In training camp the Jets performed as extras in the filming of a TV musical about a miserable football team that is transformed into a winner by a messenger of the gods. On cue, the Jets were dropping passes, missing kicks, falling down, fumbling and bumbling like an idiot team when a club official cracked, "I really don't notice anything different." Three years removed from the Titans of Harry Wismer, the Jets are different, however, and the real-life presence of Joe Namath may be godlike enough to make them challengers for the Eastern championship.
Bigger, deeper and faster—"the fastest team I have ever had," says Weeb Ewbank, who coached two NFL champions at Baltimore—New York is a young team with young ideas. Says Curley Johnson, punter and blithe spirit of the Jets: "The talk around here is title."
This is fancy talk for a crowd that went 5-8-1 last year and has never had a winning season, but several young players improved remarkably in the second half of 1965 when the Jets won five of their last eight games, including a victory over champion Buffalo. Namath, who developed fastest of all, can be one of the best quarterbacks in football.
After taking command of the team midway through the season, Broadway Joe passed for 2,220 yards and 18 touchdowns; his damaged knee caused little apparent trouble. But this year the knee was wrenched in the Jets' preseason game with the Oilers, causing some worry. If it holds up through the season no AFL team will get more confident leadership or more poise under fire. Mike Taliaferro is an adequate No. 2.
Namath and Taliaferro throw to wide receivers George Sauer Jr., Bake Turner and Don Maynard. Sauer, a rookie last year, has taken the starting split-end assignment from Turner. Ten pounds lighter this season, faster and with that important year of experience, he could be one of the league's best. Flanker Maynard already is. He had a gaudy second half of the season, catching 45 passes for nine touchdowns in seven games. Jim Colclough, obtained from Boston in the deal for Quarterback John Huarte, is a valuable receiver and can fill in on either side.
The Jets went looking for some tight-end help in the draft and got it in Pete Lammons of Texas and Bill Yearby of Michigan. The regular these rookies have beaten is Dee Mackey, who caught well but has had pneumonia.
The Jets' running game has been weak to the outside but strong between the tackles with Matt Snell, fourth in rushing last season, and Bill Mathis, seventh. Both are fine blockers and pass protectors, and Snell is a sure receiver. Emerson Boozer, a strong and swift first-year man from Maryland State, will give New York outside speed.
The reason the Jets do not worry more about Namath's valuable knee is the offensive line, which is a superior pass-blocking unit. If it can protect a Dick Wood, who has had five knee operations and is a prospect for six, it can protect a Namath. Only 17 times in 14 games last year were Jet quarterbacks dumped on a rush. In the line the gap at center created by Mike Hudock's departure for Miami has been filled by John Schmitt, off the taxi squad. The tackles are massive 300-pound Sherman Plunkett, an All-League choice, and 275-pound Winston Hill, and the guards are again Sam DeLuca and Dave Herman.
It is on defense that the Jets must improve substantially if they are to make a serious championship bid. Only Houston had a poorer record against rushing in 1965. New York started last season with two rookies on the right side of the defensive line—End Verlon Biggs and Tackle Jim Harris—and a near rookie, Gerry Philbin, at right end. They endured and learned, and with veteran Paul Rochester at right tackle they now form a cohesive unit. Biggs is a coming star, but as good as he is the Jets rate Philbin their steadiest defensive lineman.
Linebacking is looking up with the sharply improved play of 230-pound Al Atkinson, a Buffalo reject. There will be more help when prize rookie Carl McAdams of Oklahoma recovers from his ankle injury next month. Larry Grantham is a shrewd, albeit small, operator on the right; Ralph Baker returns on the left side. Either Yearby or Lammons might also be used.
New York's defensive backs lack size, but Dainard Paulson is All-League at safety and Cornell Gordon could be good at right corner back. The right safety will be either Jim Hudson or Ray Abruzzese, and Billy Baird takes over from Willie West, gone to Miami in the expansion draft, at the other corner. Veteran Johnny Sample will add experience and speed to the secondary. A very swift but very small rookie, Sherman Lewis, the Michigan State star of three years ago, should make the team if only on punt and kickoff returns.
The kicking is strong with Punter Johnson, who averaged 45.3 yards (second in the AFL), and Jim Turner, who scored 91 points with his toe.
That television musical in which the Jets lapsed into their old nonskills is all about miracles. Three of the Jets' first four games are against the lower echelon of the AFL—Miami, Denver and Boston—and they could be off to a fast start. Thereafter, the developing skills of the younger players could continue the momentum.