After watching their quarterback sack total sink from 49 in 1979 to an NFL low of 18 last year, the PITTSBURGH Steelers made Keith Gary, a quick and active defensive end from Oklahoma, their first pick in the draft. They brought him to their mini-camp. They measured his vertical jump. It totaled 500 miles—all the way to Montreal. They took a big bite on the bullet and decided that maybe their 1980 pass rush had been on the injured reserve list: rookies John Goodman and Bob Kohrs. If Goodman and Kohrs remain healthy, the Steelers may not miss Gary after all.
Oh, they had other problems last year, too. Injuries, for one. Chuck Noll never had been hit by such a bunch of them. Wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and offensive linemen Steve Courson, Jon Kolb and Sam Davis all were laid up at various times. So the world never saw the 1980 Steeler offense.
When the offense was crippled in the old days, that mighty Steeler defense would rise up like a monster and cover for the offense. Not so last year. The Steelers gave up the most points they have allowed in 11 years—313.
Opposing passers had time to pick and choose. Cracks started to appear, weaknesses were exploited. Jack Ham, coming back from a foot injury, was half a step slower. There was a lack of speed in the secondary. But there's a deeper problem at work here. It deals with the nature of dynasties. There comes a time when you have to say goodby to people, those proud, magnificent athletes who gave you all those championships. Chuck Noll couldn't. The fact that he couldn't is to his credit as a human being, but sentimentality doesn't cut it in the steely-eyed world of the NFL. Can Noll do it now? Can he look a Joe Greene in the eye and tell him, "Sorry, but I've got somebody who's quicker and better?" Can he tell a Jon Kolb that his body has just taken too much of a beating through the years?
The 1981 Steeler press guide has an interesting line: "Only 17 players remain from the first Super Bowl team." Only 17? Hey, that's a lot over an eight-year span. Do you know how many Vikings are left from the team that played the Steelers in that Supe IX? Five. And Bud Grant's a guy who likes to go with vets.
While the Steelers were aging, the draft failed to produce any real stars for them. Starters, yes, but since their great draft of '74, when Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert, Center Mike Webster and receivers Swann and Stallworth were picked, the Steelers haven't drafted a single Pro Bowl player.
Despite all this gloom, Pittsburgh will be a formidable force in '81 if Swann and Stallworth and Courson return to full-time duty, and if young Greg Hawthorne blossoms into a big league back and takes the pressure off Franco Harris. Even with Quarterback Terry Bradshaw toying with an acting career, the Pittsburgh offense should be potent enough to outscore people.
Cleveland Browns Coach Sam Rutigliano did a very un-Samlike thing this exhibition season. He went for the win each time out. He kept his varsity in longer than the other teams did. Why? "After last year, I felt we had to get out of the gate faster this time," he says.
It figures. The murderous part of Cleveland's schedule is bunched into the first six games—four 1980 playoff teams plus Pittsburgh on the road. The Browns are no longer those lovable Kardiac Kids from Lake Erie. They're a defending division champ, a foe, and their iffy pass defense (worst in the NFL in yardage allowed in 1980) will be tested right away. Last year the Browns found out that all that Kardiac stuff has a flip side, too. Pittsburgh beat them in the last 11 seconds. The Vikings beat them at the whistle. In the playoffs Oakland drove 80 yards on them for the go-ahead touchdown in the final quarter. Rutigliano wouldn't mind a few good old-fashioned breathers every now and then.
Defense is a very sore point around Cleveland. "Why do they keep saying all those things about our defense? Why?" says Lyle Alzado, the right end. "Don't they see how hard we're trying out there?" That's just the problem. Lord knows, they try. They're overachievers. Alzado's two line-mates, Marshall Harris and Henry Bradley, are 112.5-per-centers. The linebackers are solid enough. The secondary will wallop you if it can catch you. But speed, you gotta have speed. No. 1 draft pick Hanford Dixon, a cornerback, does a 4.45 40, and he'll be in there somewhere. Clinton Burrell, sixth round in '79 and a cornerback by trade, is now the free safety, replacing Thorn Darden. More speed. Then there's Eddie Johnson, a 6'1", 210-pound rookie linebacker. A shrimp, but man does he get around. "Rejected! Too small!" the computers said of Johnson, failing to notice that Atlanta had success with a set of Munchkins last year. Anyway, the Browns took a chance and drafted Fast Eddie in the seventh round, and he wowed 'em all preseason. He'll be in there somewhere before long. Don Goode, imported from San Diego by Draft Supervisor Tommy Prothro, has replaced umpteen-year veteran Charlie Hall at left linebacker.
Brian Sipe is a terrific come-from-behind quarterback, but so is any guy who's working against the Browns' defense. And that's what's so scary—and so thrilling—about Cleveland.
Homer points out in the Iliad that Achilles ended his retirement and came back to camp only after his buddy, Patroclus, went on permanent injured reserve. With the HOUSTON Oilers, it took only a three-week shoulder injury to Quarterback Gifford Nielsen to convince Kenny Stabler that the club needed him more than Lefty's in Gulf Shores, Ala., did. So Kenny came back to run a team that will show some unfamiliar faces in the huddle, plus a new offensive concept, under the direction of offensive coordinator Jim Shofner.
Gone from Stabler's line are Bob Young and Conway Hayman, both out with bad backs. Box Office Billy Johnson is catching passes and returning kicks in Canada. But Tackle Leon Gray looks fully recovered from a torn Achilles tendon. And Earl Campbell shouldn't look as tired. Coach Ed Biles has decided to use both Rob Carpenter and Ronnie Coleman at the other backfield position, replacing Earl's personal escort, Tim Wilson. This should mean fewer yards for the Tyler Rose but a more balanced offense. The two-tight-end alignment also has been shelved. Dave Casper is the man, and Mike Barber is trade bait for any team that has tight end problems, i.e., Jets, 49ers, Patriots, etc.
Defense is what has put the Oilers in the playoffs for the last three years (plus Campbell, of course). Last year the Oilers allowed the fewest points in the AFC, second-fewest in all of pro football. The team shows a little age in spots, but there's enough young talent around to keep the operation stable.
Put them in another division and the CINCINNATI Bengals would be a force to be reckoned with, a young team on the rise, one loaded with high draft choices, and with a tough coach, Forrest Gregg, to keep them in line. But the Bengals have been awarded the NFL's toughest schedule, a suicide array that ends up with Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Atlanta on the road in three of their last four games. To combat this onslaught, the Bengals have come up with a secret weapon—new uniforms. Tiger stripes on the helmets, ditto around the shoulders of the jerseys. Looks nice on a sunny day.
The Bengals' problem last year was the scoreboard. They had the fewest touchdowns in the NFL, 28, and, to offset that, the second-worst field-goal percentage, 51.7. But they were a nasty team when aroused, as the Steelers found out on two occasions. When they got the old fires stoked up, they could play with anybody, but they also could take the pipe when the mood seized them. Ken Anderson, one of the NFL's most underrated quarterbacks through the years, was so banged up last season (knee, sternum, ankle) that the club felt perhaps it was time to hand the reins to young Jack Thompson, the team's top pick in '79. At 32, Anderson was ready to pack it in, but he showed so well in preseason that the project was junked.
The Bengals are trying to build an offense for Anderson, but it's going slowly. They've drafted for offense for the last three years, and last year's No. 1, Tackle Anthony Munoz, was the best rookie lineman in the NFL. When Wide Receiver Don Bass went down with a knee, they knew they'd better find a pass catcher to go with Isaac Curtis, so they went wide receiver on their first two '81 picks: Kansas' David Verser and Florida's Chris Collinsworth. Good thing, too, because now Curtis is out with a fractured cheekbone. Gregg says he's "impressed with Verser's blocking," which means he has trouble catching the ball. The Bengals have a rather outdated offense that tries to beat you up on the ground. The big news is that Fullback Pete Johnson reported to camp at 247, down from his usual 265 or so. "I got tired hearing about overweight, so I decided to trim down," he says. Funny, that doesn't work for all of us.
Sipe keys the Kardiac Komebacks for Kleveland.
Campbell will carry less of the load in Houston.