ticker. The time-honored way of keeping dynasties alive is to trade away your reserves for high drafts, but it's tough for the Steelers to play that game. Everyone knows they have to cut quality people, so why pay for something you can get free? Pittsburgh may have had a few better front-line players here and there during its four Super Bowl seasons in the '70s, but it has never been as deep as it is in 1980. It's embarrassing, really. The camp roster listed 30 players who started in one or more Super Bowls, 14 who played in the Pro Bowl. Where do the Steelers find them all?

More to the point, what can possibly keep them from winning another championship? Well, they missed out in 1976 when all their runners were injured during the playoffs. That's a long shot in '80. In 1977 there was turmoil. No problem in that area so far this year. Coach Chuck Noll says it has been a happy team—except on cut day. Terry Bradshaw admits that the breakup of his marriage has been depressing, and he wasn't always able to keep his mind on football this summer. But he's 32 and has been through a divorce before. And he's a competitor.

And what an arsenal of weapons Bradshaw has at his disposal. He has one of the best lines in the business blocking for him, one that makes the sophisticated trap-block running game work and clears the way for such people as Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier and Sidney Thornton. And if that bogs down, as it did in Super Bowl XIV, Bradshaw can switch gears and throw to the best pair of wide receivers in the NFL, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

The Steelers are one of the few teams in football history that can hurt the opposition just as badly in the air as on the ground. Didn't those bombs to Stallworth bail Pittsburgh out when things looked darkest against the Rams? But we're looking for weaknesses, right? The defensive line had nine quality performers in camp, but no real superstar. We're reaching now; the defensive line won't be a problem.

Everyone knows this team—Swann and Stallworth and Kolb and Greene and Greenwood and Ham and Lambert and Blount and Bradshaw and Bleier and Harris and Webster and.... And now we come to the emerging stars. The right side of the offensive line, with Steve Courson at guard alongside Tackle Larry Brown, who's up to 270 now, could be Pro Bowl caliber. Dennis Winston is a dynamic linebacker now, if his bad back holds up. Halfback Greg Hawthorne, the No. 1 draft choice in 1979, was impressive in the preseason.

How can a rookie break in? He can't. The top 1980 pick, Mark Malone, is teething at quarterback behind Bradshaw and Cliff Stoudt, who owns two Super Bowl rings but has never played a down in three NFL seasons. It's tough to earn a varsity letter at Steeler U.

Maybe HOUSTON can devise a way to get the divisions realigned so it can meet the Steelers once in the Super Bowl instead of in the AFC playoffs. Wouldn't it be nice to have Bum Phillips spinning yarns during a week of Super Bowl press conferences rather than on the practice field at Three Rivers Stadium, squinting into the snowflakes and saying, "If anyone knows how to play Pittsburgh, it's us."

It's no secret that Phillips is sending it all in this season. Every move Houston made was aimed at that mighty giant to the north. Phillips traded Quarterback Dan Pastorini to Oakland for Ken Stabler, who has beaten the Steelers the last three times he has faced them. Phillips also acquired Oakland Safety Jack Tatum for two, possibly three, games: he'll use Tatum as a nickel back stationed 10 yards deep, and let's see Pittsburgh run Swann and Stallworth on those crossing patterns then! Bum even went the Steeler bloodline route in the draft, picking Bradshaw's younger brother, Craig, despite the fact that he'd been a backup quarterback in college.

Everyone's cashing in on the Oilers. Some 150 different LUV YA BLUE items have been marketed, including a piano. They all luv Kenny the Snake. Fans lined up to buy little rubber snakes. No boos have been heard in the Astrodome. Stabler responded by upping his work load during the exhibition season. In the first game he was supposed to go a quarter, and he played a half. In the second game he was supposed to play a half, and he went three quarters.

Stabler has been spreading his passes around, too, getting all the receivers, including Earl Campbell, into the act, which will earn him no enemies on the offense. His soft passes have been just right for Box Office Billy Johnson, who's now a genuine receiving threat. The Oilers need a healthy Johnson because Ken Burrough is hobbling on a bad knee.

But the big question is this: What will Stabler be like in December after his knees have been subjected to four months of artificial turf? Don't forget that synthetic turf also helps a pass rush. Last year Stabler was the general of long, artful drives that ended in disaster—the forced interception, the long sack when he couldn't avoid the first emissary of the rush. But the Oiler defense will like Stabler because he'll keep them off the field longer than Pastorini did. Nevertheless, the Oilers must still play defense and it's a very physical defense they play—lots of hitting, bodies flying all over the place. But while all that's going on, teams will usually move down the field on them. This year Houston has added the Maniac Blitz—an 11-man prevent—to its repertoire.

The Oilers have a heroic quality about them. There was no more courageous game played in the NFL last year than their playoff victory at San Diego, when Campbell and Pastorini were out with injuries. And the next week they almost beat the Steelers at Pittsburgh. This Sunday, in their opening game, they get another chance.

Seven of the nine CLEVELAND wins last year came in the fourth quarter or in overtime. In 12 of the Browns' games the issue was in doubt in the final two minutes. Their highlight film is called Kardiac Kids, and their coach, Sam Rutigliano, says, "Security is for cowards. I believe in gambling." Hey, quick, move that franchise to Vegas. We have a live one here.

Brian Sipe was the NFL's ultimate come-from-behind quarterback last year, better even than Roger Staubach. You never knew what would happen when the Browns played, which might be the reason why their season-ticket sales jumped from 37,000 to more than 47,000. They scored eight touchdowns and ran up 803 yards in two games against Pittsburgh, but they got only 12 points in their final game against Cincinnati—and that cost them a playoff spot.

One reason for Cleveland's frenetic style is that the offense is loaded with overachievers: Sipe, Tight End Ozzie Newsome, Split End Dave Logan and Halfback Mike Pruitt. Another is that the defense is shaky. The '80 offense should be even better than the '79 model because the top 1979 draft pick, Wide Receiver Willis Adams, now knows how to get deep. Also, Greg Pruitt is coming back after a knee operation and Heisman Trophy-winner Charles White, the No. 1 1980 draftee, knows what he's doing, although he's not as zippy as Greg Pruitt.

Sipe, the Pruitts and White all got a surprise bonus on Labor Day when the Browns acquired All-Pro Guard Joe DeLamielleure from Buffalo; DeLamielleure is a superb blocker both on pass plays and on sweeps.

But the Cleveland defense is based on hope. Jerry Sherk is coming back from knee surgery, but he's been so great for so many years that even if he's only 80%, Rutigliano will settle for it. Sherk will be at left end in the new 3-4 if he's ready, with Lyle Alzado moving back to right end after bouncing around all over the line last year.

The Browns dabbled in the 3-4 in '79 because they had so many talented linebackers, but the hard lesson they learned is that the 3-4 doesn't work unless you have a middle guard to anchor it. They finished next to last in the NFL at stopping the run. Now they're committed to the 3-4. But Cleveland's still looking for a middle guard who can go the route. If the Sherk-Alzado combination holds up, though, the Browns are on the road to defensive respectability.

Their biggest problem is the division they're playing in. In the NFC Cleveland would be a Super Bowl contender, but in the AFC Central it's just trying to survive against Pittsburgh and Houston.

Here's a new theory on why CINCINNATI nosedived to 4-12 last year: too many No. 1 draft choices. The Bengals had 11 of them on the squad, the same number they have this year. That's their own No. 1s, mind you, not trades or castoffs. But their No. 1s include too many bottle babies, too many sunfish. For years the people of Cincinnati have been hearing, "What a great draft the Bengals had." Then they watched the team go poof.

Now if Paul Brown were the old Paul Brown, this problem would have been corrected long ago. But the old boy doesn't seem to be working the franchise anymore. Oh, he'll meddle and pull a few strings, but the quality of his input has gone way down. It's much easier to fire the coach and then hire the toughest son of a gun you can find to replace him and hope he'll whip the team into shape.

So Forrest Gregg came down from Canada to take over from Homer Rice and ran the roughest camp anyone can remember in Cincinnati. Maybe that kind of shock therapy will work. The Bengals certainly have the talent to make a run at somebody. The draft produced an instant starter in 6'6", 286-pound Anthony Munoz, who was plunked down at left tackle and has had no problem settling in.

Eyebrows went up when Kicker Chris Bahr, who hit six of eight field goals from 40 yards or more, was cut in favor of a free agent named Ian Sunter.

But—how can a defense that starts an entire line of No. 1 draft choices, plus another at linebacker, finish last in the NFL? When you find out, call Coach Gregg—collect.

ILLUSTRATIONPittsburgh's toughest foe may be the blahs. ILLUSTRATIONPaul Brown pulls some strings in Cincinnati.

PREDICTED FINISH

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PITTSBURGH 12-4
HOUSTON 11-5
CLEVELAND 8-8
CINCINNATI 6-10

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)