The wind at Shea Stadium can create illusions. It blows in from the outfield, whirls erratically inside the bowl, curls around the knees and down the coat collars of people in their seats, rouses little dust devils from the infield dirt and can make a thrown football dance like Joe Namath on a night out. Thus the wind brings an element of luck into quarterbacking at Shea, where the pass must be played like a bank shot and the passer is never quite certain where the invisible backboard is going to be.
The wind was part of the reason why neither Namath, who is growing into his job as quarterback of the New York Jets, nor Daryle Lamonica of the Oakland Raiders was very effective as a passer last Saturday on a cool and gusty evening. Throwing sometimes into, sometimes across and sometimes with the deceptive wind, both Namath and Lamonica seemed totally unlike the American Football League's two leading passers, which is what they had been. But there was nothing illusory about the way the Jets whipped the Raiders 27-14, thereby establishing themselves, after years of frustration, as probable champions of the AFL's Eastern Division.
The Jets have got off to fast starts before and have excited their fans into unreasonable expectations. For the past two seasons they fared only as well as did the quick arm and aching knees of Namath, their offensive leader. When Namath was good, so were the Jets. When he was not so good, there was gloom at Shea. The difference now is that the Jets can win without Namath throwing for a mile and a half and a dozen touchdowns a game. They beat Oakland, the toughest defensive team in the league, with their own defense—particularly the rush line and the linebackers—and with a solid running game built around the power and speed of Halfback Emerson Boozer, who can hardly walk for most of the week but can hardly be stopped on game day.
Namath proved his increasing maturity as a quarterback by calling an intelligent game against the Raiders, who a week earlier had beaten Kansas City, the AFL's best team. With the big Oakland line coming at him hard and facing a frequent blitz, Namath fell back on the repeated use of a play the Jets refer to as 25 Lag.
Four things can happen off the 25 Lag. It can turn into a reverse, a pass or a reverse pass. But usually it turns into a draw play, with the 207-pound Boozer, from Maryland State, taking the ball, pausing for an instant to judge the flow of the incoming linemen and then choosing the course on which he wants his sore feet to carry him. If the rush is jamming up the inside, Boozer flees to the outside. If the rush is circling outside, he picks a route up the middle. "To put it simply, he runs to daylight," says Jets Coach Weeb Ewbank, using the phrase that Green Bay's Vince Lombardi was responsible for inserting into the argot of football.
Boozer, in his second season as a pro, is plagued by bunions on a pair of wide, gnarled feet. He thinks the bunions come from not having had the right kind of shoes when he was a child. After a game he spends hours sitting with his feet in a tub of hot water. For a couple of days he walks as if his shoes were full of glass. Painful though they are, he refuses to have the bunions cut off, because some of them are on his big toes. "The big toe is what controls your balance," he says. "If they go to fooling with your big toes, it's liable to ruin you. I would rather hurt."
When Boozer talks of hurting, Namath knows what he means. Namath has had his own problems in that area, with two operations on his right knee and bursitis in his left. Last season, before the second operation, Namath could barely move around on the football field. He could not set himself firmly to throw, and he was an easy target for rushers once they fought through the Jets' strong pass-blocking barrier. Namath also was unwilling to accept being tackled for a loss. The result was that he threw 27 interceptions. This year Ewbank has convinced Namath that an occasional loss of yardage is inevitable, and Namath will go limp and accept a knockdown before trying a dangerous, hurried pass.
Namath is concentrating more this season. He is better at finding his receivers because he has a clearer idea of where to look. That does not mean that his attitude toward the way he makes his living was frivolous in his first two years with the Jets, and neither does it mean that Namath has given up Manhattan's Upper East Side bars and discotheques. It merely means that he is somewhat older and a bit wiser.
"Joe has matured a lot in the last year," says a close friend of his. "He doesn't go for the teeny-bopper, discoth√®que scene so much anymore. He's better able to tell who his friends are and separate them from the ones who just want something from him."
Namath, sitting around his two-bedroom penthouse apartment at 76th Street and Second Avenue in New York on the night before the game with the Raiders, agreed that his life has altered slightly. He was sunk deep into his couch, and his feet were lost in the nine-inch-high pile of a white llamaskin rug that costs $175 to clean and another $75 to lay, an expensive proposition in the smoke and mushroom-soup air of Manhattan. There are Victorian chairs, a Swedish chandelier, a bar made of an antique Spanish chest, and in the two bathrooms the furnishings are 18-karat gold. Namath shares the apartment with Ray Abruzzese, a defensive back on the Jets' taxi squad, and Joe Hirsch, who writes about horse racing. The security in the building, with television spy eyes in the walls, is intensive, and Namath needs it. In the fall, at least, he is New York's leading sports celebrity, and New York is a town where athletes can get their clothes torn off by adoring mobs the way actors or singers do in other places.
"I guess it's true that I'm maturing," Namath said. "If learning is maturity, then I'm maturing, because I know I'm learning things. Mainly I'm learning to be careful what I say regardless of what my feelings are. A lot of things I say look distorted and sound bad when they're printed in the newspapers. So I think I really haven't changed so much as I've learned about people and I've learned to be careful who I talk to.
"I still like music and I like to dance. I go out, but not often. When I do go out, people make it sound like something. I can just be sitting around someplace, and people try to make something of it."
The night before the Jets opened their exhibition season this August, Namath was involved in an incident in a New York bar called the Open End. He had walked out of camp at Peekskill, N.Y. after informing Ewbank that he needed to return to New York to handle a personal problem. Ewbank warned he would be fined if he missed bed check, but Namath left anyhow. As he tells it now, he was worried by the bursitis in his left knee and by his family, which has had several cases of paralysis. An uncle had collapsed and died, paralyzed, in his kitchen in Beaver Falls, Pa. Shortly before Namath drove out of Peekskill, an older brother had awakened to discover he had no feeling in his limbs.
"Mom was pretty upset about it," Namath said. "She thought he had the same thing as my uncle. You know how mothers get upset about things. My brother is not altogether O.K. now, but he's walking around."
At the Open End, Namath allegedly slapped around Charlie Parmiter, the sports editor of Time magazine. The publicity he got around the country was vituperative. Four days later the Jets' players called Namath in to a private meeting and asked him to explain himself. "We wanted to find out if he had a reason for leaving camp, or if he just went on a bender," said Sam DeLuca, the Jets' captain. "He's our quarterback and the star, as Johnny Sample said, and we expected him to be a leader. He convinced us he had a reason for leaving camp. I don't know what the problem was, but we believed he had one. The meeting was what we needed."
After apologizing to his teammates, Namath went to work. The Jets blew their regular-season opener to Buffalo when Mike Mercer kicked two long field goals in the final minutes. Then they beat Denver, with Namath passing for 399 yards and two touchdowns, and Miami, with Namath throwing for 415 yards and three touchdowns. As the Jets prepared for Oakland, most observers thought the Raiders would do what they did last year and help to shove New York on a rapid slide downhill. Oakland has the AFL's finest secondary and one of the league's top front fours as well as excellent linebacking. "If there's one thing we think we can do," said Al Davis, former Oakland coach and AFL commissioner, now an owner of the Raiders, "it's play defense."
But Namath was readier for the Raiders then he ever had been before. "My football knowledge has improved," he said on Friday night. "It's a matter of reacting to situations on the field, coping with defenses. I have a better knowledge of my receivers and better timing with them. George Sauer, for example, and Don Maynard are very different. Maynard just gets to a point, and you have to know where he's going to be. Sauer is strictly a pattern man with precise timing, taking exactly the right number of steps. You learn those things with experience."
The Jets went into the game handicapped by the loss of DeLuca, an offensive guard, and Fullback Matt Snell, both of whom have been operated on for knee injuries. Snell is a superb blocker as well as runner, and, to take advantage of his absence, the Raiders planned a hearty blitz that would pour defenders through onto Namath. But the offensive line of New York—Center John Schmitt, Guards Dave Herman and Randy Rasmussen, Tackles Winston Hill and Sherman Plunkett and Tight End Pete Lammons—operates with one thought in mind, and that is to keep people from leaping on top of their quarterback. Their blocking is so good that, against Miami, Namath had time to pump the ball several times before throwing. "We try to keep them out at least four or five seconds, or as long as it takes Joe to do his job," says the 330-pound Plunkett. Rasmussen says, "I know if my man hits Joe, I'm in trouble."
The Oakland blitz quickly took away one of the Jets' favorite plays, called 76, in which both set backs flare. But a frantic Shea Stadium crowd of some 63,000, which had struggled through an unholy traffic jam with the hope that the Jets would not disappoint them this year, went mad when Namath hit Maynard for 30 yards to get close enough for the first of Boozer's two seven-yard touchdown runs. In the second quarter the Jets scored again after one of their four interceptions against Lamonica. Bill Mathis and Mark Smolinski, who substituted for Snell, ran as if they believed they were better than he is. Mathis made the second touchdown from the one-yard line. A field goal by Jim Turner after another interception put the Jets ahead 17-0 at half time.
Oakland's offensive line, meanwhile, was being mauled by New York's defense. The sweeps died with Clem Daniels, All-AFL halfback, turning hopelessly to the sideline. The Jets gave up nothing in the middle. In desperation Lamonica turned to the deep pass, but the New York ends, Gerry Philbin and Verlon Biggs, forced Lamonica to throw quickly, and the wind further damaged his timing.
In the third quarter, with New York leading 20-0, Lamonica hit a 14-yard touchdown pass to Bill Miller. But early in the fourth Namath threw the pass off 25 Lag and Mathis caught it for a 38-yard gain. Boozer, who rushed for 98 yards, scored to put the game away, despite Lamonica's final touchdown pass to Warren Wells.
The Raiders claimed not to be impressed. "We were flat," said Coach Johnny Rauch. "We didn't control the ball as we should have, and we couldn't get going. The Jets are no different than the team we faced last year. Namath has a quick delivery and striking variety—the bomb, the medium shot, the short pass. I guess I would have to rate him the best quarterback in the league. He has good offensive weapons in the backfield, and that takes some of the pressure off."
Corner Back Willie Brown, who intercepted two Namath passes and covered Sauer tightly, said, "Namath seems the same as last year, but I think he has better protection and more time to throw."
Namath has had a lively feud with Oakland's 6'7", 265-pound end, Ben Davidson, and was quoted as saying that Davidson was "one of the dirtiest football players I ever saw." But Davidson said he didn't comment on that to Namath. "I'm too out of breath to talk to anybody during the game," said Davidson. "Once I did tell him he threw a nice pass. He called a good game."
Oakland Guard Gene Upshaw, nicknamed Super Rookie in the Raider training camp, was a little bitter. "Their defense didn't show me anything, and their offense was holding on every play," he said. "Wait until we get them back in Oakland."
But the Jets did not seem overly concerned about the Raiders' opinions. "This is the best team we've ever had here, and this was our best game," said Coach Ewbank. "Everybody played so well that we don't know who to give the game ball to."
Namath sat in front of his locker, chewing tobacco and drinking orange soda. "Joe really got belted a few times tonight," said Punter Curley Johnson. "But his knee held up. That's the important thing. This was a big one for us. Now I know we can go all the way."
Unless the Buffalo Bills can heal the injuries that have wrecked their offensive line, the Jets at last seem in position to do exactly that. It may not be an illusion this time.