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It almost looks too easy. The Houston Oilers play 11 games in domed stadiums this year. They have only one cold-weather game, at Cleveland in December. Three of their first four games are at home, and so are three of their last four. Too easy. With the schedule suited to their run-and-shoot offense, the Oilers should waltz into the playoffs, fortified by a home field advantage.

Now we cut to the man with the wrinkled forehead. Bad things happened to Houston at the close of 1991. The Oilers lost three out of five games to end the regular season—because of gusty winds on the road, sacks, dropped balls, a Giant running game that hammered their defense, you name it. In the postseason the Jets shoved them around for the whole second half and should have beaten them. Then, against Denver in the next round, Houston was killed by dropped passes and John Elway's magnificent last-minute drive to set up the winning field goal.

O.K., so the Oilers project into the playoffs because the division is a steal. But the postseason won't be so easy. Quarterback Warren Moon will be 36 in November. He'll be facing a merciless rush because teams have figured out that the way to beat the run-and-shoot is not to sit back and worn-about the draw play but to attack the pocket vigorously. Moon, who can stand and deliver with the best of them when he's comfortable, does not have the giddyap in his legs, the escape, that he once had. And the Houston defense, which has been improving, still can't carry the team. All of this translates into an Oiler playoff loss to either of two kinds of teams: one that will rush Moon relentlessly (the Jets) or one that could corner Houston at a bad-weather site (Denver or Buffalo).

Wideout Drew Hill, with 90 catches in 1991, accepted a Plan B offer from Atlanta, but a couple of rookies, linebacker Eddie Robinson and 300-pound defensive tackle Tim Roberts, look promising. At last word, disgruntled sack specialist Sean Jones was sticking to his retirement.

The most brilliant era in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers drew to a close when coach Chuck Noll retired last December. Before anyone had a chance to sit back and reflect on the glories of the past, the broom was at work. Bill Cowher, the new coach, was shaking everything up. Gone were all the assistant coaches but Dick Hoak (running backs), who has been with the organization for 31 years. Hired were a bunch of assistants with whom Cowher had never worked. Practice techniques were changed, and new training equipment was trucked in. Team president Dan Rooney gave up the general manager duties he also held, turning them over to Tom Donahoe, who had been his director of football development.

But the team remains strictly blue collar, with a small stadium, the lowest payroll in the league, no stars on offense and only one on defense, cornerback Rod Woodson, who is getting over a torn calf muscle. When linebacker Hardy Nickerson, a valuable six-year veteran, was low-balled on his contract (a 5% raise to $248,000; the average starting NFL linebacker makes more than twice that), the Steeler players received a chilling message: There are no big bucks—except, of course, for the top draft choices. Everyone pays them.

Is this a formula for mediocrity? Maybe Cowher can work wonders; maybe his defensive know-how (he was Kansas City's coordinator) can revive a unit that slumped from No. 1 in the league in 1990 to No. 22, and whose starting secondary has been depleted by injuries and holdouts. Maybe offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt's simplified attack will work just right for Neil O'Donnell, who won the quarterback battle with Bubby Brister. Maybe a draft that was strongest at blue-collar positions (tackle-guard Leon Searcy, inside linebacker Levon Kirkland, noseguard Joel Steed, tight end Russ Campbell) will change the picture.

That's a lot of maybes, but that's what it'll be like for a while in the post-Noll era.

The Cleveland Browns have been an organization marked by office politics, whispers behind doors and much jockeying to get owner Art Modell's car. However, it seems that after one year on the job, coach Bill Belichick has the clout to call his own shots and get his own people in place. Now all he has to worry about is what happens on the field.

The biggest concern was the offensive line, but when the Browns anted up last week and paid Jay Hilgenberg the money the Bears wouldn't, they got an All-Pro center. In 1990 quarterback Bernie Kosar went down 91 times—37 sacks and 54 knockdowns. Last year he got decked 107 times, including a career-high 41 sacks. Though he's only 28, he must be shell-shocked. To make matters worse for Kosar, the offensive line got no help in the draft, and his wideouts are missing. Reggie Langhorne was a Plan B free agent signed by the Colts, Brian Brennan was cut and Webster Slaughter was still holding out when camp ended.

If there's any consolation on offense, it's that there is now a big, bruising rookie fullback, Tommy Vardell, and a Super Bowl hero, former Giant tight end Mark Bavaro, to help the Browns get back to the basics. Belichick is a defensive coach, and name one who doesn't like a basic, ball-control offense. O.K., Tom Landry was one. Yeah, Jack Pardee's another, but there aren't many.

A defensive unit that could be good, in an overachieving kind of way, has been slow to come together because of injuries. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry is coming off surgery he had on his right knee in July.

When Don Shula, at 33, was hired to coach the Baltimore Colts in 1963, there were no quotes that said, "Wow, what a great move, what a stroke of genius." There was a lot of head scratching. Gee, 33 years old.... So I will tread lightly in trying to figure out why in the wide blue sky the Cincinnati Bengals chose 33-year-old Dave Shula, Don's son, to be their sixth head coach.

There were a lot of smirks and plenty of gossip around the league: Cincinnati vice-president/general manager Mike Brown regards the Shulas as "family," Don did a terrific job lobbying for the kid, the Bengals got a real break on Dave's salary. The usual stuff. After all, Dave had worked for two years in Dallas and suffered what some people consider a demotion, from offensive coordinator in 1989 to quarterback coach in '90. Then last year he was Cincy's receivers coach and was, well, organized...uh, well organized.

This move will either be viewed as a disaster or as a stroke of genius. There will be no middle ground.

Boomer Esiason seems to have jumped on the bandwagon. He said he liked the idea that Shula stayed away and let the quarterback coach, Dana Bible, work with the QBs. "You don't have that pressure of the head coach watching you the whole time," says Esiason. That's an oblique slap at former coach Sam Wyche, who is now drawing praise in Tampa for his hands-on approach to the quarter-backing. You go with the flow.

The offense was functional last year, but now it's struggling, with top wideout Eddie Brown (ruptured disk) lost for the year, and the line unsettled by holdouts. The defense was ranked last in the league, so Shula swept out that half of the coaching staff and brought in former Charger assistant Ron Lynn to be the coordinator.

The draft was a good one for the Bengals once you get past the fact that their first selection, quarterback David Klingler, held out so long that he is virtually a write-off for '92. Darryl Williams, the team's second pick in the first round, will play a lot at free safety, and Carl Pickens, the second-round choice, is a gifted receiver. A couple more good drafts, and Shula could have something going.




With Moon (1) approaching 36, the sun is setting on Houston title hopes.