In January, the last time we looked in on the Pittsburgh Steelers, they were missing only two things in their quest for the AFC championship: a deep receiving threat with good hands and consistency on special teams. They have since filled both voids, which means that the Steelers ought to not only win this division but also challenge the Raiders, the Bills and the Dolphins for conference supremacy.
The talk at Steeler camp this summer was all about first-round draft choice Charles Johnson, a wideout from Colorado with remarkable pass-catching ability. Indeed, during one afternoon workout Johnson was a human highlight film. He reached past one cornerback for a one-handed stab of a Neil O'Donnell bomb; dived across the middle to snag a low pass from Mike Tomczak; and outsprinted another corner and ran under a long throw from O'Donnell.
Johnson has the grace and fearlessness that could make him another Michael Irvin or Sterling Sharpe. "I think I can get deep on NFL defensive backs," Johnson says, "and I love going across the middle. It excites me. And I love to block. I don't know why, but for some reason I love it." In April the Steelers traded drop-prone wideout Jeff Graham to the Chicago Bears, so the starting job is Johnson's to lose.
As for special teams, there should be immediate improvement under new assistant coach Bobby April, whose Atlanta Falcon units were among the league's best. Pittsburgh allowed 13.6 yards per punt return last year, the worst average in the league, and the 21.6 yards they surrendered on the average kickoff return was fourth from the bottom.
An excitable sort, April is also known as a good teacher—and he has his work cut out for him. "Damn special teams!" is what one Steeler screamed as he walked off the field last October after a 28-23 loss in which the Cleveland Browns' Eric Metcalf scored two touchdowns on punt returns. And Pittsburgh's season ended with an overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC wild-card game; the Chiefs had blocked a punt to set up the tying touchdown in regulation.
It first appeared that April would not be working with Gary Anderson, the NFL's 12th-leading scorer of all time, who had turned down a contract that would have doubled his salary (to $812,500 per season). That might have been a blessing for Pittsburgh when David Treadwell, a comparable kicker in terms of distance and accuracy, became available. But last week Anderson came to his senses, and he is close to coming to terms with Pittsburgh.
Except for a lengthy holdout by tight end Eric Green, a franchise player, all went according to form this summer for Pittsburgh. Running back Barry Foster was healthy again after December ankle surgery, and he is ready to be a 300-carry guy. O'Donnell should continue his gradual climb to NFL prominence. And the defense—with bookend pass rushers Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene still in their prime, and cornerback Rod Woodson leading a bruising secondary—returns nearly intact.
"I know we looked like Jekyll and Hyde at times last year," says center Dermontti Dawson. "But the one lesson we took out of last season is that we can play with anyone. We shut out Buffalo during the regular season, and I think we physically dominated Kansas City in the playoffs, though we lost. Those are the teams that met for the conference championship. That gives us faith in ourselves."
No other team in NFL history has had a run like the 1993 Houston Oilers had, then—free agency or no free agency—followed it with so much turnover in personnel in the off-season. The Oilers won 11 straight before losing to Kansas City in the playoffs, thanks largely to a brilliant performance by Joe Montana. Then, by summer, Houston had the guts of its team ripped out. Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan took his right cross and his 46 scheme to the Arizona Cardinals and took Wilber Marshall, a key part of last year's Oiler defense, with him. Also departing were defensive ends Sean Jones and William Fuller and their combined 23 sacks.
When Houston owner Bud Adams waffled for weeks about whether to keep Cody Carlson or Warren Moon at quarterback, he lost a chance to make a good trade involving Moon. The Oilers wound up dealing the future Hall of Famer to the Minnesota Vikings for a mere fourth-round pick in '94 and a third-rounder next year. Also, nine-time Pro Bowl guard Mike Munchak retired, and free agency and/or the salary cap claimed the NFL's leading punter, Greg Montgomery, plus wideout Curtis Duncan (322 catches in seven seasons) and former star running back Lorenzo White. Whew!
With defensive end Lee Williams, cornerback Darryll Lewis, free safety Marcus Robertson, wideout Webster Slaughter and guard John Flannery all trying to come back from injuries, it's impossible to know whether the team that shows up for this Sunday's opener in Indianapolis is a playoff team, a .500 team or a team that will challenge the Bengals for last place.
Although the coaching staff wanted to keep Moon, Carlson is hardly a liability. Pitching in relief of Moon in the '90s, Carlson completed 64% of his passes. He also has the benefit of Ernest Givins and Haywood Jeffires as targets in a modified run-and-shoot, and a physical tight end in Pat Cartel, who should spare Carlson some of the killer shots Houston quarterbacks have taken in the past. But second-year left tackle Brad Hopkins has to improve. "I think you'd call him intellectually smart—not smart in football," says offensive line coach Bob Young. "He's got to learn the game. And there's another thing. He's weak."
Former Ryan protègè Jeff Fisher takes over a defense that had 52 sacks and held opponents to 51.9% passing, both marks the best in the league. That won't happen again. Fisher's first big project is getting top draft choices Henry Ford—so far, a disappointment—and Jeremy Nunley to produce at defensive end so that tackles Ray Childress and Glenn Montgomery don't get smothered inside.
At some point you've got to wonder about the recent personnel decisions made by the Cleveland Browns. They blew high draft picks on linebacker duds Mike Junkin and Clifford Charlton in 1987 and '88. The next year they traded four picks to draft Eric Metcalf as their all-purpose offensive weapon, and he has averaged a paltry seven carries, 3.5 catches and three returns per game in five years. They bring in Hall of Famer Jim Brown as a consultant before the '92 draft, and Brown and coach Bill Belichick agree that Stanford back Tommy Vardell is their man; Touchdown Tommy has rushed for three TDs and 3.8 yards per carry in two seasons. Last year, in the midst of his third straight losing season, Belichick was given a contract extension through '97. Also last year, with the team tied for the lead in the AFC Central with a 5-3 record, the Browns cut loose quarterback Bernie Kosar when his only proven backup, Vinny Testaverde, was out with a shoulder separation; the Browns went 2-6 thereafter.
A disappointment from the day he stepped onto an NFL field, Testaverde is still capable of throwing a couple of fourth-quarter interceptions to lose a game one week (as he did last year in game 14 against the New England Patriots) and then coming back the next week to set an NFL record for single-game completion percentage (.913, on 21-for-23 passing against the Los Angeles Rams). Wisely, Cleveland has acquired Mark Rypien, the MVP of Super Bowl XXVI, as Testaverde's backup. The Browns insist that Testaverde is No. 1, but that could change if the team is no better than .500 at midseason.
For Cleveland to do anything more than tread water, Metcalf has to touch the ball 20 times a game, which the Browns say will happen, and Vardell has to be more productive.
Defensively the Browns must get big plays from linebacker Carl Banks, who will play over the tight end as he did under Belichick in their years together with the New York Giants, and from rookie cornerback Antonio Langham. And while it's easy to knock Cleveland for the likes of Junkin and Charlton, it must get credit for drafting the two best unheralded defensive ends in the NFL, 1990 middle-round finds Anthony Pleasant and Rob Burnett, who combined for 20 sacks last year.
This will be a nice developmental year for the Cincinnati Bengals, nothing more. Top '94 draft choice Dan Wilkinson has the quickness and strength to be a Cortez Kennedy-type bull rusher at defensive tackle. He might be the spark that ignites struggling front-seven talents John Copeland, an end, and linebackers Alfred Williams and James Francis, who combined for all of nine sacks last year.
It's up to quarterback coach Ken Anderson and offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet to make a player out of quarterback David Klingler, who is 4-13 as an NFL starter and sat nervously by as the Bengal brain trust thoroughly investigated taking Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler in the draft. But Klingler still deserves a long look: After all, the guy has been sacked 58 times in 18 games.
None of Cincinnati's free-agent signees is a premier player, but Eric Moore and Darrick Brilz, who have both spent time at guard and at tackle, will shore up what was a horribly deficient wall for Klingler, and defensive tackle Keith Rucker was a lucky find who, despite his solid ability, was dumped by Arizona for being too fat. Safety Louis Oliver has been slowed by a foot injury, though he should be ready for the opener. No matter. The two most important items on the Bengal agenda are getting Klingler headed in the right direction and priming Wilkinson for a long and prosperous pro career.