Three coaches new to the AFC East will have one thing in common this season. All of them will be chasing the two established guys.
Al Groh, in his first NFL head coaching assignment, replaces Bill Parcells in New York. After the way Parcells turned around the moribund Jets, that's a lot of replacing.
Dave Wannstedt takes over in Miami for Jimmy Johnson, who never did turn the Dolphins back into champions. Johnson's legacy will be for his achievements in Dallas, but Wannstedt, Johnson's hand-chosen successor, still will be on a very hot seat in football-mad south Florida.
Bill Belichick moves in for Pete Carroll in New England, not exactly the toughest act to follow. Belichick, however, must erase the stigma he created in his five-year stint as head coach of the Browns: uncompromising, unfriendly, unapproachable. A terrific defensive coordinator, Belichick is not known for good people skills.
That's how Jim Mora's coaching style once was perceived. Now, with Peyton Manning at quarterback, Edgerrin James at running back and Marvin Harrison at receiver, Mora can't help but open up things. He just has too many weapons in Indianapolis, which went from 3-13 to 13-3 last year and should be in that fancy neighborhood again in 2000.
"You design the whole offense to fit their skills," Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore said.
Those skills come from Manning's arm, savvy, leadership and maneuverability. They include James' ruggedness and versatility, plus Harrison's explosiveness and big-play mastery.
"Edgerrin only had his rookie season, so I know he's going to get better," said Harrison, an All-Pro wide receiver. "Peyton is getting better each year. And I'm just going to hold up my end of the bargain."
If the offensive line can continue holding up its end, while tight ends Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard provide additional weapons, the offense could rank with the Rams. But Harrison, who was all-universe in the first half of 1999, needs to avoid tailing off the way he did last year. Of course, if E.G. Green or another wideout emerges to complement him, Harrison won't be looking at double-teams every play.
Defensively, the Colts need another big season from end Chad Bratzke, the only AFC East player with at least 10 sacks last year: he had 12. And they need rapid development from middle linebacker Rob Morris, their No. 1 draft choice.
If the defense is merely equal to 1999, the Colts will be fine.
The haves and have-nots
Talk about your haves and have-nots: The AFC Central has a talent chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon running through its middle.
At the top are the AFC champion Tennessee Titans, the defending division titleist Jacksonville Jaguars and the rapidly rising Baltimore Ravens. At the bottom are the quickly fading Pittsburgh Steelers, the second-year Cleveland Browns and the usually laughable Cincinnati Bengals.
While the top three teams all figure to make the postseason parade, the tailenders all could vie for the No. 1 draft pick.
The Titans come off a wonderful season, going 13-3, beating Jacksonville three times, including in the AFC title game, then falling a yard short of overtime in the Super Bowl.
It's obvious how they can top that.
"There's a lot of optimism, and it's well-founded this year," said Bruce Matthews, the 39-year-old offensive lineman entering his 18th NFL season. "We're excited about what potentially can happen again this season."
With the Jaguars riddled by injuries and the Ravens not quite at their level, the Titans seem a clear-cut choice to win the AFC Central. Matthews and his buddies on the offensive line -- budding star Jon Runyan is gone, but free agent Fred Miller was signed away from the Rams to play right tackle -- are efficient enough to boost Eddie George toward 2,000 yards rushing. George, in turn, is enough of a workhorse to get close to it, and might have to if the passing game doesn't pick up.
It should. QB Steve McNair comes off a big postseason in which he seemed to mature. He already has a Pro Bowl tight end/H back in Frank Wycheck, and now he has a first-rate wideout in Carl Pickens.
Pickens, considered a troublemaker in Cincinnati, has been a model citizen and solid performer for the Titans.
"I couldn't have come to a better situation," Pickens said. "This is a team that was one yard away."
It's also a multidimensional team on defense, led by All-Pro end Jevon Kearse, the 1999 Defensive Rookie of the Year. Coach Jeff Fisher and his staff are designing more formations in which Kearse can line up anywhere.
But the suspension of tackle Josh Evans for the season will hurt, although John Thornton looks like a quality replacement. The secondary has sustained some hits, but the revamped linebacking corps looks stronger with free agent Randall Godfrey Bulluck in the middle.
The Titans shouldn't need any Music City Miracles to hold off the Jaguars, whose only three losses last year were to Tennessee. Jacksonville is good enough to stay close behind the passing of Mark Brunell, receiving of Jimmy Smith, running of Fred Taylor and an upgraded defense featuring Kevin Hardy, Gary Walker and Fernando Bryant.
But the Jaguars have been swamped by offseason problems.
The offensive line was hit hardest, with right tackle Leon Searcy out until at least November after tearing a tendon above his right knee; All-Pro left tackle Tony Boselli slowly recovering from his knee surgery; and four other offensive linemen, including two starters, missing hefty portions of training camp.
Could be a 5-team race
One thing the AFC West won't be is boring. It's already been the NFL's busiest division during the preseason, off the field and on.
There's been tragedy, with the death of Chiefs star linebacker Derrick Thomas.
There's been controversy, with Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski dealing with an indictment for unlawful possession of a controlled substance, obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and deceit and two counts of conspiracy. Not to mention a magazine claim he used a racial slur.
There's been a possible career resurrection by Ryan Leaf in San Diego. Seattle might have found the league's most sensational rookie in running back Shaun Alexander. And the Raiders, well, they've simply been the Raiders, which means nothing is predictable.
Nor is the AFC West predictable.
It's conceivable that all five teams will go deep into December with a shot at the division title. Only Denver wasn't in a position to make the playoffs down the stretch in 1999, and the Broncos may be the team to beat this year.
If they can settle down after the disturbing Romanowski saga, the Broncos should be over the trauma of losing John Elway to retirement. They have Terrell Davis back from a knee injury, and some depth behind him in Olandis Gary, who as a rookie rushed for 1,159 yards in little more than half a season.
The Broncos plan on having selective memories. The unsettling aspects of the preseason will be forgotten. The glory they earned in 1997 and '98 won't be.
"What happened yesterday? Oh, that's in the past. We look forward to brighter days in the future," tackle Tony Jones said of the Romanowski affair.
"We did some great things on this team," said Davis, the 1998 league MVP. "We can do them again."
Perhaps, but they surely will be pushed. The Broncos need to settle their quarterback situation rally around Brian Griese. He's not the playmaker Elway was, but he has lots of clutch performers around him, starting in the backfield and in the offensive line.
Griese must find a comfort zone without star tight end Shannon Sharpe, who left for Baltimore.
Defensively, linebacker John Mobley also is struggling to come back from a knee injury. But Al Wilson was a find in the middle, and Trevor Pryce should build off his breakthrough season at defensive tackle.
The secondary is shaky; luckily for the Broncos, this is not a division strong in quarterbacks or receivers.
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