THE WIZARD OF OZ DIVISION
The Browns are offloading their furniture at AFC North, their new digs until the next great realignment scheme (please God, no Century and Capitol divisions). It's a rust belt bunch already rife with rivalries, and the inaugural race will be tight—tighter than the experts think. Whoever can keep reasonably healthy, have some luck and create a spark can ride a hot streak to a title. Others will have only wet matches and never get untracked.
For now, the AFC North may be dubbed Linebacker Central since every team is loaded with great units. But me thinks for this year, at least, the division will play out as the Wizard of Oz Division.
Introducing the cast of characters and their records:
TEAM: Pittsburgh Steelers
ROLE: the Scarecrow
RESEMBLENCE: it's all (not) in their head.
They have continuity, as little turnover as anyone. They lose one name player on defense and his replacement will get plenty of help as he learns his new position. A healthy Bettis and Breuner solidify a traditionally fine ground game. They're no scarecrows in appearance as they play smashmouth as well as anyone. And the last time an overconfident Steelers were upset in the AFC Championship (by San Diego), they came back the following year to narrowly avoid another upset (by the Colts) to go to the Super Bowl. What could possibly go wrong this time? Where's the possible resemblance to the straw man?
Bettis, Burress, Kordell & Bill: if they only had a brain.
Jerome is aging and the wars have taken their toll. He responded with what appeared to be a training regimen at Krispy Kreme. Real bright. Bettis may turn into the Tre of running backs, and if you swallow the Forum adage that a great offensive line can make an average back look good, that won't get you far in the playoffs.
After a Quincy-type rookie year (clueless and hands of stone), Plaxico seemed to "get it" in year 2. But just when the press played up the improvement, he reverted to his dumbed down, drive stopping self. Kordell Stewart is the latest in a long line of qb's with million dollar talent and two bit heads. He used to vary game to game. Now he's better for longer stretches, but it's only a matter of time until the opposite of cream rises to the top.
Crunch time brings on brain freeze.
And Cowher? The mystery is why an otherwise very good coach has stuck with Stewart no matter what for many years. He's like the professor who can't figure out how to program the VCR.
The Steelers won't play with the fire of last year and may just win enough to get by, biding their time until the playoffs. But when the post season hits, Bettis will break down, Burress will break up drives with mistakes and Kordell will break down in tears.
TEAM: Cincinnati Bengals
ROLE: the Tin Man
RESEMBLENCE: tap on the chest. Hear a tinny sound? No heart.
The team has not equaled the sum of its squeaky parts. It's in serious need of leadership. Given their talent and given the reigns last year, Butch Davis would have made them 9-7. Dick LeBeau is not Butch Davis, but he's no Bruce Coslett either.
Slowly but surely he will turn this team around. It used to be that the Bengals would accumulate all of 2 wins by Halloween, then look encouraging towards the end of the year to raise false hopes, then do it all again.. Last year they actually began and closed last season with two straight victories. Okay, they went 2-10 in between, but for them that's progress. Remember the Ravens a few years back? They were consistent losers, and all the while accumulating good players, courtesy of the other Wizard of Oz. Next thing you know, the Ravens took a giant leap forward. Now it's the Bengals turn.
Dillon is Dillon and the offensive line may now pass block as well as it run blocks. Darnay may walk but the team will see him as part of the old line that was part of the attitude problem. The Bengals have assembled an encouraging receiving corps and a formidable front 7. Right now, Davis would take Takeo for Jamir even up in a NY minute. And bet on Justin Smith to have more sacks this year than Courtney.
If LeBeau can lead and keep Mike Brown locked in a trunk so that he doesn't take an axe to players' incentive with his loyalty oaths contract provisions, and younger players like Smith, Takeo and either Kitna or Frerotte take charge, then knock on tin, the Bengals really can make the playoffs. If nothing else, the law of averages has to catch up to them sooner or later.
TEAM: Cleveland Browns
RESEMBLANCE: on a mission to return home.
Don't laugh. Remember Dorothy stood up to the Cowardly Lion and slapped him silly. She also turned the Wicked Witch in a steaming tub of goo. Hail, Dorothy!
We're on a mission to return to our rightful home, the black & white Kansas of Paul Brown and HOFers on every unit and an unbroken string of championship games. Some teams were meant to be fodder over the decades (Cardinals, Falcons, Saints).
Others like the Browns seem better suited for the playoffs, even if they haven't been there in a long time. It only feels right.
A real live mlb and safety will improve an already good defense, but Warren and Brown realizing their potential will do even more. Consecutive years with the same offensive coordinator will help Couch, but Green realizing his potential will do much more.
KJ will put up fine numbers, but other legit receiving threats will do far more for the passing game, even if it means fewer catches for KJ.
A rickety shack of an offensive line was no match for the swirling defenses that knocked Timmy into the land of living color.
This year, he needs several 12 play- 80 yard drives where there's one play action for every three handoffs. Once he doesn't have to play like flying monkeys are constantly swarming over his head, Couch can show us what he's really made of; perhaps even make a few big plays himself.
What doesn't get us any closer to home is that we need so many of the unproven to prove something, and in that there are no guarantees. The offensive line has only been improved by inches when it needed to go a few yards. Stokes is a quality backup, not a starter. Tucker is average. Verba is not playing where he should. That's all better than what we've had, not so good if we have real playoff aspirations. And while we're crossing our fingers that we'll finally have a running game and some protection for Couch, we have huge question marks at te and fb/hb, two positions critical in making the above no place like home.
Like Dorothy, the Browns have purpose and a vision. They know where they want to go and know how to get there. But while ruby slippers may look pretty snazzy, they're lousy for going the distance. In my book, Dorothy says "Screw the hot air balloon to nowhere. I'm pulling those kick ass black waffle stompers out of that green puddle of goo, and marching out!" She may not get to Kansas this year, but next year she'll be boozing it up with her friends in Bunker Hill.
TEAM: Baltimore Ravens
ROLE: the Cowardly Lion
RESEMBLANCE: in serious need of courage
The Ravens terrorized the opposition in the latter part of 2000, then got by on their reputation the next year until Dorothy slapped the whiskers right off their face—twice for good measure. That turned the Ravens into a fur ball of self doubt. By the time they faced the Steelers, they were laying flat out next to the fireplace. Jamal Lewis has returned, but most of the family moved away without telling him.
As long as they give him the ball and let him run behind Ogden and Mulitalo, the Ravens may still look a little ferocious. Billick has to rely on force of will and the remnants who know what it took to win a championship. He'll need more smoke and mirrors than Seigfried & Roy's show. But if the Ravens get beaten big early, vets like Lewis &, Boulware will slink off and players will go through the motions liked the drugged out lions at the cheapo circus that plays your local armory.
Even at 6-10, Billick will have crafted an admirable coaching job. But the Ravens teeter on the brink of a flame out. Their season is captured in the movie poster for "The Sorcerer." You may remember this early ‘80's Roy Scheider remake of the French film "Wages of Fear" in which down-and-outers take on the job of driving trucks full of nitro-glycerin through the South American jungles. The movie poster shows one of the trucks on a flimsy rope bridge, and one of the ropes has broken, leaving a truck loaded with nitro hanging at a 30 degree angle over a gorge.
What a nice way for Art to go out. It's even better if hungry lions are waiting below.
It will be a tight race. No way will the Ravens win the division, and no way can the Steelers finish last. Otherwise momentum can jumble the order pretty easily.
That's the way I see it, and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.