The Strong Get Stronger
By signing Elvis Grbac, the Ravens have added some pop to their offense and–gulp!–improved their team as a whole
WINNING THE AFC CENTRAL title, it seems, isn’t the ticket to the Super Bowl. The past two seasons, the division’s runner-up has been the one to reach the big game.
The Tennessee Titans were second behind Jacksonville in 1999 but beat the Jaguars in the AFC title game to advance to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the St. Louis Rams. Last year the Baltimore Ravens finished second to the Titans, but then they upset Tennessee in a divisional playoff game and went on to win the Super Bowl.
Baltimore is the first AFC Central team to enter a season as the defending NFL champion since 1980, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were foiled in their bid for a Threepeat after winning the Super Bowl in 1978 and ’79. In 2001 the Ravens and the Titans figure to battle for AFC Central supremacy again, but as evidenced by the past couple seasons, what really matters is how each team is playing in January.
Jacksonville–the only NFL team in the past three years to repeat as a division champion, when it won the Central in 1998 and ’99–faded to 7-9 last season and looks as if it will fight Pittsburgh for third place in 2001. The Steelers, meanwhile, have missed the playoffs for three straight years.
The Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns are likely to bring up the rear again. The Bengals always seem to be rebuilding, and Cleveland, in its third season, is starting over with new coach Butch Davis after giving up on Chris Palmer.
Here’s how the AFC Central shapes up in 2001:
1. BALTIMORE RAVENS
Where they left off: After struggling in mid-season, when they lost three straight games and went five games without scoring a touchdown, the Ravens won their last 11 with a punishing defense and a solid ground attack to become the Super Bowl champions.
New faces: Fearing they’d have trouble repeating with a passing game that ranked 22nd in the league last year, the Ravens retooled their offense. They dumped quarterbacks Trent Dilfer and Tony Banks and signed Elvis Grbac as a free agent from the Kansas City Chiefs. Grbac, who passed for 4,169 yards last season, should give coach Brian Billick the vertical game he craves. Baltimore also signed right tackle Leon Searcy to block for Grbac and drafted tight end Todd Heap to give the QB another target.
2000 Results AFC CENTRAL
Team W L T Pct. PF PA Home Road
Tennessee 13 3 0 .812 346 191 7-1 6-2
Baltimore(*) 12 4 0 .750 333 165 6-2 6-2
Pittsburg 9 7 0 .562 321 255 4-4 5-3
Jacksonville 7 9 0 .438 367 327 4-4 3-5
Cincinnati 4 12 0 .250 185 359 3-5 1-7
Cleveland 3 13 0 .188 161 419 2-6 1-7
Team AFC NFC Div. Streak
Tennessee 9-3 4-0 8-2 W4
Baltimore(*) 10-3 2-1 8-2 W7
Pittsburg 8-5 1-2 5-5 W2
Jacksonville 5-7 2-2 5-5 L2
Cincinnati 3-10 1-2 2-8 L1
Cleveland 3-10 0-3 2-8 L5
(*) Playoff team.
X’s and O’s: Even though Grbac gives the Ravens the ability to open things up more, they’re not going to abandon the formula that worked so well for them last year. They’ll still feature the running of Jamal Lewis and a stout defense that last year gave up the fewest points ever in a 16-game schedule. Best of all, the nucleus of that devastating defense has remained basically intact, starting with linebacker Ray Lewis, the reigning defensive player of year. Safety Kim Herring was the only starter lost from the defense, and the Ravens have a capable replacement in Corey Harris.
Coaching/management: Billick, noted as an offensive passing guru, showed his flexibility and wisdom by adjusting to the talent he had and focusing on defense and a running game. Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis is the mastermind of a unit that some say is the best ever; he is a head coach in waiting. The front office also is first rate, led by director of player personnel Ozzie Newsome and top scouts Phil Savage and James Harris.
Why they’ll finish first: Baltimore’s defense is as good as ever, but it won’t have to shoulder as much of the load because Grbac gives the offense another dimension.
2. TENNESSEE TITANS
Where they left off. The Titans thought they were on their way back to the Super Bowl, posting a 13-3 record and garnering home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But they were stunned 24-10 by the Ravens in their playoff opener, when Al Del Greco had two field goal attempts blocked–one of which was run back for a touchdown–and missed a third. It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Titans, who felt they were the best team in football.
New faces: Although defensive end Kevin Carter grabbed most of the headlines with his six-year, $40 million contract, kicker Joe Nedney may have been the most important offseason signing. Nedney, who was near-automatic for the Carolina Panthers I and Denver Broncos last season, isn’t likely to melt down the way Del Greco did in that postseason loss to Baltimore.
X’s and O’s. The Titans may not be the flashiest team in the league, but they know how to win. They play hard-nosed defense, they run Eddie George, and they convert a lot of field goals (except, of course, in last year’s playoff debacle). That style has produced back-to-back 13-3 records, but it leaves little margin for error. To finally capture a Super Bowl championship, the Titans need to let Steve McNair try to win some games with his ann. That also would take some of the burden off George, who underwent surgery on a toe ligament in the offseason. George led the NFL with 403 carries last year, a pace that will eventually burn him out.
Coaching/management: When it comes to motivating players, Jeff Fisher is among the league’s best coaches. On the downside, his game plans tend to be too conservative. As we said, he and offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger have to create a more wide-open attack. At least president Jeff Diamond and general manager Floyd Reese continue to deliver Fisher topflight players.
Why they’ll finish second: In the salary cap era, back-to-back division championships are mighty difficult to come by.
3. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
Where they left off: The Jaguars finished strong, posting a 5-3 record in the second half of the season, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for their dismal 2-6 start. The result was their first losing record since their inaugural season in 1995.
New faces: It’s a good year to be a rookie on the Jaguars. They may keep as many as 18 first-year players, including their first four draft picks (defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, offensive tackle Maurice Williams, linebacker Eric Westmoreland, and safety James Boyd). Why the youth movement? Since Jacksonville started the offseason $38 million over the salary cap, it had to hack away at its roster. The only veteran pickup of note was wideout Sean Dawkins, who was signed because of worries about Jimmy Smith’s health.
X’s or O’s: When Mark Brunell is throwing to Smith and Keenan McCardell, and Fred Taylor is spearheading the running game, the Jaguars have as dangerous an offense as any in the league. But Smith is a question mark after being hospitalized twice in the offseason with a blocked small intestine, and Taylor has had problems staying healthy for a full 16 games. On top of that, left tackle Tony Boselli is the only sure bet on an untested offensive line. Given all the question marks on defense–especially at linebacker–the offense is going to have to score a ton of points to keep the Jaguars in contention.
Coaching/management: Tom Coughlin–a tough, no-nonsense type–runs the whole show in Jacksonville. He has put together a winning tradition, but he may wind up being remembered as another Marty Schottenheimer if he can’t find a way to get his team to the Super Bowl. Coughlin also let the team’s salary cap situation escalate out of control, for which the Jaguars now are paying a steep price.
Why they’ll finish third: After the offseason purge brought on by their salary cap woes, the Jaguars don’t have enough depth to keep up with the Ravens and the Titans.
4. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Where they left off: The Steelers went 9-4 in their last 13 games, but they still weren’t able to dig themselves out of the hole they created with their 0-3 start. Despite missing the playoffs, this declining franchise at least proved it still has some fight left in it.
New faces: The Steelers signed Jeff Hartings from the Detroit Lions to replace Dermontti Dawson at center. By stabilizing the center spot, the Steelers believe Jerome Bettis will be an even more effective runner. They also added two free agents on defense, linebacker Mike Jones and safety Mike Logan, who’ll both step into the starting lineup. Defense was the theme of the draft as well; nose tackle Casey Hampton and linebacker Kendrell Bell were the first two selections.
X’s and O’s: Kordell Stewart, who opened last season on the bench behind Kent Graham, reclaimed the starting job last year and will begin the 2001 campaign as the first-stringer. It’s up to Mike Mularkey, the latest in a long line of offensive coordinators, to try to make Stewart more productive. He has his work cut out for him: The Steelers ranked 29th in passing yards last year. Running the ball will continue to be the key to the offense, although Bettis can’t keep rolling forever. Pittsburgh also has to get more production out of a run defense that ranked 20th in the league last year.
Coaching/management: Longtime coach Bill Cowher showed he still knows how to rally the troops when the Steelers rebounded from their 0-3 start. However, he has yet to prove that, as the man in charge of the whole football operation, he can make shrewd personnel decisions.
Why they’ll finish fourth: The Steelers just don’t have enough talent to finish any higher. Bettis and linebacker Jason Gildon are the only players on the roster who have been named to the Pro Bowl.
5. CINCINNATI BENGALS
Where they left off: Bruce Coslet quit after an 0-3 start, which included a 37-0 loss at Baltimore. The Bengals didn’t fare much better under Dick LeBeau, going 4-9. Nevertheless, LeBeau was given a new contract in the offseason.
New faces: The Bengals brought in a boatload of free agents for visits, but most of them took a pass because they weren’t convinced the team can become a contender. Still, Cincy did manage to acquire left tackle Richmond Webb and fullback Lorenzo Neal, who will block for Corey Dillon. The Bengals also signed Jon Kitna, giving them two experienced QBs (Scott Mitchell is the other) in case Akili Smith falters again. As for the rookie crop, big things are expected from defensive end Justin Smith.
X’s and O’s: The Bengals ranked last in passing yards last year, which explains why they were shut out three times and scored seven or fewer points in five other games. This is probably a make-or-break year for Akili Smith, the team’s first pick in the 1999 draft. The offense definitely needs someone who can get the ball to wideout Peter Warrick, who didn’t have much of a chance to showcase his skills as a rookie last year. At least Cincinnati has Dillon, who is supposedly happy with the new contract he signed this offseason. Defense is another sore spot, although the rookie Smith may help in that regard. What’s more, linebacker Takeo Spikes is an emerging star.
Coaching/management: LeBeau definitely has some potential, but it’s debatable whether any coach can succeed in the Cincinnati organization. Owner Mike Brown is one of the league’s nice guys, but he refuses to bring in a football man to breathe new life into his franchise.
Why they’ll finish fifth: Because the Browns are in the same division.
6. CLEVELAND BROWNS
Where they left off: After getting off to a promising 2-1 start, the Browns went 1-12 the rest of the way. In their final five games–all losses–they gave up a staggering 175 points, costing Chris Palmer his job.
New faces: First-round draft pick Gerard Warren, a defensive tackle, should fit right in with defensive end Courtney Brown, the top selection in 2000. Those two players could anchor Cleveland’s defensive line for a decade. The Browns also signed playmaking linebacker Dwayne Rudd and added four new starters to the offense, including guard Tre Johnson, offensive tackle Ross Verba, tight end Rickey Dudley, and fullback Michael Sellers.
X’s and O’s: This is the third season for the new Browns, but they’re virtually starting from scratch under new coach Butch Davis. And without a franchise-type running back, the offense should continue to sputter. The Browns will try to get by with shopworn veteran Errict Rhett and second-year player Travis Prentice, who averaged only 3.0 yards per carry last season. Look for quarterback Tim Couch to come back strong after losing most of last season to an injury. Davis has installed a short-passing offense similar to the one Couch had so much success in at the University of Kentucky. Still, without a running game, Couch can only do so much. On the bright side, the defense has a chance to be respectable now that Warren and Rudd have joined the mix.
Coaching/management: After turning around the University of Miami program, Davis has demonstrated that he can build a team from the ground up. But overcoming the poor personnel decisions that marred Cleveland’s first two years won’t be easy.
Why they’ll finish sixth: There’s still a lot of work to be done.
Baltimore: Since December 5, 1999, the Ravens are 20-5 (including the postseason).
Cincinnati: The Bengals have won a total of eight games in the past two seasons. In 2000 alone, in contrast, the Titans won eight games by the 10th week of the season.
Cleveland: According to recently released statistics, the Browns had the highest operating profit of the league’s 31 teams in 1999 ($36.5 million).
Jacksonville: At one point last season, the Jaguars lost five straight games, it was their longest losing streak since their inaugural season in 1995, when they dropped seven straight.
Pittsburgh: The Steelers had only one 1,000-yard rusher from 1984 to ’95 (Barry Foster in 1992 with 1,690 yards). Then in 1996, along came Jerome Bettis, who has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his five seasons with Pittsburgh.
Tennessee: Jevon Kearse and newly acquired Kevin Carter have a combined 53.5 sacks the past two seasons.
Players to Watch
Tony Boselli, Jacksonville. Last year was tough on Boselli, who wasn’t quite himself while recovering from a knee injury he suffered in 1999. This season, though, he should reclaim his status as the game’s best left tackle.
Kevin Carter, Tennessee. After being shipped from St. Louis to Tennessee following his season of discontent in 2000, Carter will re-emerge as a pass-rusher extraordinaire, especially with Jevon Kearse at the other end spot.
Tim Couch, Cleveland. Now that the third-year quarterback is running a short-pass offense that better suits his skills, he should take a big leap forward.
Ray Lewis Baltimore, What can the middle linebacker possibly do for an encore following his defensive player of the year season in 2000? It sure will be fun finding out.
Takeo Spikes, Cincinnati. It’s tough to earn recognition when you play for the Bengals, but Spikes is rapidly becoming one of the game’s elite inside linebackers.
Kordell Stewart, Pittsburgh. How much more time will he receive to prove he can be a legitimate NFL quarterback?
HERE ARE THE AFC CENTRAL INDIVIDUAL LEADERS from 2000 in the major statistical categories:
Passer rating: 84.0, Mark Brunell (Jaguars)
Touchdown passes: 20 Mark Brunell (Jaguars)
Rushing yards: 1,509, Eddie George (Titans)
Receptions: 94, Keenan McCardell (Jaguars)
Receiving yards: 1,213, Jimmy Smith (Jaguars)
Total yards: 1,962, Eddie George (Titans)
Touchdowns: 16, Eddie George (Titans)
Kicking (points): 135(*), Matt Stover (Ravens)
Punting average: 45.5, Chris Gardocki (Browns)
Kick return average: 27.0, Derrick Mason (Titans)
Punt return average: 16.1(*), Jermaine Lewis (Ravens)
Interceptions: 7 Samari Rolle (Titans)
Sacks: 11.5, Jevon Kearse (Titans)
Tackles: 137, Ray Lewis (Ravens)
(*) Led league.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group