The most successful team in history, Cleveland is now the most traveled as well, moving this year from the old NFL, into which it moved from the All-America Conference. "You know everyone's going to be trying to knock our blocks off," says Jim Houston. "We're the Establishment moving in."
Springtime in Houston
The Houston Oilers are also capable of knocking off Cleveland. "This club reminds me an awful lot of Dallas in '65," says backup Quarterback Jerry Rhome. "We've got young players just beginning to find themselves, ready to blossom." Indeed they are young—14 starters have three years' experience or less—but if they do bloom it will be under the leadership of a nine-year veteran, Charley Johnson. "Getting Charley from St. Louis is the biggest single thing we've done since we've been here," says Head Coach Wally Lemm, a onetime Cardinal himself.
A 50-50 team the past two years, the Oilers became disenchanted with young Pete Beathard, whom they peddled, along with All-Pro Cornerback Miller Farr, for Defensive Back Bob Atkins and Johnson, who was just as disenchanted with St. Louis, where he alternated with Jim Hart. "Here I feel I can help," Johnson says. "And that's a good feeling—to get a chance. Some people don't need to have others have confidence in them. I do. And I didn't feel it in St. Louis."
Johnson is a proven winner and he will have plenty of help in trying to overtake the Browns. The receivers have speed in Jerry Levias, Charlie Joiner, Mac Haik and Jim Beirne, and the short threat in one of the league's better tight ends, Alvin Reed. Woody Campbell, Hoyle Granger and Roy Hopkins give the Oilers a powerful running attack.
"We still have to establish that we can drive and score," says Johnson, "to be able to use 10 plays in a drive, to come at you, come at you, come at you, then maybe sneak one big one in, then come back at you again, like the Packers used to."
Though the offense looks better because of Johnson, the Oilers will have to improve on defense, especially on their pass rush, if they're to make a serious run at Cleveland. The ends are well set, with Elvin Bethea and Pat Holmes, but the tackles have been, and are, a problem. The linebackers, anchored by All-Pro George Webster, are the strength of the defense, but the fine deep backs are run ragged because of the weak, undependable rush up front.
"This team has its best years still ahead of it," says Johnson, "but I'd like to see a championship this year. I have profound optimism."
Pittsburgh, too, is optimistic, and—yes, again—because of a new quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, who appears to be the real thing. In July its optimism was geared to improving on last year's 1-13 record. Last week a division title didn't seem at all farfetched.
The keys are Bradshaw, the No. 1 draft choice, and a defense now oriented to the complexities second-year Head Coach Chuck Noll favors. ( Noll coordinated the blitzing and stunting Baltimore defense in 1968, which carried the Colts to the Super Bowl.) "Last year it was, you know, SOS [same old Steelers] and all that," says Defensive Tackle Mean Joe Greene. "I don't believe in jinxes, but people would always figure the Steelers would find a way to lose. And we did. This year we won't." Bradshaw, who took over the team in the second exhibition game, is of the same mind. "I didn't come here to be just another Joe, another guy on the team," he says. "I came here to win."