The AFC North division is made up of four teams located around the cradle of football civilization.
Cleveland's first professional football team came into existence in 1920. Cincinnati joined the fledgling APFA (American Professional Football Association), the precursor to the NFL, in 1921. The Steelers (then named the Pittsburgh Pirates) joined the NFL in 1933. Baltimore entered the ranks of cities with an NFL franchise team in 1950.
With the exception of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the teams that began in Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland do not exist in their original cities today yet in each city the history and the love of the sport remains. All four of these cities are brimming with football fanatics.
We all want our teams to win. But year after year, the cream of the division rises to the top and the rest settle at the bottom.
Success begins and ends with personnel. It is never simply the personnel on the field but it is a combination of those men, the men on the sidelines, and last but certainly not least, the people in the front office.
Let's take a closer look beginning with the Cincinnati Bengels.
Year after year I hear reports that the direction the team will take pivots on Carson Palmer's health. The analysts are focusing on his physical health but I think that Palmer's mental strength is the key to the Bengel's success.
Palmer comes off as a pampered, whiny guy who rarely misses an opportunity to put his foot in his mouth. The Bengels are a team with no leadership.
Already this year No. 9 was attempting to rally the troops and he announced that the Bengel's mini camp was a distraction-free success. Noticabally absent from camp was C.O.
Marvin Lewis does nothing to suppress a lack of team spirit. Instead Marvin Lewis added fuel to the fire, proclaiming on NFL Network that he and Chad "have issues like any family."
In addition, all of the buzz surrounding Malaluga being selected in the second round by Cincinnati sounds to me like a florescent light about to burn out. He is a young man with red flags surrounding his personal conduct walking into an undisciplined group of like-minded guys.
No leadership. No chemistry. No playoffs.
Heading north up I-71, we arrive at the home of the Cleveland Browns.
The annual crop of optimists touting the virtues of "this year's Browns" are excited about the 2009 season. I don't share the excitement. This year's Browns will soon look like last year's Jets.
Eric Mangini tore through the draft like a bargain hunting bridezilla at the annual Filene's Basement wedding gown sale.
He reminds me of the wanna-be aficionado out to impress his friends who makes a selection because of brand recognition when in reality, he has passed over a higher quality product that was available for a fraction of the price. Last year before he got fired, he got Faneca and he got Farve but what he didn't get was into the playoffs.
Mangini has added some impressive names like Alex Mack, Mohamed Massaquoi, and Brian Robiskie to his roster but will he be able to get them to gel together.
I would love to see a return to a real rivalry between Pittsburgh and Cleveland but I am not holding my breath.
The Baltimore Ravens are a team that has earned a lot of respect.
Last year, John Harbaugh made an immediate impact as a rookie coach.
He stuck the landing with first round pick QB Joe Flacco.
Mentoring a young unknown "Danny Noonan" type of guy while managing a XXL bad boy like Ray Lewis looked easy in the hands of Harbaugh.
Beyond the amazing season, Harbaugh kept the heart and soul of his Ravens in Baltimore. Ray Lewis resigned with the club after multiple sources reported that #52 had lost his allegiance to the Ravens and would take his leadership elsewhere.
The Ravens have chemistry. They have talent but they have a strong chain of command from the Alpha dog on down. It works.
Harbaugh took a team that finished "5-11" the previous year to the AFC Championship with an untested rookie quarterback in his first year as a head coach.
I saved the Steelers for last not because they are the reigning Super Bowl champs, but because they are the benchmark for great management.
From Noll through to Tomlin, Steeler coaches have set high standards for their players.
Noll only worked with men who could manage themselves. The four Super Bowl titles his teams brought to Pittsburgh provide a heavy support to his philosophy.
Cowher was excellent when it came to drafting top-tier talent. He also had the smarts to step side and let Bettis motivate the team to win a Super Bowl. Under Cowher however, the Steelers fell apart as a group without Bettis as their glue in 2006.
Mike Tomlin came to Pittsburgh in 2007 as an unknown with a lot to prove. He lead his team to the playoffs in his rookie season as coach.
Last year under his leadership, a team with what was called a sub-par offensive line went all the way to a Super Bowl victory.
Tomlin knows how to manage personalities. He handled Ben's practicing through his injuries and Parker's public call for a return to the run with diplomacy and class.
Tact, respect and the ability to motivate are Tomlin's strengths. Coach Tomlin is esteemed by his players and coaches alike. He sets a tone of personal responsibility in the locker room and the results pay high dividends.
The talent vs. chemistry debate will continue, but when I look at the four teams in the AFC North, good chemistry seems to be just the thing to lift a team with pre-season potential and translate talent into trophies.
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