AFC Central a division of off-season addition

1999 will feature one new team, many new players, coaches

August 01, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff

There were major renovations to the AFC Central Division this off-season, and not all of the repair work had to do with the arrival/return of the Cleveland Browns.

No team underwent as many alterations as the Tennessee Titans, nee Oilers, who got a new name, new uniforms, new stadium in Nashville and new team president in Jeff Diamond this off-season. The Titans are also hoping for a new script after three straight 8-8 seasons.

But there was more.

The Pittsburgh Steelers revamped their scraggly offense after it produced just one touchdown in the final month of 1998. The Jacksonville Jaguars reshaped their hapless defense after it ranked no higher than 22nd in any of the three major yardage categories. And the Ravens became a curious work in progress when they hired offensive guru Brian Billick away from the Minnesota Vikings -- and out from under the Browns -- with a six-year contract.

The cumulative effect of these moves promises to restore the luster to a division that had just one winning team in 1998, three of the five lowest-scoring offenses in the NFL and three of the bottom nine total yardage defenses.

But the net result doesn't figure to alter the balance of power, which rests with the Jaguars, their cardboard defense notwithstanding.

In 1998, four seasons after their inception, the Jaguars ended Pittsburgh's four-year run as division kingpin with their first AFC Central title. Jacksonville's defensive deficiencies were never more evident than in the divisional playoffs, though, when it was shredded for 34 points by the New York Jets.

Coach Tom Coughlin struck quickly in the off-season to repair the damage. On the first day of free agency, he signed Steelers safety Carnell Lake to shore up his secondary and Tennessee defensive tackle Gary Walker to help stop the run. When defensive coordinator Dick Jauron was a surprise choice to become head coach of the Chicago Bears, Coughlin brought in Dom Capers, recently fired in Carolina.

The switch to Capers may be the most meaningful off-season move made by the Jaguars. Under Jauron, they played a vanilla, safety-first, 4-3 defense. Under Capers, who helped usher in the zone-blitz craze while in Pittsburgh, they figure to take more risks and create more turnovers.

Capers isn't the only deposed head coach who found a new home in the AFC Central. The other is Kevin Gilbride, hired as offensive coordinator by the Steelers to resurrect quarterback Kordell Stewart, who threw 18 interceptions a year ago.

Gilbride was fired by the San Diego Chargers six weeks into the 1998 season, after they scored just 22 offensive touchdowns in his 22 games. That ratio represents an improvement on the Steelers' December, when they scored one offensive touchdown in four games.

Pittsburgh lost its last five games to finish 7-9 and suffer its first losing season since 1991, or pre-coach Bill Cowher. Cowher's first off-season move was to dump offensive coordinator Ray Sherman and bring in Gilbride. After that, the Steelers signed a new left tackle, Wayne Gandy, to protect Stewart, and drafted a new deep threat, wide receiver Troy Edwards, to stretch defenses.

They also gave Stewart a new contract that included an $8.1 million signing bonus. This vote of confidence either will pay huge dividends or come back to bite the Steelers in the salary cap.

Cleveland's return to the NFL as an expansion team makes the AFC Central the only six-team division in the league. It also means each team will play 10 division games a season instead of eight.

If the Browns are going by division prototypes, they'd be wise to find a big, powerful running back (like Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis), a mobile quarterback (like Tennessee's Steve McNair) and some 6-foot receivers (like Jacksonville's duo of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell).

As it stands now, they'll start with 6-foot-1, 223-pound Terry Kirby at running back and either veteran Ty Detmer or rookie Tim Couch at quarterback.

Chris Palmer, offensive coordinator in Jacksonville the past two seasons, joins Billick as a first-year head coach in the division.

Tennessee's makeover included the drafting of defensive end Jevon Kearse, who should improve a pass rush that's been almost nonexistent. The hiring of Diamond, loser in a power struggle in Minnesota, will give the Titans a fresh outlook at the top.

In Cincinnati, meanwhile, the Bengals regrouped from a 3-13 disaster by signing guards, Brian DeMarco and Matt O'Dwyer, and taking quarterback Akili Smith with the third pick of the draft.

Coach Bruce Coslet's job depends on a turnaround by both his offense and defense.

Here is how the AFC Central looks going into training camp:

Cleveland

Best additions: president Carmen Policy, coach Chris Palmer, LT Lomas Brown, RT Orlando Brown, C Dave Wohlabaugh, CB Corey Fuller, OLB Jamir Miller, MLB Chris Spielman, DE Roy Barker.

Big losses: None.

Camp projects: Find depth, chemistry and skill position players.

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