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.