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AFC EAST division

Now don't get me wrong about Jim Kelly, Bill Polian and Marv Levy. They're good people. They've brought the Buffalo Bills to near the top of the NFL. But that's where Buffalo is going to stay—near, not at, the top—unless some personality problems are ironed out.

Kelly is a tough, courageous quarterback who should have the fans eating out of his hands, but he says things that get people mad at him. Some of his teammates went public with their displeasure last year, and that got the fans stirred up. Polian, the general manager, got mad at the media in December for "their negative, self-fulfilling prophecies that the season was over." So he told them, "Jim Kelly's still the quarterback, and Ted Marchibroda's still the offensive coordinator, and Marv Levy's still the head coach. And if you don't like it, get out of town." Practices were closed. This season the locker room will be closed during the week. Right, fellas, if the news is bad, shoot the messengers. And give your quarterback a $20 million contract.

Levy is an extremely able coach and a nice guy, so nice that he doesn't want to hear about these kinds of distractions. The same thing happened to him in Kansas City. There were internal conflicts. He chose to stonewall them. They wouldn't go away, but he did. Levy was fired.

Despite all this, the Bills will be up there again. They can't help it. The AFC East is a steal. Buffalo has some neat offensive weapons: Andre Reed, who has emerged as one of the game's finest wideouts; Thurman Thomas, a tough little back who has played himself groggy every afternoon, and Kelly. The defense slipped in 1989, though, from fourth in the NFL in '88 to 11th. Left linebacker Cornelius Bennett, playing hurt and playing within the scheme, has never fulfilled the promise he showed as a wild, sack-happy rookie in 1987. Right end Bruce Smith, once the highest-paid defender in football, has amazing pass-rush techniques—and amazingly bad technique against the run. Shane Conlan, the Pro Bowl inside linebacker, can't seem to go through a season uninjured. The best defensive player last year was the most underrated, right linebacker Darryl Talley.

Buffalo drafted a wing-footed (4.29 in the 40) cornerback, J.D. Williams, in the first round, but it's questionable as to whether he will be an immediate starter. Still, the Bills should be the division's best, which is like being the best-hitting pitcher in baseball.

The wideouts were hurt, the defense collapsed, the offensive line couldn't knock anybody off the ball, quarterback Ken O'Brien became a basket case and the NEW YORK JETS slumped to their worst record, 4-12, in nine years. Heads hung low. The locker room was filled with mistrust. Coach Joe Walton was fired.

Bruce Coslet is the new coach, with a new staff, and the training camp was all smiles and handclapping: Let's go get 'em, gang! O'Brien taped an interview that was shown on TV at halftime of the Raiders-Saints preseason game. He was asked about Coslet.

"He's a hands-on type of guy," O'Brien said. "He gets on the field.... He shows you.... He's got a sense of humor, too."

Less than a minute later Houston quarterback Warren Moon was asked about his new coach, Jack Pardee, who replaced Jerry Glanville. "Jerry was more hands-on," Moon said. "Very boisterous...into every drill. Jack is more businesslike."

The message is, It isn't how you do it, it's what you do.

The Jets in a nutshell: Offensive line still unsettled. O'Brien still a bit shaky. Tony Eason steadier at quarterback. Terrific receivers—Al Toon, supplemental draft pick Rob Moore, nifty little Terance Mathis. Defense much more active. Third-round pick Tony Stargell a fine cornerback. Seventh-round pick, linebacker Basil Proctor, talented but raw. Team should be better, thanks to wideouts and improved defense, but not yet top-drawer because of offensive line.

The schedule is very kind, and the season ends with games against Indianapolis, New England and Tampa Bay.

Oh, yes, Dick Steinberg, the personnel whiz from New England, is now general manager. His top draft pick, running back Blair Thomas, is still unproven after having been very hard to sign.

O.K., here it is, and you've heard it before. Over the past five years, ever since the MIAMI DOLPHINS last appeared in the Super Bowl, no team has given up more yards. Cumulatively, Miami has had the worst defense in the league. Yet the Dolphins have had only one losing record in that stretch. That speaks highly of Dan Marino and Miami's big-pass offense.

The Dolphins have changed defensive coordinators in the five years, and they've drafted 33 defensive players, only four of whom have made significant contributions: linebacker John Offerdahl, safety Jarvis Williams, end Jeff Cross and safety Louis Oliver. Now Miami is trying to get by with patchwork, bringing in old pros, Plan B linebackers Mike Reichenbach and Cliff Odom, to go with the aging, but fairly effective, linebackers they acquired last year, E.J. Junior and Barry Krauss.

The thrust of the operation, if you can go by the last two drafts, is to firm up the running game, which also has been woeful for five years. Running back Sammie Smith was the top pick in '89; offensive linemen Richmond Webb and Keith Sims were one-two, respectively, in '90. Run the ball, block better for Marino, hide your defense. That should keep Miami right around .500.

Never have I seen as much disagreement surrounding the top pick in the draft. Some scouting departments, the 49ers' for instance, say that Jeff George is one of the most terrific quarterbacks ever to come out of college. Others tell you that the guy isn't tough and that they wouldn't want him on their squad at all. Well, the INDIANAPOLIS COLTS took the big gamble and got rid of an All-Pro (tackle Chris Hinton), a budding All-Pro (wideout Andre Rison) and their No. 1 draft pick next year for the right to select George. Then they locked him into a starting role by trading their No. 1 signal caller, Chris Chandler. Be great, kid, that's all we ask. George had a rough time in his first preseason start, then settled down after that, throwing mainly high-percentage stuff. No sense giving him too much too soon.

Trouble is, Indianapolis, always a slow starter, faces three '89 playoff teams with ferocious pass rushes—the Bills, Oilers and Eagles—on the road in the first four weeks. So when October rolls around, George might be hearing birdies, Eric Dickerson might be brooding about the suspension that kept him out of the first six games, the Colts might have a record of 1-3, and the Bob Irsay-haters around the NFL, of whom there are plenty, might be saying, "There is some justice after all."

The Colts' year will not be disastrous. Their defense is decent, now that they've junked that high-risk blitz that burned them last season and have turned things over to a very capable line. If George collapses, there's always Jack Trudeau, a good enough quarterback, to bail them out. But George isn't going to collapse, is he, Bob Irsay?

You are Rod Rust. You are 62 years old, and for years you have been one of pro football's most respected defensive coaches. You've waited all your life for an NFL head coaching job, so what finally turns up? The Alamo.

The NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS' offense is in distress. The quarterback situation is nowhere—Steve Grogan and Marc Wilson both have seen better days. John Stephens, the star runner of '88, went into a deep six last fall, mainly because the offensive line did likewise. The receiving corps? Guess who the No. 1 pass catcher was last season? Hey, you got it. Eric Sievers, a 32-year-old tight end who tied for 34th in the league.

Rod, you'll have to do it with defense. Three good guys—linebacker Andre Tippett, corner Ronnie Lippett and end Garin Veris—were lost to injuries last year, but now they're back, or at least they were until Veris hurt his knee, which sidelined him for almost the entire preseason. Maybe the two first-round draft picks, linebacker Chris Singleton and defensive end Ray Agnew, will be terrific. Maybe rookie quarterback Tom Hodson will catch fire. Maybe rookie Greg McMurtry will be a productive wideout.

Maybe, Rod, you'll just have to be patient for a year.




Kelly had trouble holding the ball and his tongue.