Cincinnati will be a far better team than the dispirited crew that had a 4-12 record in 1978. In large measure the Bengals' problems were caused by a broken bone in Quarterback Ken Anderson's throwing hand that sidelined him for four games and limited his effectiveness thereafter. Anderson threw a career-high 22 interceptions. His injury underscored several Bengal weaknesses, most notably a lack of depth at quarterback and a feeble running attack.
Cincinnati moved to correct those flaws with its two first-round draft choices, selecting Washington State Quarterback Jack (the Throwin' Samoan) Thompson and LSU Running Back Charles Alexander. The Bengals think so highly of Thompson that before training camp got under way they released their holdover backup quarterbacks, John Reaves and Rob Hertel. As for Alexander, at 6'1" and 221 pounds he has the size and speed Archie Griffin lacks.
When Anderson and Thompson do go to the air, they have two premier deep threats in Isaac Curtis and Billy Brooks. With his second-round draft choice, Coach Homer Rice shored up a weakness at tight end by drafting 6'4", 238-pound Dan Ross from Northeastern. Ross blocks well and is fast enough to go deep.
Opponents generally have to travel a ways to score against Cincinnati. Bengal Punter Pat McInally led the NFL with a 43.1 average and put 25 kicks out of bounds inside the 20-yard line. Traveling any distance against Cincinnati proved difficult once last year's first-round draft choice, Defensive End Ross Browner, joined the starting lineup at midseason. Even though he missed the first seven games with a detached biceps in his right arm, Browner led the club in sacks with nine. He teamed with tackles Eddie Edwards and Wilson Whitley, both first-round picks in 1977, to give the Bengals the most promising defensive line in football.
Will the real CLEVELAND Browns please stand up? Last year the Browns played solid defense, but had trouble scoring while splitting their first eight games. Then, while splitting their last eight, they scored almost at will, but their defense fell apart. Appropriately, Cleveland's highlight film was entitled A Roller Coaster Ride. Now, says Coach Sam Rutigliano, "We want to get off the roller coaster and get on an express that doesn't make as many stops."
The only thing that stopped the Browns' offense in 1978 was the Browns' offense. Cleveland was the most heavily penalized team in the NFL (2,280 yards) and lost the most fumbles (29). The Browns were also hurt by the leg contusion that sidelined Running Back Greg Pruitt, the heart of their offense, for all of four games and portions of two others. Cleveland lost four of those six. Pruitt still rushed for 960 yards and caught 38 passes for 292 more. His backfield mate, Mike Pruitt (no kin), is no slouch either, as he showed with a 173-yard game against Buffalo.
Although he has a weak arm, Quarterback Brian Sipe passed for 2,906 yards and 21 touchdowns. He has a deep threat at tight end in Ozzie Newsome and two good wide receivers in Dave Logan and Reggie Rucker, who averaged 20.8 yards while making a club-leading 43 catches. Now Sipe has yet another top target in first-round draft choice Willis Adams, a burner from Houston.
On defense the Browns are average against the run but well below average at stopping the pass; last year they allowed more pass completions and passing yardage than any other NFL team. Rutigliano has made one change in the secondary, moving Cornerback Clarence Scott to strong safety, where he will play alongside All-Pro Free Safety Thorn Darden, who led the league in 1978 with 10 interceptions. Rutigliano feels that the main problem with Cleveland's pass coverage was that opposing quarterbacks could count the house while waiting for receivers to get open. To strengthen the pass rush, he traded for two veteran defensive ends—30-year-old Lyle Alzado of the Denver Broncos and 34-year-old Jack Gregory of the New York Giants. He is also counting on a much better performance from onetime All-Pro Defensive Tackle Jerry Sherk, who was ineffective last season following knee surgery in 1977.