Dom Capers, the defensive coordinator the past three years, is now the coach of Carolina. His replacement, Dick LeBeau, inherits the NFL's most exciting defense. With people like linebackers Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene and last year's pass-rush sensation, Chad Brown, along with cornerback Rod Woodson and a wonderful pair of safeties, Carnell Lake and Darren Perry, flying around all over the place, how can you miss? Gary Jones, a vicious-hitting nickelback, has gone to the Jets, but other young guns will step in and learn by example.
So on paper the Steelers seem well set for a January trip to Phoenix, but here's the picture I can't get out of my mind: There's a glitch in the pass protection; quarterback Neil O'Donnell has to scramble; he looks downfield; his receivers aren't helping him out; they're not coming back to him; he puts the ball up. Bingo! Interception. On the sideline the clipboards come out and the phone starts ringing. The fans are warming up for some serious booing. Get that part of the operation ironed out, and everything will fall into place.
The Houston Oilers have answered the question of how far you can go with a freak offense. The answer is, to the second round of the playoffs and no further. As a result the run-and-shoot has been mothballed. The fans, who grew to enjoy that moving chessboard laid out in front of them, will have to accept a struggling team with a conventional attack. I can't quite figure out what the Oiler offense will look like, at least in the year or two it will take their top draft pick, Steve McNair, to get ready to do some varsity quarterbacking.
The best thing the offense has going for it is Jerry Rhome, the coordinator, who had a hand in nine NFL offenses as a player and a coach before coming to Houston. He is reunited with his former Cardinal quarterback Chris Chandler, but Haywood Jeffires is the only Oiler receiver coming back who had more than four catches last year.
Jeff Fisher, the interim coach for six games at the end of 1994 who was officially given the job in January, was a Buddy Ryan defensive back. So you know his defense will be good, just as it was last year. The Oilers finished second in the league against the pass with such stalwarts in the secondary as cornerback Cris Dishman and safeties Marcus Robertson and Blaine Bishop.
Owner Bud Adams has been threatening to move the team to Nashville. In 1987 he considered packing up for Jacksonville. No one is lining up to build him a new stadium in Houston. The Astrodome's turf was ruled unsafe for an exhibition game last month. How much of a distraction will all this be to the players? Maybe it will give them a few laughs. They could use them.
This is the rip on the Cincinnati Bengals that I heard after their prize rookie, Ki-Jana Carter, blew out his knee in the third exhibition game: How could the Bengals have traded up to get a runner with the first choice of the entire draft and then put him behind such a shabby line? They should have used the pick to get an offensive lineman.
Of course few voices were raised in opposition at the time of the draft. It was all hip hip hooray, look at the Bengals spending money. If the Cincinnati brain trust had drafted a lineman, I suspect it would have been accused of penny-pinching. You can't win.
I feel sorry for young Dave Shula, who is fighting for his coaching life this year. Not only did Carter get hurt, but also, in that same game, backup quarterback David Klingler went down with a broken jaw. He'll be sidelined for six weeks. So now it's Prayer City in Cincy. Once again quarterback Jeff Blake will have to be dazzling. That's the only way to compensate for an offensive line that is probably worse than that of either expansion team. What's more, the leader of the defense, middle linebacker Steve Tovar, broke his hand in the same game that claimed Carter and Klingler, and he won't be 100% until at least Week 3.
Next March, Cincinnati residents will vote on a one-cent sales-tax increase to finance the construction of a new stadium for the Bengals, an arena with the kind of amenities that many other teams now have. President and general manager Mike Brown says a new stadium is needed so that the team can afford the free-agent talent that will get fans interested enough in the Bengals so that they'll vote for the sales tax to help the team. Follow that logic?