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Original Issue

AFC Central


Cincinnati's Ken Anderson has never posed for a panty-hose commercial or been asked to sing at the Grand Ole Opry, and newspapers continue to refer to him as "The Unknown Quarterback." The Bengals think this is pretty funny. Can the NFL's best quarterback be an unknown? Maybe on Madison Avenue and at CBS control, but in Riverfront Stadium it is hardly a secret that the publicity-shy Anderson, playing for a team that rarely runs the ball, threw only 11 of his 377 passes into the enemies' hands last season; had more completions (228) for more yards (3,169) than anyone else in the AFC; and, according to the computers, was the NFL's most efficient passer (94.1 rating points) for the second straight year. Let it also be known that Anderson is from "little Augustana College," sells real estate and devotes considerable time to charity. "It's not my personality to be a cheerleader," Anderson says. And it's not his job to call Cincinnati's plays either; the Bengals' coaching staff still shuttles them in via messenger guards.

Nevertheless, Anderson's quiet but dynamic accomplishments could force Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw to alter his usual holiday plans come Christmas. Instead of chasing Super Bowl No. 3, Bradshaw may find himself ice-skating with his new wife, professional figure skater Jo Jo Starbuck, or singing Silent Night Country & Western style in Nashville. Hardly an unknown, Bradshaw completely shed his Mr. Teen-Age America image last season when he finally asserted himself as Mr. Quarterback; the Steelers stopped answering him back in the huddle, and he stopped calling "dumb" plays. Bradshaw completed 57.7% of his passes, threw for 18 touchdowns and had only nine interceptions, all career bests. He also received All-Pro recognition for the first time.

If Dan Pastorini stops racing motorboats, making movies, playing tennis and breaking his foot, Houston may find its offense. The strong-armed Pastorini paid attention only about 47.7% of the time in 1975 when the Oilers finished 10-4, losing two games apiece to division rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. To keep Pastorini from dozing off, Coach Bum Phillips has acquired 36-year-old John Hadl from Green Bay.

What Cleveland needs is a new Otto Graham. Fast. Benched during a nine-game losing streak that began with the opening game, fidgety Mike Phipps returned to quarterback the Browns to three victories in their last five games. He completed 51.8% of his passes but his interception rate (6.1%) was too high and his average gain (5.59 yards) was the worst in the conference. Phipps hardly seems the quarterback of a contender.


One of Pittsburgh's great assets, particularly in key games, is a remarkably balanced attack. Led by Franco Harris (1,246 yards) and Rocky Bleier (528), the Steeler rushers outgained Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and the passing game by 89 yards, 2,633 to 2,544. For 1976, this offense returns almost intact. Line Coach Dan Radakovich insists he has seven first-stringers for five positions. Not one of the seven made All-Pro—or even all-AFC—but as Center Ray Mansfield gloats, "We've all got two Super Bowl rings." In addition to opening holes for the runners, they gave Bradshaw time to complete 49 passes to Superhero Swann, 28 to Harris and at least 10 apiece to seven other Steelers. Rookies Bennie Cunningham and Jack (Hydroplane) Deloplaine provide depth at tight end and running back, respectively. And Roy Gerela is a dependable placekicker; he converted 17 of 21 field-goal attempts last season and never missed from inside the 30.

Cincinnati lacked Pittsburgh's balance: The Bengals threw for 3,497 yards but rushed for only 1,819. Not coincidentally, two of their three losses were to Pittsburgh, which, says one Bengal, "always ignores our running game." Now Pittsburgh may have to pay attention.

Archie Griffin (see Newcomer) ran the ball plenty for Woody Hayes at Ohio State, and new Coach Bill (Tiger) Johnson, who succeeds Paul Brown, expects the same from Griffin in Cincinnati. If Griffin and 245-pound Boobie Clark can establish a decent ground game, Anderson's aerial attack will be even more destructive. Burner Isaac Curtis caught 44 passes for an average of 21.2 yards, and always attracts double coverage. Rookie Billy Brooks, the top draft choice who certainly would have caught far more than five passes for Oklahoma last fall had the Sooners ever bothered to throw the football, replaces the traded Charlie Joiner opposite Curtis; veterans Chip Myers (36 receptions) and Bob Trumpy (22) are available, too. Another rookie, Penn State's Chris Bahr, should make some of the field goals that Punter Dave Green (10 for 21) missed last year.

Thanks to Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, Houston usually gets strong field position on ball exchanges, but the Oilers' offense too often wastes Johnson's efforts. The 5'9", 170-pound wisp averaged 24.2 yards for 33 kickoff returns and 15.3 yards for 40 punt runbacks last year; he also caught 37 passes for 393 yards, and the average for his five touchdown gallops was 61.2 yards. "Put Billy in a phone booth with someone else," Phillips says, "and it'll be 10 minutes before the other guy touches him." Ken Bur-rough had 53 receptions for 1,063 yards, the most in the NFL, but he is Pastorini's only dependable target.

If one Pruitt can run for 1,067 yards and catch 44 passes, what will two Pruitts do? Greg, No. 34, Cleveland Browns, compiled those impressive statistics, and now he is joined by Mike, No. 43, no relation, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry in three years at Purdue. The best news around Cleveland, though, is that Paul Warfield has come home, joining Reggie Rucker (60 receptions) and Tight End Oscar Roan (41) to give the Browns a potent receiving corps.


At 218 pounds, Mean Smilin' Jack Lambert is probably too small for this position. And at 24, only two years out of Kent State, he is probably too inexperienced. But he will probably be All-Pro for the second straight season. The NFL's defensive rookie of the year in 1974, Lambert led the Steelers again in tackles and assists in 1975 and terrorized the Cowboys in the Super Bowl. Not one to rest on his laurels, Lambert spent the off-season lifting weights to gain strength.

Cincinnati's Jim LeClair answers to Back Breaker on his CB radio, and his 10-20 always is around the ball. However, despite his three interceptions and team leadership in tackles a year ago, LeClair still is not a Bill Bergey, whom Paul Brown sent to Philadelphia before the 1975 season. Mac and Meg—Steve Kiner and Gregg Bingham—handle the middle in Houston's 3-4 defense. Bingham, incidentally, used to keep a pet baby shark. Cleveland's answer to M&M is Bam Bam—Dick Ambrose, a 12th-round draft choice who replaced the injured Bob Babich in last year's fifth game but didn't play like any Mean Smilin' Dick.


Andy Russell contemplated retirement, but thoughts of a third straight Super Bowl convinced the 34-year-old outside linebacker that he had at least one more year in him. So, Pittsburgh's defense, like the offense, returns practically intact. Eight defensive Steelers, including all three linebackers—Russell, Lambert and the omnipresent Jack Ham—and the Associated Press' NFL defensive player of the year, Cornerback Mel Blount (11 interceptions), made the Pro Bowl after Pittsburgh yielded an AFC-low 162 points in 1975. If anything, the Steeler defense will be improved now that Mean Joe Greene, gentled much of last season with a pinched nerve in his shoulder, seems to have regained his ferocious form. Reclaiming his starting job from Steve Furness is Greene's new worry.

While Russell is the only Pittsburgh defensive regular past 30, Cincinnati will start several graybeards. Coy Bacon, 33, was acquired from San Diego to bolster a sagging line that had only 27 quarterback sacks and permitted 4.6 yards per rush, a division high. Yet the Bengals shuffled their most formidable pass rusher, Sherman White, off to Buffalo. Few teams run well against Houston's front three of Curley Culp (see Key Player), Elvin Bethea and Bubba Smith's little brother Tody (6'5", 250 pounds). Robert Brazile, the NFL's top rookie defender in 1975, is supposed to play strong-side linebacker but tends to appear everywhere, and the additions of Ken Ellis from Green Bay and Mike Weger from Detroit strengthen the secondary. In Cleveland, Tackle Jerry Sherk suffers from underwork; he was voted the "Bulldog Award" as the NFL's best defensive lineman by the offensive linemen, and now nobody ever runs at him. Gerald Irons, the former Raider, toughens the linebacker corps, and Thorn Darden, who missed the 1975 schedule after knee surgery, improves a weak Cleveland secondary that had an NFL low of only 10 interceptions last season.


Pittsburgh's toughest game may be in a courtroom. Defensive Tackle Ernie (Fats) Holmes was arrested last February in Amarillo, Texas for possession of 250 milligrams of cocaine; his case is on the docket for Oct. 4, but the trial will be delayed until after the season because, among other reasons, Holmes' chief character witnesses, his Steeler teammates, will be occupied until the 9th of January. Or so they hope.

Bum Phillips ran the NFL's most relaxed training camp in Houston. Workouts were conducted in light pads and never lasted longer than 90 minutes. Bed-check was a joke. The players loved it, naturally, but Houston's lackluster preseason may be ominous: there is a difference between "lax" and "relax." The big question in Cincinnati is: Will Bill Johnson coach like Bill Johnson—or Paul Brown?

As the Steelers well know, no team has ever won three straight Super Bowls. If Cincinnati locates a running game, don't bet your lottery card on Pittsburgh. But bet that Houston will finish a long way from 1975's 10-4. Like 7-7.




When the Houston Oilers acquired Curley Culp from Kansas City in '74, they had their usual 1-5 record. Since Culp's arrival, Houston has won 16 games and lost only six. At 6'1" and 265 pounds. Culp plays the punishing nose position in the middle of Houston's three-man line. He is always blocked by at least two linemen but despite this unfriendly attention, he led the Oilers with 11½ sacks last season. Culp sat out most of Houston's preseason schedule because of a bruised tailbone. Without their leader, the Oilers had an 0-6 record. So if the Oilers hope to make the playoffs, Culp had better get his tail back in there.


Archie Griffin does not stand out in a crowd. In fact, the 5'7½" Griffin is often hidden by the kids besieging him for autographs. But Cincinnati has big plans for the little man; the Bengals expect Griffin to fill one of the running back positions where 10 different players started last season. Griffin, of course, is the only man ever to win the Heisman Trophy twice. He ran with discipline at Ohio State, employing his good instincts and taking what blockers gave him—and a little extra. What the Bengals would like from Griffin are about 10 of the 34 100-yard games he had for Woody Hayes. Despite his impressive credentials, Griffin was only the 24th pick of the first round of the draft. The Bengals even selected Wide Receiver Billy Brooks before Griffin. So the question remains: Is Archie Griffin big enough for the pros? If he isn't, Cincinnati still does not have a running game.