afc central

September 05, 1993

Houston Oiler owner Bud Adams says, "We've got to do it this year. Next season it'll be a whole new ball game." Translation: Adams is shooting the works at a Super Bowl shot. The 1994 salary cap, however, could scramble everything, the Oilers included.

More from Adams: "I've learned that you can't have all nice guys. You've got to mix in some renegades and reprobates. Leaders are what I want."

So he hired as his defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Run the defense any way you want, Adams told him. Leave lack Pardee to me. He's the head coach, but so what?

Jittery over organizational power struggles, mortified by the way they blew a 35-3 lead to Buffalo in a conference wild-card game, not to mention four other fourth-quarter leads last year, the Oilers are getting ready for a wild year.

Ryan said the defense would be Super Bowl quality if he could get his old Bear linebacker, Wilber Marshall, from the Redskins. The deal was made, and Marshall will be flying to the ball from the weak side, as he did in Chicago. He'll lead a typical Ryan mayhem defense. No more of the soft zones that allowed Buffalo to come back against the Oilers and cost coordinator Jim Eddy his job.

The Oilers will present a different mix from what we've become used to. Dominating defenses usually are paired with muscle offenses. It has something to do with toughness on the practice field. But the Oilers are committed to the run-and-shoot whether Ryan likes it or not.

The book says the run-and-shoot gets better as people become more familiar with it, and by now Warren Moon can run it in his sleep. But he's 36 years old and has taken his share of hits. One very unfair rap on Moon is that he choked against Buffalo. Hey, in the fourth quarter, after the Bills staged their comeback stampede and the Rich Stadium crowd was going wild, Moon twice drove the Oilers the length of the Held to send the game into overtime. A receiver made a wrong cut, Ernest Givins got mugged on his pattern, Moon had a pass intercepted, and, as a result, the quarterback had to take eight months of heat. Well, I like a high-scoring offense backed up by a Ryan defense. I like the Oilers for the Super Bowl.

Question No. 1: When you draft as low as the PITTSBURGH STEELKRS did (23rd), how do you wind up with so many good rookies? I mean defensive backs Deon Figures and Willie Williams, who are all over the field; a pair of active inside linebackers, Reggie Barnes and Chad Brown, defensive ends Ricky Sutton and Kevin Henry; and nose-tackle Jeff Zgonina, who bears a strong resemblance to a young Tim Krumrie.

Question No. 2: When you've got a good defense in place, why is all the help coming on that side of the ball? Don't forget that the Steelers wasted no time in making up for the loss of linebacker Jerrol Williams by grabbing the Rams' pass-rush specialist, Kevin Greene. Maybe the answer is that Steeler coach Bill Cowher is an old linebacker, and there's nothing that pleases him more than watching all those black shirts piling up at the point of attack.

While the defenders rest, Barry Foster and the crunching ground attack will move the sticks. Heavy perimeter blocking behind tight ends Eric Green and Adrian Cooper and fullback Merril Hoge is the key in that department.

It's not a bad way to travel. It gave Bill Parcells two Super Bowl wins with the Giants. But as primitive as the Giant passing game seemed, it was ahead of the Steelers', and that's what might keep Pittsburgh from going all the way.

The wideouts are an anonymous bunch. Quarterback Neil O'Donnell is a capable leader but a streaky thrower, and he has come down with tendinitis in his right elbow that could keep him out of the opener, maybe longer. The club might be half a dozen TD passes away from the big show, but that could be coming in the future. The Steelers had the lowest payroll in the NFL last season, which puts them in great position for '94, the first salary cap year, when other teams will start cutting costs—and veterans. Pittsburgh has shown a willingness to spend money too, shelling out more than $20 million to bring Greene in and redo the contracts of O'Donnell and their fine right linebacker, Greg Lloyd. Put this team down as a future.

Bet you can't name the last full-time CLEVELAND BROWNS quarterback before Bernie Kosar. It was Paul McDonald, nine years ago. Seems like Bernie has been there forever. And he's only 29, with a 40-year-old body. Last year he felt the surgeon's knife for the first time—on his broken right ankle, which now carries a plate and two screws. He's a heroic guy. Remember last season when he played the whole second half against Miami on the broken ankle and brought the Browns back from 20-3 to go up 23-20 in the fourth quarter? He's also not a complainer. but even he must be wondering what the Brown offense is doing.

No Cleveland runner has gained 100 yards in a game in five years. What exactly happened to Touchdown Tommy Vardell last year? Is Eric Metcalf ever going to have a break-loose season? Who are the wideouts? Will there ever be a season when the offensive line isn't rebuilding? And finally, why doesn't head coach Bill Belichick, a fine defensive coach under Bill Parcells, hire himself an offensive coordinator?

Can't answer them all, folks, but Mark Carrier from Tampa Bay is the new featured receiver, and ex-Falcon Houston Hoover and No. 1 draft Steve Everitt step into the O-line.

Defense is a happier area, anchored by underrated middle linebacker Mike Johnson, but I don't see defensive tackle Jerry Ball's Rush and Crush Brothers prediction—Ball crushes the run, Michael Dean Perry rushes the passer—working. Ball came from the Lions weighing 345 pounds, and many feel his best years are behind him. Perry, one of the game's best inside rushers when he's right, left camp for two days after a flare-up with Belichick, and he has been bothered by a sore right knee. The secondary is only so-so. Ditto the Browns.

I saw the CINCINNATI BENGALS in the flesh only once last year, in San Diego in a very tough situation. The Bengal defense was crippled, and people were playing out of position, and the Chargers were getting ready to crush Cincinnati with that brutal ground game that preys on the weak. But the Bengals made a game of it. The score was tied deep into the third quarter when the Bengals were finally overrun.

I was interested in seeing how their young coach, David Shula, would handle the postgame interviews. He was cool and honest and very straightforward. So were his players. Yes, I was one of the guys who smirked about Shula's appointment last season. But now I'm thinking that the Bengals might have found something special here, and things eventually will be on track.

Not yet, though. Quarterback David Klingler is still learning the trade. The offense is most effective with Harold Green running behind a fairly decent line. A Ron Lynn defense will always get its share of sacks, because he'll keep blitzing as many rushers as necessary, the most formidable of whom is outside 'backer Alfred Williams. The Bengals will play hard for young David, and that's a start.

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PHOTOJOHN BIEVERLee Williams will have a hand in Ryan's mayhem defense. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERFoster is the main man in Pittsburgh's crunching offense.

prediction

HOUSTON

12-4

PITTSBURGH

12-4

CLEVELAND

6-10

CINCINNATI

5-11

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)