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AFC CENTRAL
Paul Zimmerman
September 02, 1991
There's a tingly feeling about the Houston Oilers, like when a fighter bounces on the balls of his feet before the opening bell, or when a G.I. buckles his helmet before going into battle—a "This is it!" feeling. No longer are the Oilers a team building for the future. If they don't win the AFC this year, they might not do it for a long time to come. Only Houston and San Francisco have reached the playoffs each of the last four seasons, but while the 49ers came in as conquerors, the Oilers arrived via the wild-card route, and they never got beyond the divisional round.
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September 02, 1991

Afc Central

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Maybe the answer lies in the schedule. When you finish low, you get a weaker schedule the following year—and vice versa. This season's schedule is a bear for the Bengals. Among their nondivision opponents are the Redskins, Bills, Eagles, Raiders, Giants and Dolphins.

One obvious deficiency in '90 was the pass rush. Cincinnati finished with a league-low 25 sacks. Browns cast-off Andrew Stewart looked terrific in camp, then he tore a knee ligament and will be lost for the year. Top draft pick Alfred Williams, a 6'6", 240-pound rush specialist out of Colorado, held out so long that Sam Wyche wrote him off, but coaches are always doing that. It looks to be another odd-year downer for Cincy.

Bill Belichick's whole career has been spent on the battlefield, scanning the enemy through long-range field glasses, devising intricate plans of defense. He has been a successful colonel, with two Super Bowl ribbons on his chest to prove it. Now, as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, he must step into the murky world of front-office politics. Specifically, he must deal with a commander in chief, owner Art Modell, who wants to decide how the troops are deployed. If Belichick can make the switch, fine, but two honest soldiers before him, Bud Carson and Marty Schottenheimer, didn't survive this war of intrigue.

Carson came to Cleveland the same way Belichick did, fresh from the role as a defensive coordinator of a New York team. Modell never gave Carson a chance. He allowed Carson little input in player acquisitions, he told him who his assistants would be, he made it clear that quarterback Bernie Kosar had to be accommodated at all costs, and he watched as the personnel department did nothing to fortify an offensive line that was collapsing. If Belichick has the political smarts to deal with the inner strife that has marked this team, he might make it.

On the field things will be rough. The Browns' secondary has 31-year-old Frank Minnifield and 36-year-old Raymond Clayborn, both of whom look about finished at the corners. Strong safety Felix Wright was lost to Plan B free agency. Thane Gash, a talented free safety, is lost for the year with a neck injury. O.K., Belichick is a zone coach and he knows how to protect defensive backs, but tackle Michael Dean Perry, Cleveland's top pass rusher, was still a holdout entering the first week of the season.

On a positive note, former Giants halfback Joe Morris, who has not played since breaking his foot in the last preseason game of 1989, was rescued from the bone-yard by Belichick and has showed plenty of zip and inspiration in the preseason. He could be one of the year's best comeback stories.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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