Cleveland's Nick Skorich would settle for repetition, but it yet remains to be seen if Mike Phipps can replace the hobbling Bill Nelsen at quarterback. Phipps was still having problems with defenses during the exhibition season, and while Nelsen could perform again he does so under the handicap of worse knees than Joe Namath ever knew. "He can pick a defense apart," Skorich says, "but he lacks the agility to run out of the pocket. Ideally, a Mike Phipps starting and a Bill Nelsen coming off the bench would be our best path to the Super Bowl."
Skorich has rebuilt his offensive line and expects another super season from 30-year-old Leroy Kelly, who rushed for 865 yards and 10 touchdowns. Bo Scott had 606 yards, and the receiving is in the fair hands of Fair Hooker, Milt Morin and Frank Pitts.
Cleveland's rush defense was the division's worst in '71 and it wasn't helped when Jack Gregory, a regular defensive end, played out his option and signed with the Giants. Jerry Sherk, however, could be outstanding at tackle, and the Browns may profit from odd spacing alignments and by moving around more. The linebacking is a question mark, but a secondary that was pretty good to begin with should improve through the team's No. 1 draftee, Tom Darden.
Houston has old problems and a new coach in Bill Peterson, an innovative soul from Rice. Peterson has already been horrified by the violence of the pro game—both on and off the field. In two scrimmages, Offensive Tackles Bob Wells and Elbert Drungo were lost for the year with knee injuries, shortly after Cornerback Zeke Moore broke his arm—on a closet door.
Peterson's big problem is an offensive line that is none too offensive. The Oilers were the NFL's poorest rushing team last year, with a game average of 79 yards. The average did improve some during the exhibition season. Robert (Tank) Holmes, Ward Walsh and two rookies, Al Johnson and Willie Rodgers, are all in the running to carry the ball, but somewhere someone's got to open some holes.
After a trade that sent 12-year veteran Charley Johnson to the Denver Broncos for a draft choice, Peterson had two fine sophomore quarterbacks in Dan Pastorini and Lynn Dickey. Then Dickey went down with a dislocated hip against the St. Louis Cardinals, and Peterson had a case of instant worry about quarterback depth. Pastorini, who also does the punting, figured to take the starting job anyway, but his relief man now is rookie Kelly Cochrane, a 17th-round choice from Miami. Houston's passing attack was second only to San Diego's for yardage within the AFC as Pastorini threw for 1,702 yards and seven touchdowns when the other quarterbacks weren't playing. Unfortunately, Pastorini threw three interceptions for every scoring pass, a performance that helped Houston lead the division in one category—turnovers, with 51. Better protection would improve the situation.
The Oiler receivers—Charlie Joiner, Ken Burrough, Jim Beirne and Alvin Reed—will not embarrass anyone but enemy defenses, especially on the deep-route stuff that Peterson hopes will open up his besieged rushing attack. Joiner has 4.4 speed for the football 40 and Burrough caught long scoring passes in the exhibition games. Tight End Beirne, who isn't all that fast but, as they say, plenty quick, led the Oilers with 38 receptions last year, grabbing many of them in heavy traffic. "It doesn't belong to anybody but Jim," Beirne says greedily.
Defensively, Houston has a huge front four led by Elvin Bethea, who got to the quarterback 16 times last season, and a solid linebacker cast of George Webster, Ron Pritchard and Floyd Rice. Moreover, the secondary could become superb when Moore recovers from his closet caper. Safety Ken Houston, an All-Conference, set an NFL record last year by returning four interceptions for touchdowns. With so little running, Peterson had better hope such heroics continue.