The AFC Central Division standings are almost a complete reversal of what they were two years ago. Then, Jacksonville and Tennessee were on top, Baltimore was 8-8, and Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Cleveland were mired in apparent hopelessness.
Today, Pittsburgh leads the division with a 5-1 record, Cleveland is 4-2, Baltimore and Cincinnati are each 4-3, and Jacksonville and Tennessee are tied for last place at 2-4.
Wow! How is it possible for that kind of upheaval to have occurred so quickly? Let's examine how it happened.
Pittsburgh--What we failed to realize was that as the Steelers' record was in decline, their roster was in ascent. The Steelers are a very patient organization that builds slowly, methodically through the draft. In 1998, the first of two consecutive losing seasons, they added Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Deshea Townsend and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala. The following year, they added Troy Edwards, Joey Porter, Amos Zereoue, Aaron Smith, Jerame Tuman and Kris Brown. From 2000, Plaxico Burress, Marvel Smith, Kendrick Clancy and Hank Poteat are all current contributors. This year, Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell have already become starters. Is it any surprise the Steelers are back on top? The draft is the least expensive vehicle for player-acquisition and the Steelers have drafted well.
Cleveland--Through their first two seasons back in the league, the Browns were an embarrassment. They drafted poorly and illogically and their free-agent acquisitions were littered with high-priced mistakes. So, how is it the Browns have risen so sharply this year? Well, it's too early to know how far the Browns have truly risen, but they are clearly in ascent. The credit goes to rookie coach Butch Davis for re-constructing a bad roster, then rehabilitating those players from the previous regime's roster who Davis identified as having talent. Quarterback Tim Couch, the first overall pick of the 1999 draft, represents the greatest of Davis' rehab jobs. Couch is the most recognizable reason for the Browns' rise.
Baltimore--The Super Bowl-champion Ravens have also done it through the draft: Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Jermaine Lewis, Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper, Duane Starks, Chris McAlister, Brandon Stokley, Edwin Mulitalo, Jamal Lewis and Travis Taylor. But the Ravens have also spent a lot of money in free agency: Shannon Sharpe, Elvis Grbac, Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa, Rod Woodson and Michael McCrary. Fortunately for the Ravens, their expensive free-agent acquisitions have largely been worth the money spent. Nevertheless, they've left the Ravens in a cap-dangerous situation for the future. It may be too early to say the Ravens are in decline, but even if they are, they didn't "miss their turn."
Cincinnati--Remember when the Bengals were everybody's belly laugh? Well, Mike Brown was smart enough to stash cap room while his team was losing, and point to the day when the Bengals would have a new stadium and the ability to compete with the rest of the league financially. That's now, in a year that began with the Bengals $17 million under the salary cap. They re-signed Corey Dillon and added Jon Kitna to a cast of high draft choices that include Willie Anderson, Dillon, Takeo Spikes, Brian Simmons, Peter Warrick and Justin Smith. It's too early to say the Bengals are back, but they are clearly in position to put the finishing touches to this team this winter and next spring. In the Bengals' case, ascent is more the case of taking a hard line in contract negotiations than can be attributed to drafting acumen. They've picked some stars, but the depth of their drafts hasn't matched the Steelers'.
Jacksonville--Age, injuries, excessive spending in free agency, contract re-structurings and poor decisions in the draft have conspired to drop the Jaguars from the top of the league. It's important to note that age, injuries and bad drafts are the usual circumstances that result from winning, but the Jaguars' failure to respect the salary cap is the mistake that has made this team's fall as sharp as it is. The Steelers experienced two losing seasons before their recovery was obvious. They've made sound cap decisions, such as allowing Carnell Lake to leave in free agency and cutting Levon Kirkland last spring. The Jaguars are in their second losing season but won't begin their recovery efforts until this winter. They took their swing in 1999, but they swung too hard. Wayne Weaver won't allow that mistake to happen again.
Tennessee--The Titans got to the Super Bowl in '99 and they did it the right way, by making sound and dramatic draft decisions. Steve McNair, Eddie George, Jon Runyan, Samari Rolle and Jevon Kearse represent only a fraction of the Titans' draft success since 1995. GM Floyd Reese was building a young team that appeared as though it would enjoy a lengthy window-of-opportunity term, then, the Titans made the mistake of shopping in free agency. Along came Yancey Thigpen, Fred Miller, Randall Godrey and Kevin Carter, all of whom signed contracts far in excess of their worth. Then the Titans began over-paying their own players, and the combination of keeping their stars and signing other teams' stars was an unbeatable formula for salary-cap ruin. The fall was completed this past spring when the Titans traded their first-round pick to St. Louis for Carter. Is it any wonder this year's draft class is the Titans' worst in years?
The brightest minds in professional football seemingly can not discipline themselves against the quick-fix lure that accompanies outrageous contracts and knee-jerk personnel decisions. If you want to get bad fast and stay there long, that's the way to do it.