AFC North Preview: Searching For The Promised Land

The Principal examines the AFC North and offers his views of which teams go to the top of the class. See who he feel will excel, pass, or flunk in Commentate-Off Entry #6!

An Overview:
The 2002 NFL Season will see the staples of the AFC Central moved into a new division called the AFC North.  Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh will join Baltimore in the newly created division.  The division may be new, but make no mistake about it, this will still be AFC Central football, where grudges never die and where every division game is a rivalry.  Each team has taken on the characteristics of their coach:  The Baltimore Ravens are egocentric, the Cincinnati Bengals are often confused and lacking identity, the Cleveland Browns are young and fiery, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are tough, tried, and tested.  It will be an interesting year to watch as the Ravens, Bengals, and Browns, try to catch-up with the always reliable Steelers.
The Predictions:
1st Place-  Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)  Until a team (this years main event will feature the up and coming Browns) can prove they're tougher, don't even think about taking the Steelers off of the top of the heap.
2nd Place-  Cleveland Browns (11-5)  This team has got it figured out.  It's just a matter of time before they're the cream of the crop in the AFC.  They will climb to the top of the heap, but they'll have to prove that they can take a shot from the Steelers and smack them back in the mouth.
3rd Place-  Baltimore Ravens (5-11)  Oh, how the mighty have fallen, and who can think of a better team for it to happen to?  Brian Billick once again proves that his offensive smarts were consumed when his ego took control of his body.
4th Place-  Cincinnati Bengals (4-12)  How can a team with Corey Dillon lose year after year?  Surround him with journeyman quarterbacks and coaches who belong in NFL Europe.
The Teams:
Baltimore Ravens
This team found the promised land, and now they'll find out what happens when you sell your soul to get there.  In a last ditch effort to win a Super Bowl for Art Modell, the Baltimore Ravens bought themselves into the purgatory now commonly referred to as "salary cap hell".  They won their superbowl and now they're paying the consequences as they were unable to retain many of their star players.  Fielding a full roster will be a major challenge; therefore, they will be no challenge to the upstart Browns or the tenacious and fiscally smart Steelers.
Players lost:  QB Elvis Grbac, WR Jermaine Lewis, TE Shannon Sharpe, WR Quadry Ismail, FB Sam Gash, OT Kipp Vickers, OT Leon Searcy, WR Patrick Johnson, RB Moe Williams, RB Jason Brookins
Players added:  QB Jeff Blake
Synopsis:  An offense that wasn't much to write home about anyway lost it's key contributor in Shannon Sharpe.  Brian Billick hopes that the return of  RB Jamal Lewis to health and the promotion of Chris Redman to the #1 quarterback role (replacing the retired Elvis Grbac) will infuse life into the offense.  The biggest problem for this offense last year was a lack of leadership, and the biggest leader on the team TE Shannon Sharpe has returned to the Broncos.  Billick will add a veteran backup for the oft injured Jamal Lewis (expect Dorsey Levens or Ricky Watters to end up in Baltimore).  QB Jeff Blake (Saints) was added in case Redman is not quite ready for prime time.  This offense is a train wreck waiting to happen, expect it to be even worse than it was last year.
Players lost:  LB Jamie Sharper, FS Rod Woodson, DE Rob Burnett, DT Larry Webster, DT Tony Siragusa, DT Sam Adams, LB Brad Jackson, CB Duane Starks, SS Corey Harris, DT Lional Dalton, DL Larry Webster
Players added:  none
Synopsis:  The Ravens have won games with defense, but that defense was absolutely decimated in the offseason to the point that there is talk of switching to a 3-4 defense because of how few defensive lineman the team has left.  Defensive Coordinator Marvin Lewis abandoned the sinking ship and landed with the Washington Redskins.  LB Ray Lewis and LB Peter Boulware are refusing to redo their contracts to provide cap relief.  This defense will simply be a shell of it's former self as the lack of stud defensive lineman will allow blockers to get to the linebackers and alas, Superman Ray Lewis will once again become an everyday, ordinary, middle linebacker.  It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.  This defense won't be able to win games anymore; the Ravens will be lucky to win 5 games.  The Ravens had one nice addition via the draft in S Edward Reed (Miami, Fl.).  He'll be a gamer for years to come, but the Ravens will simply be outmanned.
Special Teams:
Players lost:  KR/PR Jermaine Lewis, P Kyle Richardson, PR Patrick Johnson
Players added:  none
Synopsis:  Hey, if your going to decimate the whole team, why leave the Special Teams out?  Dangerous returner Jermaine Lewis will be wearing cowboy boots as he plays for the Houston Texans and AFC North Special Teams Coaches will sleep easier at night.
The Final Word:  Any self-respecting football fan hates this team.  Led by the ego-driven Brian Billick they have became the team you love to hate and oh how sweet it will be for the rest of the AFC North to pluck these Ravens.  Browns fans:  enjoy feasting on these birds.
Cincinnati Bengals
Why did the chicken cross the road?  Who shot JR?  Who is DeepThroat?  Why do the Bengals even try?  These are the great mysteries in life.  This team has been looking for the promised land for over a decade, and like Moses, they will be wandering for many more years.  Every year you can look at this team on paper and say that it has a chance to make some noise, but it won't happen.  The problems in this organization run deep, and until those problems are addressed, they will be cannon fodder for the rest of the AFC North.
Players lost:  TE Tony McGee
Players added:  QB Gus Frerotte
Synopsis:  The Bengals haven't had consistent quarterback play since Boomer Esiason.  Big name QB's like Drew Bledsoe (Bills) avoid Cincinnati like it has the bubonic plague.  Until Cincinnati drafts a top QB (Akili Smith ain't it, folks), the offense will remain inconsistent.  The Bengals reached in the 1st round of the draft when they acquired T Levi Jones (AZ State), but he will still make a nice addition to their offensive line.  It will be the same ole, same ole with the Bengals, Corey Dillon will run for 125 yards in the 1st half, and then they'll give it to him 3 times in the 2nd half; or, during a crucial drive in Cleveland on a 4th down play, they'll run a naked bootleg with Scott Mitchell and we'll all watch Courtney Brown prance on him like a water buffalo being ran down by a cheetah.  Hey, not to many things in life are consistent, let's enjoy the Bengals.
Players lost:  SS Chris Carter, S Darryl Williams
Players added:  CB Jeff Burris, DE Eric Ogbogu
Synopsis:  A solid group of players who usually can hold the team in the game until the offense screws it up.  Look for DE Justin Smith to add to his rookie season by having a tremendous year.
Special Teams:
Synopsis:  K Neil Rackers is solid, as long as he doesn't criticize management for not having enough towels in the locker room, he'll keep his job.
The Final Word:  This team has the talent to win anywhere between 7 and 9 games.  Expect an early season surge and a late season collapse.  Expect for HC Dick Lebeau to be a defensive coordinator during the 2003 NFL Season.
Cleveland Browns
This teams not looking for the promised land, they know exactly where it's at; now it's just a matter of getting there.  Head Coach Butch Davis has the confidence of his team and the fans.  It is only a matter of time before this team rises to the top of the AFC North; this could be the year, but the Browns will have to improve in toughness both mentally and physically to overcome the final hurdle, their archenemies the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Players lost:  OG Jeremy McKinney, OT Romen Oben, TE Jake Moreland, RB Ben Gay
Players added:  OT Ryan Tucker, RB J.J. Johnson, WR Chris Sanders, OL Barry Stokes
Synopsis:  The achilles heel of this team has been the lack of a running game.  A less than stellar offensive line and so-so ball carriers put this team near the bottom of the league in rushing.  The team has responded by signing OL Ryan Tucker and Barry Stokes and drafting RB William Green (Boston College).  William Green will be the answer at running back; it remains to be seen if the offensive line questions have been adequately answered.  As soon as this team gets a running game, QB Tim Couch will explode.  Couch has been steady and tough, a real leader over his first 3 NFL seasons. WR's Kevin Johnson, Quincy Morgan, and newly drafted Andre Davis (Virginia Tech) could turn into one of the most explosive tandems in the league.  Look for RB Jamel White to have a huge season as a 3rd down back.
Players lost:  DE Greg Spires, DE Keith McKenzie
Players added:  DE Kenard Lang, S Robert Griffith, LB Earl Holmes
Synopsis:  Will they stop the run, or won't they stop the run?  That is the question.  The Browns think they have the answer with run-stopping DE Kenard Lang, hard-hitting S Robert Griffith, and the Steelers leading tackler from last year LB Earl Holmes.  Adding this type of support to a ball-hawking secondary should make this one of the better defensive units in the NFL and give Browns fans plenty to bark about.  Look for Courtney Brown to come up with 15 sacks and look for Gerard Warren to make the pro-bowl.
Special Teams:
Synopsis:  The Browns re-signed K Phil Dawson and added dangerous return man Andre Davis through the draft.  Look for field position to improve greatly for the Browns this year.
The Final Word:  Can this team become one of the elite teams in the NFL?  The coaching is there, the talent is there, but is the attitude there?  If this team takes on the image of it's coach and continues to grow into a tough young team, watch out.  This is definitely not your friendly, neighborhood expansion team.
Pittsburgh Steelers
Oh, how I hate this team. Oh, how I hate it's loud-mouthed, cocky, fans.  Oh, how I hate it's jutt-jawed coach.  Oh, they are one of the most consistent, one of the toughest, one of the best coached teams in the NFL.  The Pittsburgh Steelers are a model on how to survive in today's NFL; they have a motivational coach who knows when to cut a player loose and when to turn loose his young stars.  They are physical, they hit you on every play, and most teams back down before the game is complete.  To beat the Steelers, you better be ready to kick sand in the bullies' face.  But they do have one lingering problem: they know where the promised land is, they just can't seem to cross the border.  Every year it seems, a lesser team upsets them in the playoffs.  Bill Cowher's job is to do whatever it takes to get his team across the finish line.  The only problem for the Steelers is this:  as they have their gaze stuck on the finish line, a big Brown truck driven by a guy named Butch is closing the gap.  There will be a collision, the question is, who will be left standing?
Players lost:  OL Roger Duffy, WR Will Blackwell, FB Jon Witman, WR Bobby Shaw, G Rich Tylski
Players added:  none
Synopsis:  The question every year is can Kordell Stewart lead this team to a Super Bowl victory?  Will he revert to the Kordell of old?  Will Jerome Bettis finally lose his effectiveness (he reported to minicamp vastly out of shape)?  Last year these questions were answered with a positive answer for the Steelers.  This year, one get's the feeling that the Steelers may finally start to melt.  Look for Bill Cowher to try to add free agent Herman Moore to the WR mix to go along with Plaxico Burress.  Look for the DC's of the AFC North to have cold sweats with the addition of WR Antwaan Randle El (Indiana) to the Steelers already unpredictable offensive package.
Players lost:  LB Earl Holmes, CB Jason Simmons, LB Mike Jones
Players added:  LB James Farrior
Synopsis:  Due to LB Kendrell Bell's breakout year, the Steelers took a pass on resigning top tackler Earl Holmes.  They have replaced homes with LB James Farrior.  Look for this always tough defense to continue it's winning ways.  Their young, mean, and nasty and it will take a physical offense to get the better of them.
Special Teams:
Players lost:  PK Kris Brown
Players added:  PK Todd Peterson
Synopsis:  PK Kris "Can't Miss" (should be "Can't Kick") Brown will ply his trade in Houston this year.  He has been replaced by Chiefs PK Todd Peterson.  Look for the special teams woes of the Steelers to continue this year.  After all, what's better entertainment then watching Bill Cowher make a special teams coach urinate in his pants with his glare after a long opponent return.
The Final Word:  Cowher will once again have his team ready to go.  If Cleveland or any other AFC North team wants the division title, they're going to have to go through Pittsburgh to get it.
The Final, Final Word:
The road to the promised land in the AFC North goes through Pittsburgh, and the only team that looks up for the challenge is the upstart Cleveland Browns.  Pittsburgh vs. Cleveland, ahhh, isn't that the way it's supposed to be.  The NFL's biggest rivals fighting it out for the AFC Cent....oops!  AFC North Division Title.  Call it North, South, whatever you want to call it, it's football the way it was meant to be:  played on grass, in cold weather cities, with awesome defenses.  Let the road to the promised land begin, and may we enjoy every second of it.

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