At the first CINCINNATI BENGALS' press conference after Sam Wyche was named to succeed Forrest Gregg as head coach, Paul Brown announced that Wyche would have a free hand in choosing his assistants. Then Brown named three holdovers for him. The football world giggled. Some free hand.
Wyche, who was Bill Walsh's first lieutenant when the 49er offense was taking the league by storm, says no problem. He would have kept them anyway. He says everything is peaceful within the organization, which is what a working man is supposed to say. But is it really? The offense lost a dimension last year when Brown fired the coordinator, Lindy Infante, who had accepted a future USFL job, and that was probably the biggest thing that drove Gregg to Green Bay—plus, of course, the fact that five Bengal vets were headed for the USFL. Offensive thinking won't be a problem, though. Wyche will take charge of that himself. The departed vets? Well, the Browns, Paul and assistant G.M. Mike, won't get into a dollar war with the USFL. That's life. There's still enough holdover talent from the '82 Super Bowl team to keep the Bengals healthy.
Too many people, including yours truly, have made a big thing of the Bengals' stinginess. Their top draft choice, Ricky Hunley, projected as a starting inside linebacker, was a holdout, but their two other No. 1s—defensive tackle Pete Koch and 300-pound guard Brian Blados—were signed. Quarterback Boomer Esiason got the richest contract for a second-round pick in history (a reported $2,375 million for five years).
In his first preseason game, against the Jets, Boomer looked like the steal of the draft—9 for 10 and two TDs, good movement, good head. He was upset about not going in the first round, but cheer up, Boomer, you're in the best situation a young quarterback can be in. You're playing for a coach who's an ex-QB; you've got a great vet to learn from, Kenny Anderson; the Bengals have a fine offensive line; and you're getting plenty of dough. What could be better?
The big off-season trade with San Diego swapped two runners who were unhappy with their clubs, Pete Johnson and James Brooks. As Jerry Magee of the San Diego Union said, "The Chargers traded a little griper for a big griper. They'd rather have the big one." The Bengals feel otherwise. Brooks gives them more flash and dash. The offense isn't so locked in. The defense? Well, it led the NFL last year.
He's No. 19 for the PITTSBURGH STEELERS. He's bright-eyed and eager to learn. He's got the arm and he's got the legs and he was the youngest quarterback ever to start in the Super Bowl. David Woodley is a fifth-year pro, and he's only 25 years old. Only 25? Must be a misprint. Check it again.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Don Shula gave up on him in Miami, and Shoes knows his QBs. O.K., you say, Dan Marino burst onto the Dolphins' scene like a flaming rocket, and there's room for only one young quarterback star on a sensible ball club. Well, that's the way the Steelers figure it, because if they ever intend to progress further than the first round of the playoffs, they'd better bring their pass-catch game up to date.
In the mid-70s they won two Super Bowls with defense, running and a young Terry Bradshaw. Then the league switched eras on them, so the Steelers went big-play, Bradshaw throwing to a pair of All-Pro wideouts, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, and won two more Super Bowls. See, it isn't so hard to play this game, is it?
Gone now are Bradshaw and Swann. Stallworth caught only eight passes during an injury-plagued 1983 season. The Steelers made it into the playoffs with a battered and ever-changing offensive line, held together by the great play of center Mike Webster, and a quick-striking defense, again led by a throwback, inside linebacker Jack Lambert. But they had the NFL's second-worst passing attack.
They can't continue to do it with mirrors. Their offensive line is still a shambles. Their defense should be good again under new coordinator Tony Dungy, who's only 28, but if they don't want a repeat of the Raider blowout in their playoff game last year, they'd better learn how to fly with the rest of the hawks.
Enter Woodley, who cost them a No. 3 draft choice. He's got a flock of receivers to throw to, including top pick Louis Lipps, who they say is wowing 'em on the deep stuff. There were eight Steeler draft choices, past and present, in the training camp wideout corps, and all the club needs is three who'll hold up for the season—Lipps; possibly last year's second-rounder, Wayne Capers, who's big and fast; and possibly Stallworth, if he can stay healthy. The Steelers added some speed at tight end with a second-round pick this year, Chris Kolodziejski, who can move his 231 pounds at a 4.6 clip.
Franco Harris was a training camp holdout, but Franco doesn't do much in the preseason anyway. Frank Pollard is a straight-ahead banger; Walter Abercrombie's still a maybe. From out of the mob of rookies who could make the club, a sleeper ballcarrier emerged, 230-pound Elton Veals, an 11th-rounder. Defense could keep the Steelers near the top of the division, but after that....?
Defense moved the CLEVELAND BROWNS into playoff contention in 1983. Remember defense? Once the Browns were very good at it—Bill Willis, Len Ford, Walt Michaels, Paul Wiggin, Jerry Sherk. Oh, they had their studs all right. Then they forgot how to play it. From 1977 until last season they finished in the bottom half of the league in defense. Then the defense came to life in '83. The Browns pitched successive shut-outs against the Bucs and Patriots; they crushed the Colts. Two wins in their last three games would have put them in the playoffs. Then disaster struck.
Denver's John Elway, the AFC's lowest rated QB, hit them for 284 yards and two TDs. The Browns' Brian Sipe, who had thrown only one interception in his last 102 passes, threw three that day. Now the Browns had to go 2 for 2. Houston ended the dream the following week, as Cleveland's Mike Pruitt lost three fumbles.
With Sipe gone to the USFL, Paul McDonald is the new quarterback. Pruitt, who has been a Pro Bowl back, is being pushed by second-year man Boyce Green. And the defensive backfield got a shakeup. Don Rogers, the No. 1 draft choice, will be the free safety. Chris Rockins, a second-round pick, is making a run at strong safety. To duplicate the 49ers' hat trick of '81, when San Francisco won a Super Bowl with three rookies in its secondary, the Browns will need assurance from their lawyers. The key to Cleveland's secondary is Frank Minnifield, an Arizona Wrangler whom the Browns signed in April. They project him at left corner, the hot corner. Wrangler linebacker Stan White says he's the best cornerback he has played with in his 13 years. The question remains: Did Minnifield have an option clause in his USFL contract, or didn't he? Minnifield says no; the Wranglers say yes.
Other phases of the defense, especially the linebacking, are shipshape. Chip Banks is an All-Pro. Tom Cousineau led the team in five categories. The offensive line is solid; the receivers have a little more zip with the addition of Duriel Harris (traded from Miami). Quarterbacking? Well, Larrye Weaver, last year's offensive coordinator is gone now. McDonald's development will be in the hands of Joe Scannella, who coached the running backs for Sam Rutigliano the last two years.
At the top level, Art Modell is entangled in a series of lawsuits with minority owner Bob Gries, but it hasn't strangled the operation. Modell's new assistant, Ernie Accorsi, who escaped from Bob Irsay's Colts, got all the draft choices signed faster than any other NFL club. Now if they can just play....
Give the HOUSTON OILERS credit. They're trying. They won the Warren Moon derby and made the Edmonton star the highest paid quarterback in the game. They got Hugh Campbell, the coach who teamed with Moon for five straight Grey Cup titles. They stockpiled drafts and flooded their roster with rookies. Bud Adams, a hard man to please, smiled at all this and gave G.M. Ladd Herzeg a new long-term contract.
Now where are they? Tough to tell. Campbell was the greatest Canadian coach since Papa Dionne, but he was a bust with the L.A. Express. His friends say he's laid-back, Southern California style. More cynical observers say he just won't put in the hours. Moon was sensational in the run-and-gun style up north, but it'll take him a while to tune in down here. Once upon a time a quarterback or two would find his way down from the Canadian Leagues, strange specimens usually, darting types, "scatter guys," Weeb Ewbank used to call them. They'd be signed to a modest contract, and every now and then one of them would make the club. That's what Moon has looked like in the early preseason, a herky-jerky kind of guy operating behind a line that's big enough to eat hay but doesn't really fire off the ball in crisp fashion. And the pressure will be on to score every time he has the ball, because the Oilers gave up almost 30 points a game last year. And the defense doesn't look much better.
For the last five years the Oilers' top draft pick has been an offensive player, and while this was going on, the defense eroded. Everyone ran on Houston last year. The Oilers' pass defense was up there in the rankings only because no one bothered throwing against them. Well, first things first, the Oilers say. And first comes the wall, the offensive line, the blockers for Earl Campbell. So their last three top drafts have been offensive linemen, all of whom figure to start—Bruce Matthews at center, after a year at guard; Dean Steinkuhler at right tackle, after a Nebraska career at guard; and Mike Munchak again at left guard, if he recovers from the arthroscopic knee surgery he had in camp. Munchak is All-Pro caliber.
Campbell had his first surgery of any kind in the off-season, and his right knee is still a little sore. Not to worry, he says. According to Earl, "I've still got 4,000 yards, maybe even 5,000, left." He'll be operating out of a one-back set this year, and he'll still get the hook on passing downs. Moon's primary target will be wideout Tim Smith, who had the quietest 83-catch season in history last year.
But what good are all the offensive fireworks if Houston can't stop anybody? Well, its second-round pick was a big tackle from Auburn, Doug Smith, but he showed up at minicamp at a pudgy 305 pounds and then asked for a ton of money, and somehow this combination didn't sit right, so he went to the USFL. If there's any hope for the Oilers and their defense, it could lie in the new coordinator, Jerry Glanville, who put together some good units in his six years at Atlanta. (Remember the maniac blitz?)
Pruitt, a 1,000-yard man in each of the last four full NFL seasons, developed a costly case of the drops during last year's stretch run.
Anderson (14) is working for ex-Cincy QB Wyche and working on future Cincy QB Esiason.