PRO FOOTBALL 1980
Mean Joe Greene, the Pittsburgh defensive tackle who already wears Super Bowl rings on four fingers, obviously wants more, judging by his new slogan: "One for the thumb in '81."
Although the National Football League championship game isn't until next January, the NFL's jeweler might be well advised to keep the Steeler ring sizes handy.
The only team to win four Super Bowls goes after an unprecedented third consecutive title this season with one of the best teams ever assembled. In light of their recent accomplishments, the Steelers certainly rank alongside if not ahead of the Vince Lombardiera Green Bay Packers, the sixties' dominant franchise.
The stiffest challenges to Pittsburgh's continued supremacy may come from Houston, San Diego, and Philadelphia.
The Oilers feel they've strengthened themselves by making the off-season's biggest trade, sending Dan Pastorini to Oakland for Ken Stabler in an exchange of starting quarterbacks. Stabler should take some of the pressure off Earl Campbell, who's seeking his third consecutive rushing crown.
San Diego, a tremendous passing team, will benefit from reaching the playoffs last year.
The Eagles, meanwhile, should continue their steady improvement under Coach Dick Vermeil.
There are, of course, other teams with reasonable playoff chances, including Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Denver, and New England.
In the sleeper category are Miami, Chicago, Washington, Buffalo, New Orleans, Dallas, Seattle, and the New York Jets.
On the whole, the AFC should once again prove to be the better-balanced and superior conference. Of 52 games against National Conference opponents last year, AFC teams won 36.
More embarrassing perhaps is the AFC's almost total domination in the Super Bowl. Since the 1970 season, when the old American Football League teams were absorbed into an expanded NFL, AFC clubs have won on all but two occasions.
Dallas, the winner of Super Bowls VI and XII, and Minnesota were the "National" powers during the seventies. Now, however, both clubs face difficulties in rebuilding around new quarterbacks.
Tommy Kramer, Fran Tarkenton's replacement at Minnesota, has already spent one year at the controls.And even though he turned in a respectable performance, the franchise missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Some wonder if Dallas will follow suit now that Roger Staubach has retired. During four years apprenticing under Staubach, Danny White usually came through when pressed into action, yet now he must find a way to do it week after week.
With Dallas and Minnesota trying to replenish their rosters, a "new order" could emerge in the NFC. Actually this has already begun to happen in the case of Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. The Eagles have rallied behind veteran quarterback Ron Jaworski ("The Polish Rifle"), while the Bucs, last year's surprise team, have started to jell under third-year man Doug Williams.
Sometimes williams is all over the lot with his passes, but Tampa BAy's defense seldom lets the team down. And don't coaches always say that "defense wins football games?"
The Steelers have lent credence to that maxim by piecing together the game's most awesome group of "stoppers." Now the Bucs have copied the formula, building their defense around Lee Roy Selmon much as Pittsburgh once made Joe Greene the cornerstone of its Steel Curtain.
In reaching the playofts for the first time last year, Tampa Bay was able to take advantage of playing in one of the weakest divisions in all of football, the NFC Central. The Steelers, on the other hand, play in what is probably the strongest, the AFC Central.
This makes their challenge to stay on top all the harder, particularly since their lofty status forces them to pick at the bottom of the draft.
The draft tries to make parity happen and we're trying to beat the mechanics of the system," says Chuck Noll, who's finally gaining recognition for his coaching genius.
Noll's philosophy is that you don't draft finished products, but develop them , and that's where his teaching ability is so invaluable. Though the Steelers now have 12 players with a decade or more of NFL experience, Noll consistently manages to restock the roster with an eye to the future.
Other clubs are looking for more immediate help. Detroit definitely falls into this category. After winning only two of 16 games last year, the Lions made halfback Billy Sims the first pick in the entire draft. Sims has the potential to carry an offense much like Walter Payton has done at Chicago.
Other draft choices to watch are flyers Curtis Dickey of Baltimore and Johnny (Lam) Jones, a gold medal-winning Olympian, of the New York Jets. Charles White , last year's Heisman winner, is with Cleveland.
Perhaps the rookie under the most pressure to measure up is defensive back Jonnie Johnson of Los Angeles. Johnson's million- dollar contract caused enough grumbling by some veterans to keep them out of training camp.
This year the Rams move from the L.A. Coliseum to Anaheim Stadium, a trasfer that led to Al Davis's aborted attempt to relocate his Oakland Raiders in Los Angeles (he'll try again next year).
The question about who should quarterback the Rams persists. Pat Haden, injured last year, is expected to return to the lineup, yet backup Vince Ferragamo established his credentials in taking LA to last January's Super Bowl.
The New York Jets, a club that's found playing "musical chairs" with its quarterbacks just doesn't work, finally settled on one, Richard Todd. Matt Robinson, therefore, was traded to Denver.
On the coaching front, Forrest Gregg steps in at Cincinnati, Jim Hanifan at St Louis, and Mike Mccormack at Baltimore. AFC East
New York Jets -- The quarterback problem has been resolved. Richard Todd finally won the job for good. Now if Coach Walt Michaels can solidify a suspect defense, the Jets will be on their way.
New England -- Perhaps no teams gets so little from so much. Maybe contract holdouts by several key players will make the Patriots buckle down and win -- but then again, maybe not.
Miami -- Even with Bob Griese throwing flutter balls, Don Shula knows how to produce a winner.
Buffalo -- A spotty club with as many weaknesses as strengths. Terry Miller needs to revive a non-existent running game.
Baltimore -- The Colts will either be respectable or miserable depending on whether or not Bert Jones survives the season at quarterback. Central
Pittsburgh -- The Steelers never loose at home and seldom anywhere else. Coach Chuck Noll, not one to "play out the string," won't let complacency creep in.
Houstin -- No strangers to the playofts anymore, Bum Phillips' Oilers might just go all the way. Ken Stabler, a master at picking apart defenses, looks like a good addition.
Cleveland -- The best third-place team in football. Brian Sipe, perhaps the game's most under-rated field general, throws to some superb receivers.
Cincinnati -- Management still seems undecided on how to put this team back together. West
San Diego -- Dan Fouts has come into his own as a passer. Aerial fireworks alone, however, do not win championships. The Chargers must find a way to move the ball more consistently on the ground.
Denver -- Figuring the defense has carried the load long enough, the Broncos are giving the offense new attention. Give the front office credit for picking up Mat Robinson, a gritty, mobile QB who can pass.
Seattle -- At best, the Seahawks are still only average defensively. When they have the ball, though, lefty Jim Zorn is a beaut.
Oakland -- Once-loyal fans have soured on the Raiders because of their attempted move to LA. It's not the happiest situation for Dan Pastorini to step in to.
Kansas City -- A rah-rah team with enough enthusiasm and young talent to surprise people. NFC East
Philadelphia -- No powerhouse, but they now know how to win. The Eagles believe in themselves and QB Ron Jaworski, who seems poised to have his best year yet.
Dallas -- The Cowboys won't be throwing in the towel with Danny White, who can play. But losing Roger Staubach will still take some getting used to.
Washington -- On paper the Redskins seldom look that good, yet they are perenial over-achievers.
New York Giants -- At least there's hope now that the club has Phil Simms, a promising, young quarterback.
St. Louis -- Ottis Anderson (1,605 yards) is super, but the team is in disarray otherwise. Central
Tampa Bay -- The Bucs are on their way, but don't expect them to check into the Super Bowl just yet. The defense is awesome, but the offense hasn't really come of age.
Chicago -- Until the Bears are ready to trade for, or can draft, a top-flight QB, running back Walter Payton can only carry them so far.
Detroit -- The return of Gary Danielson (shelved all last season with an injury) and the acquisition of rookie Billy Sims make the Lions competitive again.
Minnesota -- The Vikings are a team under repair.
Green bay -- The frustrations never seem to end for Coach Bart Starr. West
Los Angeles -- The Rams got hot during the playofts, but remember, they were only 9-7 during the 1979 regular season. The point is they're beatable.
New Orleans -- This could be the year New Orleans ends LA's seven-year lock on division honors. Archie Manning, Chuck Muncie, Tony Galbreath -- the offense is loaded.
Atlanta -- Quarterback Steve Bartkowski must come around for the Falcons to side-step a total collapse.
San Francisco -- The 49ers will improve on back-to-back 2-14 seasons, which isn't saying much.