Cornelius Bennett has the potential to be the greatest outside linebacker ever. When he stepped into the BUFFALO BILLS lineup as a rookie, midway through last season, the defense became one of the division's best, reducing Buffalo's points-yielded average from 30 per game to 15 and nearly tripling its number of sacks. The 6'2", 235-pound Bennett is a Lawrence Taylor-type impact blitzer and skilled pass defender. In the season's last game, against the Eagles, he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his 17 tackles, including four sacks. Bennett's arrival allowed another talented rookie linebacker, Shane Conlan, to move inside, where he is more comfortable. Bruce Smith came on at right defensive end, allowing the linebacker behind him, Darryl Talley, to have his best year.
Offensively, Jim Kelly and his crew could always score points, but now he has a big league defense to give him field position. Bills owner Ralph Wilson and general manager Bill Polian showed they were committed to winning when they traded for Kansas City defensive end Art Still, who will man the left side and be a run stopper. This meant absorbing Still's $550,000 salary and $100,000 reporting bonus. "I've decided that at my age I can't wait 10 years for a championship." says the 69-year-old Wilson. He's getting there.
Coach Ron Meyer never changes. He ran the ball at SMU and at New England, and now he's running it with the INDIANAPOLIS COLTS. Three members of the offensive line, which is massive, as all Meyer lines are, went to the Pro Bowl last season. But one of them, right guard Ron Solt, irritated general manager Jimmy Irsay so much by holding out that Solt was "given permission to seek a trade," whatever that means. I thought general managers made trades, such as the one Irsay made for Eric Dickerson, which has made the Colts' running so effective.
The defense will be okay, especially if those old-pro imports, nosetackle Joe Klecko (formerly of the Jets) and pass rusher Ezra Johnson (Packers), can perform as they once did. Linebacker Duane Bickett is a star on the rise. Donnell Thompson and Jon Hand are solid ends in the base 3-4 defense.
When we get to the Colts' pass-catch game, things aren't so rosy. Meyer has named Gary Hogeboom as his starting quarterback over Jack Trudeau; in eight NFL seasons Hogeboom has done zilch. Once you get by Billy Brooks, the receiving corps doesn't excite anyone. Can a team that's unbalanced in run versus pass repeat as division champ? We'll find out.
One thing the first-place finish did was give the Colts a first-place schedule. They return to Monday Night Football (in Cleveland) for the first time since 1978. They play Denver in another Monday-nighter. Chicago and Minnesota are NFC additions. Last year Indy had Tampa Bay and St. Louis on its schedule, although the latter game was canceled by the strike. Fasten your chin straps, Colts. You'll be tested.
The MIAMI DOLPHINS drafted a defensive lineman, John Bosa, No. 1 last year, and they weren't disappointed. The Dolphins tried it again with Eric Kumerow, only they weren't sure if he would be a stand-up linebacker or a down lineman. Finally, they made Kumerow a nickel-defense pass rusher. Well, they're trying. The Dolphins must do something to keep their two-time Pro Bowl linebacker, John Offerdahl, from turning into a hollow-eyed, shell-shocked zombie by December.
Unfortunately, the character of the team has changed little over the past five years. The Dan Marino passing show is one of the NFL's best. It's well-conceived, brilliantly executed and sturdily protected by a line that allowed only 13 sacks last year, an NFL low. But the Dolphins' defense is still nowhere, and so is the running game. Even with the brilliance of rookie running back Troy Stradford last year, Miami finished next to last in rushing in the AFC. The addition of a big (6'6", 248 pounds) rookie tight end, Ferrell Edmunds, should help, but the team will be without its great center, Dwight Stephenson, for at least half a season while he recovers from a knee injury. That could be a painful spell, because the Dolphins' first six weeks are brutal—at Chicago, at Buffalo, Green Bay at home, at Indy, Minnesota at home, and at the Raiders. What's more, the Raiders seem to have Miami's number (six straight wins). The Dolphins are capable of beating anybody and losing to anybody—not a situation that makes Don Shula happy.
Ask owner Billy Sullivan about the NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, and he 11 probably try to sell the team to you. The most recent bid comes from Victor Kiam, the white-haired chap you see doing Remington shaver commercials on TV, and Philadelphia businessman Fran Murray. Kiam reportedly loaned the debt-ridden Patriots $600,000 so they could meet their August payroll.
Amid this turmoil, two solid gentlemen, coach Ray Berry and director of player development Dick Steinberg, continue to operate efficiently. The Patriots offense shows some age, with 35-year-old quarterback Steve Grogan running the show while Tony Eason, 28, recuperates slowly from nerve damage in his throwing arm. Stanley Morgan, 33, is still the Pats' most feared receiver. The line has suffered injuries, but it has hung together. On defense there are four outstanding players—linebacker Andre Tippett, end Garin Veris and cornerbacks Ronnie Lippett and Raymond Clayborn—and a lot of linebacking worries, because two players retired and one was lost to a knee injury.
Steinberg's rookies will be tested. So far the top four picks—John Stephens, a power runner; Vincent Brown, a linebacker: Tom Rehder, a tackle; and Sammy Martin, a wideout—have passed muster. The Patriots are thin in spots. Injuries could be devastating. Rookies must come through—and so must an owner.
If you've got playoff-caliber people and they don't perform, you end up watching the playoffs on TV. This is what the NEW YORK JETS, who finished 6-9, did last year. Practically their entire Pro Bowl roster was missing in action: Joe Klecko, Lance Mehl, and Wesley Walker, injured; Joe Fields and Freeman McNeil, off-and-on injured; Mark Gastineau. ineffective. Only wide-out Al Toon and quarterback Ken O'Brien were effective. Toon had a magnificent year. O'Brien? Well, in an unbelievable bit of front-office mismanagement, which shows that these people really don't understand football, he had bonus clauses inserted into his contract that were keyed to his rankings in completion percentage and quarterback-rating points. They took a down-the-field thrower and made a dinker out of him. But there's a darker side to the picture. Under coach Joe Walton, the Jets are 4-12 in December. When linebacker Bob Crable, one of New York's better players, suggested that the club hire a consultant to study why it suffers late-season collapses, he found himself in the doghouse. No consultant was hired. Instead, president Jim Kensil retired, a plus, but the Jets have yet to hire a football man to oversee their operation.
In December came the heavy bitching. Some players, under cover of anonymity, complained to the press that Walton couldn't communicate with his team. One newspaper identified the players as 1, 2, 3 and 4. Another called them A, B and C. Spy stuff. The writers were on the CIA beat. I ran into Player A in the off-season. "Tell me, A," I said, "if you wanted to sound off on something important, why didn't you use your name?"
"Are you kidding?" he said. "I'd be gone."
Such is the grim atmosphere surrounding the team. Still, a sprinkling of those ex-Pro Bowlers remains. The draft was heavy in defensive backs. Dave Cadigan, the Jets' No. 1 pick, was installed as the offensive left tackle, and the best thing about that is that the incumbent. Jim Sweeney, was moved to center, where he has looked terrific. But the Jets are a bubbling cauldron. Stay tuned. You will be reading a lot more about their problems.
HOW THEY'LL FINISH
4 NEW ENGLAND
5 NEW YORK