Excited by the prospect that Don Shula will overtake George Halas as the NFL's winningest coach sometime this season, many people are picking the MIAMI DOLPHINS to be the AFC champion. It could happen, but one thing bothers me about this team: the offensive line. Dan Marino suffered 28 sacks last year, the most of his career. Left tackle Richmond Webb, who has made the Pro Bowl in each of his three seasons, slipped badly toward the end of '92. Right guard Harry Galbreath, who never made the Pro Bowl but should have, left as a free agent. To run the O-line, Shula brought in a whip-cracker, Kim Helton, to relieve 67-year-old John Sandusky, a more laid-back type. Then in May, Helton left for the head coaching job at the University of Houston and back came Sandusky.
Adding to Marino's woes last year was the decline of the wideout Marks brothers, Clayton and Duper. Now both are gone, and the new guys are ex-Patriot Irving Fryar, who had a terrific camp, and ex-Giant Mark Ingram. The running game was nowhere last season, but top rookie Terry Kirby is expected to change that. He will line up behind ex-Eagle fullback Keith Byars, a fine possession receiver, if not the blocker Tony Paige was.
In '92, when the offense started having difficulties, the defense got going, which is why Miami won the division. Coordinator Tom Olivadotti's style is a kind of lay-back zone, but he will have so many action guys around that he will probably switch out of necessity. Linebacker Bryan Cox had a sensational '92 as a pass rusher and relentless pursuer, rookie Marco Coleman was a force at defensive end, and both cornerback Troy Vincent and free safety Louis Oliver are Pro Bowl caliber. And middle linebacker John Offerdahl is the glue that holds it all together.
I like the Dolphins to repeat as AFC East champs. I'm just not sure about that next step.
Every year it gets a bit harder for the BUFFALO BILLS to make the Super Bowl. And it gets even worse once they're in it. After three straight losses the Bills are sick of answering questions about their psyches, and their answers follow a pattern: Wouldn't the Tampa Bays of this world like to be where we are?
Well, of course. The great talent machine put together by Bill Polian and Bob Ferguson still exists—although both those gentlemen are gone now. And how do you keep a team loaded with stars such as Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Kent Hull, Jim Richter and Darryl Talley from repeating?
You can try to stir a controversy. The popular opinion is that Kelly's concentration was oil last year, as seen by his off-day in the Super Bowl. Hey, he has been through all this before, and now, seven pounds lighter, he's vowing to silence the critics—again.
You can break up the team. Off went free-agent left tackle Will Wolford to Indianapolis and inside linebackers Shane Conlan and Carlton Bailey to the Rams and the Giants, respectively. How serious is this? Wolford is a real loss. Premium left tackles are the NFL's scarcest commodity. The linebacker situation should sort itself out with Bennett returning to the outside and Marvcus Patton and Mark Maddox lining up inside, behind one emerging superstar, nosetackle Jeff Wright, and in front of another one, Pro Bowl strong safety Henry Jones.
The big question remains: How damaging is the lingering memory of those three straight Super Bowl losses, plus the ongoing abuse? When I get my degree in psychiatry I'll let you know. Until then, I'll pick the Bills to be right in the thick of it.
Just as the INDIANAPOLIS COLTS were making all the right moves, this Jeff George thing had to hit. Fed up with the fans and the media, George stayed home for most of the summer, and while he was away the T-shirt makers went to work. One T-shirt showed a picture of George and Elvis with the line IF YOU'VE SEEN ONE OF THESE GUYS, CALL THE INDIANAPOLIS POLICE. Another showed George in a sandbox: MY MOMMY WON'T LET ME GO TO CAMP. Local liquor stores featured Jeff George whine.
Well, Achilles heard boos, too, when he returned to the Trojan War after his holdout, but he still picked up a couple of game balls. And the talent drop-off from George to Jack Trudeau, who will open at quarterback, is considerable. And. really, hasn't George paid his dues, taking all those relentless hammerings behind the worst offensive line in football?
Give it a go, Jeff. Will Wolford and ex-Viking Kirk Lowdermilk make the O-line more respectable. Top draft pick Sean Dawkins is a big, fast receiver. Second-rounder Roosevelt Potts is a 255-pound runner with a burst. Defensive end Steve Emtman and linebacker Quentin Coryatt are healthy, which should mean tougher defense. The only people you have to convince are your teammates.
The NEW YORK JETS made the kind of off-season moves a team makes when it's going for a championship, bringing in defensive tackle Leonard Marshall, 31, quarterback Boomer Esiason, 32, and 34-year-old safety Ronnie Lott. Is this team rebuilding or plugging holes, or what?
All three came with question marks. Marshall is supposed to supply the inside push that will free up right defensive end Jeff Lageman for the pass rush, but the Giants, Marshall's former team, say he has been slipping. Esiason had been benched in Cincinnati, and in the exhibition season he was able to run an offense but could not throw to the perimeters of the field. Almost all his passes were over the middle. Lott has been a great warrior for 12 years, but as a former Raider teammate says. "I don't know how many more knockouts he can take. Usually one ammonia cap will bring a guy around. With him it took two or three."
Coach Bruce Coslet turned his team over to an unproven quarterback, Browning Nagle, last year, but the receivers couldn't hold on to his rising fastballs—or much of anything else—and now Nagle has gotten a quick hook. At times the Jets seemed capable of mounting a big league ground drive, but something would always screw it up: penalties, blown assignments on the line, you name it. They're working seriously at that again, and the drive blocking in the exhibition games, particularly by much maligned left guard Dave Cadigan, has been impressive.
One terrific draft-day move brought the Jets' Pro Bowl tailback Johnny Johnson from the Cardinals for absolutely nothing, and maybe his arrival will light a fire under Blair Thomas, a streak runner with an occasional—repeat, occasional—burst.
At best the Jets will be a competent ball-control team with a good enough defense to back it up; at worst they will be a club that dies in catch-up situations.
Remember Dick MacPherson, beloved Coach Mac of the NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, who would race up and down the sideline, fist in the air, jacket flapping? Who would hug his players alter a 34-0 loss and tell the press, "They're busting their bazookas out there"? His two-year era ended, and out of NBC came Bill Parcells. The picnic was over for the Pats. "Fellas, I go by what I see," he said.
After Parcells had brought the house to order and selected quarterback Drew Bledsoe as the draft's No. 1 pick, he mentioned that the kid would be brought along slowly. Then he got a look at the other quarterbacks in game situations, and Bledsoe was named the starter, working behind an offensive line that's actually decent and running a system geared to heavy ground power.
The Patriots gave up 65 sacks last year, second most in the NFL. "I'll never see a team of mine give up 65 sacks," Parcells says. "I'd slash my wrists before we have that many." The Patriot offense led the league in penalty yardage, 93 yards ahead of the field, "I expect my team to behave," Parcells says. Idle talk? Last year the Patriots were called for illegal procedure five times on the first offensive play of the game. In the first exhibition game this summer they didn't commit a penalty until a minute was left in the first half.
Order has been restored. The wins will come later.