AFC CENTRAL '83

August 31, 1983

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Before we get all misty-eyed about the way the USFL has cut into the Steelers' offensive line, their receiving corps, their coaching staff, etc., let's look at this thing realistically. The offensive line lost Ray Pinney, a good tackle; Tyrone McGriff, a backup guard; and Thorn Dornbrook, who hadn't played since 79. More significant was the loss of Jim Smith, the heir apparent to Lynn Swann at flanker and the top long-ball threat. The departure of assistant coaches George Perles and Rollie Dotsch, just before the '82 season, was bitter, but the Steelers tightened ranks and went out and beat Dallas and Cincinnati before the strike hit.

Far more serious than any of the above is the condition of Terry Bradshaw's right wing. Last year the Steelers lost three out of four games while Bradshaw was toughing it out with a sore shoulder. He had muscle-tear surgery in March, tried to push his rehab work and the arm got sore. There's nothing wrong structurally, say the medics; it's more a case of wear and tear from 13 years of throwing major league fastballs. Terry's backup, Cliff Stoudt, has started one game in six seasons. The only bright spot is that Pittsburgh doesn't face a Central Division team until the third week; and the Steelers' first two division games are against Houston.

Bradshaw was on the shelf in 76, but the defense rose up and recorded five shutouts. That was a different defense, though, and a different era. For the last two years the Steelers have ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in overall defense. Last year they were No. 1 against the rush—the Steelers can stop the running game on memory—but passers worked them over, and in the playoffs they were bombed by Dan Fouts and the Chargers. The pass rush remains a problem, although the stats don't reflect it. The Steelers had a respectable 34 sacks last year, second-highest in the NFL, but only 14½ came from linemen. They blitzed, they stunted, they set linebackers in a down position. The old recognizable names along the defensive line—Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood—had been replaced by a shifting spectrum—Goodman, Beasley, Dunn, Kohrs, Willis. Now you can add Keith Gary, the No. 1 draft choice in '81, who's back from two years in Canada, and Gabriel Rivera, Se√±or Sack, this year's No. 1, a rollicking, brawling 290-pounder. The word being used to describe these people is "improving," but so far the Steelers have yet to find another L.C. or Mean Joe.

Franco Harris is still as nimble and tippy-toed and amazing as ever. In 1982, his 11th season in the league, Franco was given a new toy, the swing pass, and he showed great skill at making the first tackier miss him, and then picking up eight or nine yards out of nothing. He led the team in receiving. John Stallworth is one of the league's finest and most underrated wideouts, but no one knows who the other one will be. Rookie Wayne Capers, the No. 2 draft pick, has the speed to anchor the NFL 400-meter relay, but he and the ball have yet to make each other's acquaintance. Oh yes, the Steelers will join the trendy set this year and go to the one-back offense, possibly sending Walter Abercrombie out to the slot, or using him to spell Franco.

Leadership has never been lacking in Pittsburgh. And that could put the Steelers on top once more.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

The two icy fingers of the '80s—cocaine and the USFL—reached out and grabbed the Bengals by the throat. Pete Rozelle suspended Defensive End Ross Browner and Fullback Pete Johnson for four games for buying coke ("Diet Coke, I hope," one Bengal said when he heard about the 250-pound Johnson's suspension). The new league signed Offensive Coordinator Lindy Infante and Tight End Dan Ross for '84 and Wide Receiver Cris Collinsworth for '85. "We seem to have been their target," says Assistant General Manager Mike Brown.

Infante was promptly fired and replaced by Special Teams Coach Bruce Coslett, who was replaced by no one. Those who know Paul Brown's severe method of dealing with turncoats figured Ross and Collinsworth would soon be trade bait, thus depriving Quarterback Ken Anderson of four of the best pass-catching hands in football. But discipline can go only so far, and even Brown realized that such a move might have produced a full-scale revolt on a squad already grumbling about salary policy: hard line for veterans, loose pocketbook for rookies. Middle Linebacker Jim LeClair, for one, says this is his last year in a Bengal uniform, and he's the recognized leader of the defense.

For the last six weeks no one in the front office has seen Johnson, whose weight, when and if he returns, could make the Guinness Book of World Records. Without him the Bengals are minus their one-man possession game, which had Johnson either punching the ball inside or catching the swing pass. Maybe the Bengals will try to fool people by sneaking 6'1", 266-pound rookie Running Back Larry Kinnebrew into Johnson's uniform and telling everyone he never left, but 184-pound Archie Griffin and 190-pound Rodney Tate are more logical choices to replace Johnson. At any rate, the passing game, with Anderson throwing those zingers behind a big, tough line—he completed a record 70.6% of his passes last year—will be pretty. A Branch Rickey type of trade—get rid of 'em while they're still valuable—sent Cincinnati's very competent center, Blair Bush, to Seattle for a No. 1 in '85, so the Bengals have an extra first-round pick in each of the next two years; Quarterback Jack Thompson was dealt to Tampa Bay for a No. 1 in '84. Organizationally, that's fine, but what happens if Center Dave Rimington, the 1983 No. 1 draft pick, can't cut it?

One more sobering thought about the Bengals: The Chargers and the Jets undressed Cincinnati's pass defense last year, and unless a superstar surfaces in Browner's spot or rookie Cornerback Ray Horton cracks the lineup, that pass defense might have a tough time again.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

There are few nicer people in the NFL than Sam Rutigliano. "Playing for Sam will add four years to my career," Right Guard Joe DeLamielleure said when he went to the Browns from Buffalo in 1980. "If you can't play for Sam you can't play for anybody," says Calvin Hill, now a part-time consultant with the team. Sam's Inner Circle drug program—players helping each other from within—is the most enlightened approach in the NFL, and if decency and compassion could be translated into won-lost, the Browns would be in the Super Bowl every year. Unfortunately, a harder set of standards is applied, and the facts are these: In five years Rutigliano's record is 37-36. The Cardiac Kids of 1980 seemed on their way, then the bottom fell out and the Browns had two losing seasons, although their 4-5 record in '82 got them into the playoff tournament. Even tougher to stomach, from an ownership standpoint, was the drop in attendance. It was off 16% at home last year, down from 75,216 per game to 62,823. Blame the strike. But this year, season tickets are down another 2,000. It might be presumptuous to say that Rutigliano's job is on the line now. Firing the coach would not be a good p.r. move for owner Art Modell, particularly after he got all that good ink for his help with Rutigliano's drug program, but he's been shelling out big bucks for contracts—Tom Cousineau and Chip Banks last year, for instance—and he might be itching to start getting his money's worth.

There are two keys to the Browns' chances for success. The first, as usual, is the defensive line. They've tried it with draft choices, with free agents and with a trade for an old pro, but they're still searching for the right combination. Now they've settled on what they feel is the answer—this season's third-round draft choice, Reggie Camp, and last year's No. 2, Keith Baldwin, flanking the man they claim was a steal, Bob Golic, who was claimed off waivers from New England a year ago. The Browns already have a big league linebacking corps. Banks, their 1982 No. 1 draft pick, was fine as the designated sacker last year. Clay Matthews on the right side was one of the league's best until he broke his ankle in '82. Dick Ambrose is sturdy inside, and Cousineau says he feels "more relaxed" this year. Hey, with a $500,000 salary, who wouldn't? Cornerback Lawrence Johnson's slow return from off-season knee surgery doesn't help the secondary, but heavy thunder from the front seven could cover that.

The second key is quarterback. Brian Sipe never got teamed up with Quarterback Coach Paul Hackett and lost his job to Paul McDonald last year. But Sipe is still a player and a great competitor, and he could have a rebirth under the new offensive coordinator, Larrye Weaver, who brings the one-back, spread-the-field offense from San Diego, his last post. He says that Tight End Ozzie Newsome, who caught more passes over a five-year span than any receiver in the Browns' history, is perfect for a Kellen Winslow-style slotback role.

HOUSTON OILERS

Bum Phillips had back-to-back 11-5 seasons, and he got fired. Eddie Biles went 7-9 and 1-8 and dodged the bullet, but his three-year contract was not extended. "I think the owner realizes what the problems are here and what it's going to take to correct them," says Biles, who knows that one corrective measure next, oh, December, might be to fire the coach.

Problem No. 1: a fading offensive line and a dispirited Earl Campbell. Solution: three big linemen—Bruce Matthews, No. 1 draft in '83; Harvey Salem, No. 2; Mike Munchak, No. 1 last year.

Problem No. 2: snow in the secondary. Two members of last year's deep four were busted for drugs. (A third was convicted of drunk driving.) Solution: five defensive backs in the draft, from universities of high repute—Michigan, Oregon, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Missouri—where student-athletes stroll to their classrooms with books under their arms and do those nifty promos for The NCAA Today.

The big plus this year is that the Oilers' gusher of high draft picks (10 in the first five rounds) might just get the ship floating again. If those young offensive linemen pan out, no one will be happier than 34-year-old Quarterback Archie Manning, who certainly deserves better than what the NFL has given him.

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PHOTOBARRY STAVERMcDonald took the Browns' starting job away from Sipe last season, but can he hold on to it? CHART

PREDICTED FINISH

Pittsburgh 10-6
Cincinnati 10-6
Cleveland 7-9
Houston 3-13

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL

AMERICAN CONFERENCE

NATIONAL CONFERENCE

TEAM

RANK

TEAM

RANK

EAST

JETS 8
PATRIOTS 6
DOLPHINS 4
BILLS-5
COLTS-10

2
4
10
23
27

REDSKINS 8
EAGLES 4
COWBOYS-1
GIANTS-1
CARDINALS-1

3
12
16
17
18

CENTRAL

BENGALS 4
BROWNS 4
STEELERS 0
OILERS-9

8
9
15
26

VIKINGS 4
BEARS 1
LIONS 0
BUCCANEERS-2
PACKERS-3

11
13
14
21
22

WEST

CHIEFS 10
RAIDERS 5
CHARGERS 5
SEAHAWKS-2
BRONCOS-17

1
5
6
20
28

FALCONS 4
SAINTS-2
RAMS-6
49ERS-8

7
19
24
25

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)