But for the fact they play out of town on occasion, one would defy history and flatly predict a division championship for the long-suffering Pittsburgh Steelers, whose rebuilding program has now prevailed through six U.S. Presidents, 16 head coaches and 40 haggard years. The Steelers have been in the football business that long without acquiring so much as a Kewpie doll for the office trophy case. They should win at least a division this year provided 1) their pass defense improves and 2) they become tougher rumblers in rival neighborhoods.
Pittsburgh has won the un-grand total of two road games in the last three years, even though Coach Chuck Noll has steadily improved a club that might have taken last year's race but for 42 turnovers, assorted bonehead mistakes and a secondary that ranked dead last in cutting off the pass. Now, Noll is banking on maturity (evidenced best in a settled, confident Terry Bradshaw at quarterback) to eliminate youthful sins, and, even if past is prologue, there is good reason for optimism.
Bradshaw, for instance, completed 54% of his passes last year and now shows poise to match the physical skills that made him the first player drafted in 1970. He also expects a championship year as if nothing less could be expected of Pittsburgh. "We're finally going to win the games we've been throwing away and get into the playoffs," he says. "I'm in my third year now and I'm more relaxed. Experience is going to have an effect on our playing."
To complement the improving arm of Bradshaw, Noll has the NFL's best receiver combination in Ron Shanklin (49 receptions, 652 yards, six touchdowns) and Dave Smith (47 for 663 and five touchdowns). Flare patterns should also be lethal since John (Frenchy) Fuqua, a dapper clotheshorse-workhorse who led the team in rushing, also caught 49 passes. Those statistics will be even more impressive if Bradshaw has lost his penchant for throwing interceptions (22 last year) and the line finds sufficient cohesiveness to protect him and backups Terry Hanratty and rookie Joe Gilliam.
Along with Fuqua, whose exotic wardrobe tastes require the services of a seamstress with a talent for jump suits, the running game will be the province of Preston Pearson, the team's best athlete, and Franco Harris, a No. 1 draft pick.
Defense is the big problem once the play gets past a Mean Joe Greene-led front four that rocked quarterbacks 33 times and knocked off the rush at a 3.4-yard average. The Steelers were ravaged for 235 completions and 2,766 yards, all too often when the pass was launched out of scrambling panic. "It's a question of discipline when those kind of things hurt you," Noll says, hoping that a new secondary coach and the additional experience will provide an answer.
Paul Brown, whose Cincinnati Bengals suffered six losses by a total of 21 points and fell into the cellar, is relying on defensive inexperience starting with Sherman White (6'5", 255). His first four choices went for defensive help and at least three rookies may be starting before the season is out. In addition to White, who has been handed the defensive end job until he plays himself out of it, No. 2 Tommy Casanova should inherit the injured Ken Dyer's spot at safety and Jim LeClair from North Dakota is a possibility at linebacker. "We're at the mercy of our draftees," Brown says. "We need a better pass rush than the one-man thing we had with Mike Reid, and if Casanova comes through we'll have about as fast a secondary as you're going to find."
In Mike Reid, who may be the only composer of serious music who has performed both in Carnegie Hall and Riverfront Stadium, the Bengals have one of the quickest, most intelligent pass rushers in the game. "Last year was a valuable growing pain. Now we know the emotional response necessary in that kind of situation," he says. The defense is also blessed by the frenetic linebacking of Bill Bergey and superb cornerback work of Ken Riley and pro bowler Lemar Parrish.
As for quarterback, the injured Greg Cook has been listed as "unable to perform," and will probably miss the entire season, but Brown will happily make do with Virgil Carter, whose 62.2% completion average made him the most accurate passer in the NFL. Carter holds a master's degree in mathematics and has proved a valuable tutor to Ken Anderson, a strong-armed 23-year-old who may be the starter sooner than anyone expects. "They say Carter doesn't look good or that he doesn't throw the long ball," Brown says, "but no one says he isn't smart enough."
Brown also has an assortment of running backs that any foe would envy in Fred Willis, Doug Dressler, Jess Phillips, Paul Robinson and breakaway threat Essex Johnson. He could use that kind of depth in receivers. Bob Trumpy, Chip Myers and Speedy Thomas are a workmanlike group, but about all Brown has. "For this coming year," he says, "we've some new men who have just got to come through, or we'll end up in the same kind of wringer we did a year ago."