AFC CENTRAL

September 01, 1996

If you're wondering how the Pittsburgh Steelers can come within
an eyelash of a Super Bowl victory and then let the quarterback
who led them there slip away as a free agent, you have to
understand the mentality of this club. The huge payout has never
been the Steelers' style. Instead of matching the $25 million
package Neil O'Donnell got from the New York Jets, Pittsburgh
chose to use a big part of that sum to extend the contracts of
three other veterans: Pro Bowl outside linebacker Greg Lloyd;
third-year quarterback Jim Miller, who replaces O'Donnell; and
offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk, a valuable player who has
proved he can play both guard and tackle.

The Steelers billed the preseason as a quarterback shoot-out
between Miller, second-year man Kordell (Slash) Stewart and
12-year vet Mike Tomczak, but I think the coaches figured all
along that Miller was their man. Why else would management have
given him a three-year, $6.55 million extension in June? He's
big--6'2", 210 pounds--and mobile. He stands tall in the pocket
and looks like a classic NFL passer. A sixth-round pick in 1994,
he has thrown all of 56 career passes in the NFL and his
preseason was nothing to get excited about, but he's 25 and he
represents the future. Perhaps someday Stewart, who has the best
arm of the three, will overtake him, but for now Pittsburgh's
'96 run at the Super Bowl is in Miller's hands. The Steelers
will probably take some hits early, but don't forget that coach
Bill Cowher's teams have traditionally been slow starters.

In the four years of unfettered free agency the Steelers have
rarely splurged, bringing in only two players whose contracts
averaged more than a million a year. In 1993 it was rush
linebacker Kevin Greene, who became a free agent again after
last season and was snapped up by the Carolina Panthers.
Although he gave Pittsburgh three good seasons, Greene is 34,
and the Steelers believe they have a fine replacement in
24-year-old Jason Gildon. The other pickup, offensive lineman
Will Wolford, was strictly a need signing this off-season, and
switching him from tackle to guard should reap big rewards.

I don't question Steelers moves anymore. Losing linebacker Hardy
Nickerson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the '93 season was
a mistake, but they've been right too often. I hollered along
with everyone else when they traded running back Barry Foster
and tight end Adrian Cooper, the league's best blocker at his
position, and didn't re-sign tight end Eric Green. But
Pittsburgh didn't suffer from those moves. And you certainly
have to like the trade in April for St. Louis Rams running back
Jerome Bettis, who should ride the Steelers offensive line right
into the Pro Bowl.

The defense is Pittsburgh's springboard to success, and it's a
unit with a lot of heart. Cornerback Rod Woodson came back from
a torn knee ligament in the season opener last year to play in
the Super Bowl. Carnell Lake seemingly sacrificed a Pro Bowl
shot by switching over to Woodson's spot from strong safety. He
made it anyway but will be back at his old spot this year. I
like the Steelers to win the division, but I see them getting
upset in the playoffs.

Who will be the All-Pro quarterback in 1996? How about Jeff
Blake of the Cincinnati Bengals? I watched Blake complete his
first nine passes in a preseason game against the Arizona
Cardinals, and it wasn't what he did but how he did it that
caught my eye. He has always been able to throw deep, but now it
seems that he has tightened up his delivery. He throws that
quick-dart type of pass when he has to, and his reads are on the
money. "He really worked on his completion percentage," coach
Dave Shula says, "because we know the big plays will come."

Last year Blake made the Pro Bowl with, in effect, only two wide
receivers, Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott, and with a running
game that ranked 24th in the league. The Bengals' rushing
fortunes could change with a healthy Ki-Jana Carter, the first
pick in the 1995 draft, who is back from reconstructive surgery
on his left knee that sidelined him for his rookie season.
Carter's success will be dependent on the play of the offensive
line, which could also be the difference between a 10-6 season
and a 6-10.

Three starting linemen have been hurt, the most seriously
injured being left guard Kevin Sargent, who is out for the year
with a herniated disk. But if three rookies--Willie Anderson,
Ken Blackman and Rod Jones--can quickly find their way, the
pressure will ease. Anderson, a first-round pick, was a holdout
until early August, reported overweight and thereafter showed
that he still has a lot to learn about playing tackle in the
NFL. Blackman, a third-round selection, showed a real mean
streak in camp. Jones, who lasted until the seventh round
because of questions about his knees, was the most impressive
rookie in camp.

Three free-agent defensive backs were brought in to bolster a
unit that gave up the fifth-most passing yards in NFL history.
The most promising is former Indianapolis Colts cornerback
Ashley Ambrose. Of course, a good pass rush can mask
shortcomings in any secondary, and new defensive line coach Tim
Krumrie, a former Bengals nosetackle, has his people exerting
some real force, particularly 313-pound tackle Dan Wilkinson,
the No. 1 draft choice in 1994, who has been a disappointment.

Shula, in the last year of his contract, is running a team with
a lot of "if" bets. I get the feeling they'll pay off.

Many years ago I covered a high school championship football
game in Brooklyn. Bad blood existed between the schools, and
there was the threat of a riot. So officials decided that the
game would be played in an empty stadium. It was weird. It was
like watching a football game played on the ocean floor.
Players' shouts from the field echoed through the deserted
stands. Coaches' calls sounded like stage directions at a
rehearsal.

I wonder if that's what it will be like this season for the
lame-duck Houston Oilers, performing in an almost vacant
Astrodome as they wait for Nashville to get its stadium built in
time for the 1998 season. Average home attendance was at a
21-year low in 1995. The two home exhibition games this year
drew fewer than 13,000 each, and the Oilers had sold only about
13,500 season tickets by the end of last week. Maybe Houston
could get real creative in the promotions department and invite
the fans onto the field to meet the players before each game.

Nevertheless, you've got to like the job coach Jeff Fisher has
done as he begins his second full season in charge. In
particular, you've got to like the rising offensive stars. Chris
Sanders was the only NFL receiver to average more than 20 yards
a catch last year; his number was a stunning 23.5 yards on 35
receptions. Quarterback Steve McNair made only two starts as a
rookie in 1995, but it's apparent he has the goods. He's the
franchise's quarterback of the future, and he has been handled
just right, watching and learning until he can step in for Chris
Chandler, which he may do sometime this season. Top draft pick
Eddie George smacks into the line with ferocity, and no one
catches him from behind. Defense is Fisher's baby, and last year
it ranked fifth in the league.

How does a coach prepare his team to play in a near-empty
stadium? How will this affect Houston's record? Well, the Oilers
played before tiny crowds in the early AFL days, and they won it
all in 1960 and '61.

Fans are not a problem for the second-year Jacksonville Jaguars.
Keeping their offensive line well fed is another thing. In two
preseason games the Jaguars fielded an offensive front five that
averaged 6'6", 314 pounds. It's not clear that all this tonnage
will translate into success on the field, but it's certain that
the Jaguars will leave a trail of worn-out defenders around the
league. These big guys are good, too, particularly the
tackles--Leon Searcy, the former Steeler, and second-year player
Tony Boselli. With 240-pound running back Natrone Means slamming
in behind them, Jacksonville seems intent on turning the AFC
Central into a black-and-blue division.

In an effort to improve on last year's 4-12 record, the Jaguars
have been going after anybody they think can help them,
including a couple of supposed problem children who were
released in the off-season: Means, a former San Diego Charger,
and former Cleveland Browns wideout Andre Rison.

Wideout Keenan McCardell, Rison's underrated running mate in
Cleveland, is another welcome addition. So is former Oilers
linebacker Eddie Robinson, who excels in coverage. Top draft
pick Kevin Hardy has stepped in at strongside linebacker. Youth
permeates the Jags, from freewheeling 25-year-old quarterback
Mark Brunell on down. Jacksonville is a team that's building,
and the offensive line is the concrete.

The Baltimore Ravens are building in more ways than one. Owner
Art Modell, of course, has moved the former Cleveland Browns to
Baltimore and renamed them the Ravens, and in two years they
will play in a new $200 million stadium under a 30-year,
rent-free lease.

The Ravens have a solid new coach in Ted Marchibroda, who in his
first stint in Baltimore took a Colts team that was 2-12 the
year before he arrived and steered it to three straight AFC East
titles, in 1975, '76 and '77. The Ravens have an unfairly
maligned quarterback in Vinny Testaverde, who got booed out of
Tampa Bay, was alternately cheered and booed in Cleveland, but
should hear only cheers from the nearly 60,000 season-ticket
holders in Baltimore, who no doubt will cheer anything that's
connected with the Ravens.

Top draft choice Jonathan Ogden, all 6'8", 318 pounds of him,
was projected as the top tackle on the board, but--
surprise--he's the starting left guard, making him probably the
tallest man to play that position in NFL history. That's good
for pass blocking, not so good for Testaverde's sight lines. Yet
to be determined is how Ogden will do against a steady diet of
bull rushers. Ray Lewis, the other first-round draft choice, is
an active middle linebacker, but at 6'1", 235 pounds, he could
wear down during the year. The strength of the Ravens is their
defensive front four. Their weakness is a general lack of talent.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Because of players like the versatile Lake, the Steelers will win again with their defense. [Carnell Lake] COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL Cincy's air game won't be slim, in part because of Pickens, who had 99 catches in '95. [Carl Pickens]

Prediction

Steelers
12-4

Bengals
10-6

Oilers
8-8

Jaguars
6-10

Ravens
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)