AFC CENTRAL

August 31, 1982

Pittsburgh Steelers

There are still a dozen veterans on the Steelers who know what it's like to win four Super Bowls. There are lots of youngsters running around. There isn't a lot in the middle.

It has just worked out that way. Those great drafts of the early 1970s produced the nucleus of Super Bowl talent; now those players are showing some mileage, but they remain the stars of the team. The new crop of youngsters still hasn't come of age, and the middle group represents medium talent.

The formula could work this year if injuries are minimal, but it's iffy. The Steelers are a tightly wired mechanism, and in the last two years some of those wires snapped at exactly the wrong time. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth are gifted receivers, but every time they run more than 20 yards downfield, you wonder if they're going to pull something. Terry Bradshaw got the club moving last year, crushing people, homing in on a playoff spot, but then he broke his hand in a Monday nighter against Oakland. His backup, Cliff Stoudt, had already gone on injured reserve after losing a bout with a test-your-strength punching bag, so the fate of the Steelers was left to young Mark Malone, hobbling on a gimpy knee. Still, the Steelers didn't go down without a struggle. They lost their last three games by a total of 11 points.

The Super Bowl gang is breaking up. Joe Greene and Jon Kolb retired, J.T. Thomas and Dirt Winston were traded, and L.C. Greenwood is now a part-timer. George Perles, the assistant coach who created the great Steel Curtain defensive lines, went to the USFL and took the 4-3 defense with him. Chuck Noll will bite the bullet and go 3-4, for a while anyway.

A few stars still twinkle in the Steeler defense, but it's far from the theater marquee lineup it used to be. The three defensive Steelers who made the last Pro Bowl—Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert, Strong Safety Donnie Shell and Cornerback Mel Blount—are 30, 30 and 34, respectively. Jack Ham, the left linebacker, missed his first Pro Bowl in nine years. Robin Cole, on the right side, is an upcoming superstar, they say, but they've been predicting great things for him for five years. Gary Dunn graded out highest of all the defensive linemen last season, but now he's at a new position, middle guard. The liveliest rookie defender is Edmund Nelson, an end, but he's still learning. The Steelers' defense is ordinary at best, and last year it finished 22nd in the NFL, its worst ranking since Noll's first season—the 1-13 horror show of 1969. It should be improved, but the offense will have to carry it, at least part of the time.

The thing that could brighten the whole picture, and put some new verve and dash into the offense, is a rookie—a special one, the kind the Steelers haven't had since Franco Harris came prancing out of Penn State 10 years ago. Walter Abercrombie, the No. 1 draft pick out of Baylor, was the star of training camp until he twisted his left knee in the second exhibition game. He still might start in the opener, or his spot might go to steady, unspectacular Frank Pollard. Abercrombie runs like a dream, he catches passes...he blocks? Well, uh, not really. He's not called on to do that much blocking, and that's where the picture gets complicated.

The Steelers have a great offensive line that returns intact, a line on a par with the Super Bowl units. Noll still feels there's room for a high-level running game in this era, but the only time the equation really worked was when Rocky Bleier was out there blocking for Franco. No other combination has done it. The last runner the Steelers drafted in the first round, Greg Hawthorne, is now fighting to make the club as a backup wide receiver. So who blocks for whom in a Franco Harris-Walter Abercrombie backfield? Or will that be only a "situation" unit? Stay tuned.

Cincinnati Bengals

For years the Bengals have been a bomb ready to explode. All the ingredients were there, all those high drafts, stockpiled from season after season of trading away veterans. All they needed was somebody to light the fuse, and last year Forrest Gregg was the perfect man for the job.

It was a story that flashed with inspirational touches. Quarterback Ken Anderson was an emotional wreck when the bell sounded for Round 1. He was booed and benched in the opener, and on the verge of being benched for the second game—until Gregg had a change of heart, mainly because the game was on the road against the Jets, and Jet fans don't have any boos to waste on visitors. When the first-round draft choice, Wide Receiver David Verser, was a bust, the position was saved by No. 2 pick Cris Collinsworth, the darling of the talk shows. The Bengals were 3-2 and shaky, but all of a sudden they went wild, winning seven of their next eight, averaging better than 32 points a game.

Then there was a sag—nothing really serious, but noticeable to a man like Gregg, who comes from the Lombardi School of Psychological Research. Could it be that his Bengals had peaked a bit early? They had blown out the Steelers (34-7), the Chargers (40-17) and the Broncos (38-21), but they were fiat in the Super Bowl. Who knows, if the Bengals had played that game with their midseason intensity, maybe they would have run the 49ers off the field before Bill Walsh had a chance to work his playbook magic. Thoughts for off-season afternoons.

Maybe this is mere nit-picking. Maybe the Bengals squeezed all they could out of the '81 season. Maybe now, with a year of championship-level play under their belts, they're ready to take it all. There's a stand-pat quality to the club; the improvements basically will come from within. Bobby Kemp and Bryan Hicks, the young safetymen who played surprisingly well last year, can only get better. Verser, they say, is now ready to make a definite contribution to a passing game that already has all the ingredients. Anderson, at 33, has an arm that's still as strong as any in the game, and now, after many years of scrambling, he's finally operating behind a line that knows how to protect him. He can still motor when he has to, though. Wide Receiver Isaac Curtis perhaps has lost a step or two, but he'll still make the circus catch on third-and-eight, and Tight End Dan Ross is coming off a 71-catch season and a record-breaking 11-reception performance in the Super Bowl. Gregg is still looking for a speed back as a change of pace to the big thumpers, Pete Johnson and Charles Alexander, but who isn't?

The pass rush was O.K., but Gregg would have liked more pressure on Joe Montana in the Super Bowl. So he devoted the first two draft picks to defensive linemen, Glen Collins and Emanuel Weaver. Various knee and ankle ailments limited their effectiveness in camp, and as the season begins they figure to be backups.

Some people are wondering whether Anderson can repeat his MVP season of '81, but there were a lot of years in which he performed at a level close to the best in the NFL and never got credit for it. Now he's got that Super Bowl hunger.

Cleveland Browns

The 1981 season ended a dismal 5-11. The Kardiac Kids of '80 were only a dim memory, and rumors started that Sam Rutigliano, who had been such a gust of fresh air in the grim business of coaching, had better produce in '82 or else. As Quarterback Brian Sipe cleared out his locker after the final Sunday, he did a very uncharacteristic thing. He sounded off.

He talked about players falling asleep at meetings, about complacency. "Instead of looking around the front office for a scapegoat, the fans should look around the bars where the players were enjoying their 1980 prestige," he said.

At the time it seemed like nothing more than gloomy December talk, but the implications became a lot clearer later on, when a story came out that Charles White, a starting halfback, had entered a drug treatment center in California—and that Rutigliano had hired his old Brooklyn buddy Ted Chappell to fill the newly created post of security officer, presumably to monitor drug-abuse problems. Not that the Browns had more problems than anyone else, but in these highly sensitive times, a quick decline in a team's fortunes sets the gossips to work.

On the field the explanation seemed easier to understand. For two years the Browns had been a high-wire act. Games that could go either way ended as W's. Last year they were L's. Sipe had been the NFL's leading passer in '80, but he dropped to 22nd in '81. Gone was the quarterback coach, Jim Shofner ("The only real quarterback coach I ever had"), who had moved to Houston. The new man, Paul Hackett, bright and talented as he was, was a virgin in the NFL. Sipe took a tremendous physical beating. No longer could the offense carry a defense that had no rush, that got confused on its pass coverages.

To tidy up the shambles of '81, the Browns began with defense. Gone are Defensive End Lyle Alzado, defensive backs Thorn Darden and Autrey Beamon and linebackers Robert L. Jackson and Don Goode. Newly arrived are linebackers Tom Cousineau, from Canada via Buffalo, and Chip Banks. Art Modell convinced his fellow owners that free agency could be a painful prospect when he shelled out a reported $3.5 million and a few draft choices, including a first-rounder, to obtain Cousineau's services for five years. Banks arrived as the third pick in the entire draft, and so terrified was Rutigliano that someone would trade upward to get Banks ahead of him that he told everyone who would listen that Fullback Gerald Riggs was definitely Cleveland's main man in the draft.

What there is of a pass rush will come from the linebackers. Banks was immediately installed in Goode's spot on the left side, and on passing downs he'll line up as an end. Cousineau got Jackson's inside spot. The safety-men have been juggled: Clarence Scott moves to free and Clinton Burrell to strong.

They say Banks looked great in camp. Ditto Cousineau. Ditto Sipe, who's now on the same page with Hackett. But his line has to protect him and the defense has to get its sacks before there will be a significant turnaround.

Houston Oilers

Kenny (The Snake) Stabler opened a new nightclub in Houston. None of the Oilers' front-office staff was invited to the opening. When last heard from, Dan Pastorini was at a West Coast TV studio playing Spartacus—and losing, two sets to one. What remains are the men with the brooms, to sweep away the remnants of the Great Quarterback Trade of 1980.

The war in the sky will now be in the hands of 27-year-old Gifford Nielsen, whose five years in the NFL have produced four starts, and second-round draft choice Oliver Luck, whose four years at West Virginia resulted in a 3.96 grade-point average (a B in freshman calculus cost him his perfecto).

And now, for an evaluation of the Oilers' passing game, we turn to Tight End Dave Casper. Dave, tell us what the Houston attack is like.

"It's not what you'd call refined. It's like drawing pictures with numbers...or connecting the dots."

Cut! Rewind the tape. O.K., let's forget about passing. Anyway, passing in Houston is just something the Oilers do to let Earl Campbell catch his breath. And besides, Wide Receiver Ken Burrough is recovering from a broken fibula. Let's examine Campbell, who has averaged more carries per game (22.7) than any runner in NFL history. Last year's attack was going to be diversified—Campbell and Rob Carpenter. No more one-man stuff. That lasted through the fourth game, after which Carpenter was traded to the Giants. Earl was still a dominating force, but his body was beginning to show signs of wear. For the first time in his career he didn't lead the entire NFL in rushing. For the first time his per-carry average dropped below four yards. And he fumbled more than ever before. Looks like Campbell's only human, fellas.

The offense shows three significant changes—the additions of ex-Packer Tackle Mark Koncar and No. 1 draft pick Mike Munchak, green but mean and probably the starter at left guard; and the shift of Tim Wilson, Campbell's personal escort in the backfield, to a blocking tight-end spot.

On defense, Safety Vernon Perry will miss a month or so with a broken shoulder blade. No other changes, although the deck has been shuffled up front. The three-man line now reads, left to right: Jesse Baker, Mike Stensrud and Ken Kennard, with Andy Dorris or Elvin Bethea coming in as a fourth rusher.

You say you're looking for some positives? Try these: The ancient practice facility has now reverted to weeds, thanks to a brand-new complex near the Astrodome. Coach Eddie Biles got a contract extension in the off-season. And the Oilers have put in a computer system. All they have to do now is find people who know how to operate it.

TWO PHOTOSWhile Pittsburgh's Harris (top) likes to dart to daylight, Cincy's Johnson (46) simply runs over anyone who gets in his way. PHOTOSipe and Cleveland flopped together in 1981 and must do a 180 in '82—or bye-bye Browns.

PREDICTED FINISH

Pittsburgh 10-6
Cincinnati 10-6
Cleveland 7-9
Houston 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)