A year ago the Houston Oilers startled even themselves. They moved into a new training camp in the wooded hills of Kerrville, Texas, established a new sense of discipline, congratulated themselves on a fine gathering of rookies and then began to speculate on how well they might do. The 1966 season had started off gloriously but had wound up a disaster. Oiler Coach Wally Lemm thought his team would be better in 1967, but he was unsure how much better. "I knew we'd had a good training camp and were in good condition, but we had so many rookies I figured if we finished 7-7 we would have had a fine year," says Lemm.
Instead, the Oilers had a 9-4-1 record, one game ahead of the New York Jets, and won the Eastern Division championship. They won it with a fine defense, with a powerful running game, with excellent play from their special teams and with luck on injuries. Only one starter, Offensive Guard Sonny Bishop, was hurt seriously, and that was by falling off a hay wagon and getting run over. For most of the season the Oilers had a passing offense that could most kindly be described as poor. They had a quarterback who joined them after the season had begun and who had to call the offense by rote. Their leading receiver was their fullback, who caught 31 passes to rank 23rd in the league. Their best outside receiver caught 23 passes and ranked 30th. But the Oilers took the division championship nevertheless, and this year they show every indication of being a vastly improved team.
Lemm feels this is the year Pete Beathard, who spent three-plus seasons behind Len Dawson at Kansas City, will become one of the AFL's leading quarterbacks, much as Daryle Lamonica did last year after being traded from Buffalo to Oakland. Beathard joined the Oilers four games into the 1967 season, only four days before Houston was to play the Jets at Shea Stadium. He moved into Lemm's home with his playbook, and the Oilers tied that game 28-28.
"I don't think most people realize what a fine quarterback Beathard is going to be this year," says Lemm. "I don't think they realize the improvement in our receivers, either. Beathard is like Charley Johnson in a way. He's smart and coachable. He's a drop-back passer with the ability to scramble. If we can improve our passing 100 yards per game, it will be a great help, and I think we can do it."
In preseason games Beathard has divided time with Bob Davis, a second-year man from Virginia and a quarterback of much potential. With the two of them throwing, 12 different receivers caught passes in an easy win over the Washington Redskins at the Astrodome, the Oilers' new playground which promises to be packed with customers this year. Last year, if one Oiler receiver caught a pass, sirens went off all over town. So Houston drafted Mac Haik of Mississippi, Jim Beirne of Purdue and Ed Carrington of Virginia. Dick Stebbins, who can fly, was called up by the Army. Charley Frazier, Alvin Reed, Glenn Bass, Lionel Taylor and Lawrence Elkins are veterans at receiver spots. Fran Polsfoot, called "the best end coach in the game" by Lemm, has worked carefully on patterns and timing with the receivers, and the results have shown up immediately.
In 1966 Frazier caught 57 passes for 1,129 yards and 12 touchdowns, and Lemm regarded him as outstanding. Last year he played 10 games with one sprained thumb and seven games with two sprained thumbs, and he could not hold on to the ball. But in the AFL championship game with Oakland, Frazier caught seven. "It restored my confidence," he says. "It proved to me that I could catch the ball, after all, against tough competition." Reed is tall, gangly and a good blocker. "He's a better tight end at this stage than Jackie Smith of the Cardinals," says Polsfoot, who has coached them both. "If we get one good receiver from our rookies, it'll really help. If we get two, it's gravy," Lemm says.
Even the toughest of defenses needs some help from the offense. What saved the Oilers last year was a running game that was the best in the league. They gained 2,122 yards for a 4.5-yard average per rush. The big man was Hoyle Granger, a thick-legged fullback who ran for 1,194 yards and a 5.1 average and missed overtaking Boston's Jim Nance by 22 yards. With experience, Granger seems to be running better than before. But Houston will miss the full-time service of Halfback Woody Campbell, who gained 511 yards rushing as a rookie. Campbell is an Army MP stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and may be available for some duty on Sundays. That means the Oilers are counting on Ode Burrell, who led the team in rushing in 1965 and 1966, and Sid Blanks, who had a fine rookie year in 1964 but has been hurt most of the time since.
The Oiler offensive line will suffer from the absence of Guard Bob Talamini, who was traded to the Jets, but it should remain a good one, with Tom Regner and Sonny Bishop at guards, Bobby Maples at center and Walt Suggs and Glen Ray Hines at tackles. They make the power sweep a dangerous part of the Houston offense. For depth, the Oilers are keen on rookie Elvin Bethea. Placekicker John Wittenborn can play guard or tackle.
At one point last year Houston's defense had scored more points than the offense. Every member of the defensive unit returns, and several were rookies last season. Miller Farr, the brilliant left cornerback, missed training camp because of hepatitis but will be back during the season. Larry Carwell and Zeke Moore, two of last year's rookies, are tall and have speed in the 9.7 range. Veteran Jim Norton is a leader, punter, and defensive signal caller and is healthy again after a hernia operation. W.K. Hicks is a veteran cornerback. Lemm is enthusiastic about Ken Houston and Pete Johns at cornerback and safety. The front four is so good that Lemm has discarded the blitz for which his St. Louis teams were famed. "You don't need to blitz if you have an effective pass rush," says Lemm. "We have three fine rushers in Pat Holmes and Gary Cutsinger [ends] and George Rice. Our other tackle, Willie Parker, is in his second year and is coming along." Carel Stith, 270, also in his second year, can play either end or tackle.
Linebacker is one of Houston's strongest points. Left Linebacker George Webster was both Rookie of the Year and All-AFL last season. In the 40-yard dash he runs a 4.7, the same time as Frazier. Middle Linebacker Garland Boyette, 245, is, according to Lemm, "an exceptional athlete who can be one of the great middle linebackers." Olen Underwood, once a starter for the Giants, is on the right side. Linebacking depth includes two former All-Americas, Ron Caveness and Rich Stotter, who was a guard in college, and Pete Barnes. The Oilers set league records last year for fewest points and fewest touchdown passes allowed. "With us it'll be a matter of remembering how we did it last year," says Norton. "You know we made a lot of people mad, winning like we did. They'll be shooting for us. I think we'll be better because our offense will be better. We fought back from a miserable season in 1966. Now we have a new challenge, and we have the personnel to meet it." For a change, there will be some people watching the Oilers at home. After steadily losing money, Owner Bud Adams worked out a deal to play in the Astrodome, and Houston fans responded by buying 30,000 season tickets. That is more than the Oilers sold for all but one of their home games last year.
NEW YORK JETS
The Jets, like Houston, have some notable personnel, the most notable of all being, of course, Joe Namath, a quarterback with a wonderful arm, two bad knees and a questionable relationship with his coach, Weeb Ewbank. A public display of the Namath-Ewbank affair occurred in the Astrodome while the Jets were losing an exhibition game to the Oilers. Namath, who had knee surgery again off-season, spent the evening standing on the sidelines with his feet sunk in a carpet of Astro Turf and his ear pressed against a telephone. Rather than a uniform, he was dressed in one of his customary dapper outfits. Earlier he had been observed in intense conversation with Ewbank, who looked as if he were swatting flies. Namath's reason for not putting on his football clothes was that his knees hurt, which sounds reasonable enough since both have now undergone surgery. Ewbank, however, discussed the matter with the team doctor and was not convinced. "He told me Joe's knees are better than they have ever been since he's been with the club," says Ewbank, who has coached the game's best quarterback, John Unitas, and one of the game's best passers, Namath.
The almost total lack of rapport between Ewbank and Namath has been building toward a this-town-ain't-big-enough-for-both-of-us showdown for a couple of years. A year ago Namath seemed certain to win it. Sonny Werblin was the club's president and spokesman and was Namath's ally, naturally enough, since Werblin had been instrumental in signing him to his first $400,000 contract. The rumor was that Ewbank was on his way out and would be replaced by a rather well-known coach who has been living in Wisconsin. But Werblin owned only a small piece of the Jets, and his partners were not pleased by his prominence in print. Once they could solve a complicated stock arrangement, they bought him out. Werblin, though, signed Namath to a new contract before he left. Namath's friend and attorney, Mike Bite, had suggested the star be paid $3,000 for each exhibition game, which is roughly 15 times the going rate. Perhaps the considerable risk to Namath's future as a ballroom dancer makes it worth that much for him to step onto a football field, but all parties involved say no such deal was ever culminated.
Still, Namath did not play in Houston. Some of the Jets were less than delighted by the sight of their leader on the sidelines. Although most of them understood there was little need to risk his wobbly knees in a game that did not count, they would have preferred that he suit up and pretend to be one of them. Even The New York Times was annoyed and expressed an opinion that Namath should be traded for the good of the club. There is hardly a coach in professional football who does not get wet palms at the thought of having a passer of Namath's talents, but there are a number of coaches who would have a hard time deciding whether he would be more of a blessing than a problem.
Despite the recent trade for Quarterback Babe Parilli, the fortune of the Jets still depends on Namath's knees. His left knee was operated on last winter, and both knees are heavily taped with metal braces before each practice. "They're coming along pretty well," says Ewbank with a straight face. "We protect them all we can." The protection includes two cops, one with a megaphone, who try to keep overeager young autograph seekers from red-dogging Namath when he is on public display. More important in the way of protection is the Jets' offensive line, which was designed as a pass protection fence rather than as a mobile unit that can put running guards out ahead of backs on sweeps. For years one of the mainstays of that line was Sherman Plunkett, who would be nobody's picture of agility but is as big as two ordinary men. Getting past him in order to reach Namath was like having to circle the block. But the idea of size went to Plunkett's head, and elsewhere. He reported to camp weighing 336 pounds. That was too much for Ewbank, who eventually put Plunkett on waivers and promoted Sam Walton to the right-tackle position.
Walton, a 275-pound rookie, went to college at East Texas State on a basketball scholarship but changed to football—although he had not played the game in high school—when he discovered only football players could eat at the training table. The other tackle, Winston Hill, played part of last season on a sprained ankle, made no less painful by the fact that he weighs 280 pounds. Hill is a good pass blocker. Behind Walton and Hill is Jim Harris, at 275, who had been a starter on defense for three years. Guards Dave Herman, Randy Rasmussen and the recently acquired Bob Talamini, who was All-AFL six times with Houston, and Center John Schmitt are Namath's other protectors.
The Jets have three fine receivers, all of whom played in last year's AFL All-Star game. George Sauer led the league in catches with 75, while Don Maynard led in yardage with 1,434. Pete Lammons topped all tight ends as a rookie with 41 catches, then caught 45 more last season while Namath, playing with a sore thumb among other injuries, completed 258 passes for 4,007 yards and 26 touchdowns with 28 interceptions.
A passing offense alone will not win championships. Ewbank thought he had acquired a good running game for balance until Fullback Matt Snell tore a knee cartilage in the season opener last year against Buffalo. By the time Snell returned, Halfback Emerson Boozer was out with torn knee ligaments. Snell is a fine runner and a good receiver and is currently healthy. Boozer has recently been released from the Army because of his knee, which still pains him. After spirited negotiations the Jets signed Lee White, a 6'4" fullback from Weber State. White, New York's first draft choice, rushed for 3,062 yards and scored 34 touchdowns in college. "He reminds me of Marion Motley," says Ewbank. "Marion was a kind of skater when he ran, and so is White."
If Namath's knees finally give way, the Jets can turn to Parilli, an aging quarterback who is capable of some very hot days. "When Babe is right, he can destroy you," says Hank Stram of Kansas City. "He'll be muddling along, and all of a sudden he starts hitting and is liable to complete 10 or 12 in a row." To get Parilli from Boston, the Jets swapped Mike Taliaferro, who was tired of playing behind Namath and had asked to be traded. "Parilli knows all the finer points of the game," Namath says. "He has been in every situation possible. He'll help me and the team a lot."
New York led the AFL in pass defense in 1967. "There's been a big change in our defense since I got here two years ago," says Cornerback Johnny Sample. "Then we had great individuals but we were playing as individuals. Now the defense is playing together. We all know what the others are doing, and that makes for a good defense." But the situation is not quite as bright as that may sound. The defensive line could use a bit of help. John Elliott, a second-year man who played linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle in 1967, has settled at right tackle. Backing him up is rookie Ray Hayes, a 12th-round draft choice. Veteran Paul Rochester is a fixture at left tackle, and Ends Gerry Philbin and Verlon Biggs can be very effective. Right Linebacker Larry Grantham weighs only 210, but he is starting his ninth season and has played in five All-Star games. Left Linebacker Ralph Baker is coming off a good year and will be starting for his fifth season. In the middle is Al Atkinson, picked up as a free agent in 1965. Atkinson is tough against the run and tied for the club lead in interceptions with five. Carl McAdams, the fourth linebacker, missed the entire 1966 season because of an ankle broken so badly that it required three operations. At 240 pounds he started the Jets' final game last year at defensive tackle. Left Cornerback Johnny Sample played on two championship teams for Ewbank at Baltimore in 1958-59, moved on to Pittsburgh and Washington, then joined the Jets as a free agent. He is good at individual coverage. The opposite corner is occupied by Randy Beverly, who is similar to the rest of the Jets' secondary in that all were free agents. Bill Baird, who holds the AFL record for longest punt return (93 yards), is battling Cornell Gordon for the free-safety spot. The strong safety is Jim Hudson, who has been somewhat underrated. Hudson is lucky to be back this year. Last spring he was bitten on the leg by a black widow spider, an injury unique in the AFL.
The Buffalo Bills had just turned in a shabby performance in an exhibition game and Coach Joe Collier was furious. "We'll scrimmage Monday," he roared, "and we may scrimmage every day after that." As it turned out, however, Monday was the only day the Bills scrimmaged. During one of the ruggedest drills the Bills have ever had, Quarterback Jackie Kemp dropped back to pass. Just after he released the ball, Defensive End Ron McDole, one of Kemp's best friends, fell and caught the quarterback's right leg under his body. Kemp fell on his back and let out a low moan of pain, then lay silent. Some of the Buffalo players hurried up to see what had happened. What they saw was the end of any chance Buffalo might have had of winning the Eastern Division title. Kemp had torn the ligaments in his knee, an injury that required an immediate operation, putting him on the sidelines for the entire season. In his place will be Kay Stephenson, the second-string San Diego quarterback whom Collier immediately traded for, Tom Flores, Kemp's backup last year, or rookie Dan Darragh, who appeared in control during his limited playing time. Either way, the situation is still critical.
The injury to Kemp was a continuation of the bad luck that dogged Buffalo last year. At one time or another 24 Bills missed at least one game because of injuries. "It was a nightmare," says Guard Billy Shaw, the team leader. "The injuries were like an epidemic, and everyone was either out of the lineup or playing out of position."
This year Kemp's injury was not the first. Right Guard Joe O'Donnell, who teamed with Shaw and Al Bemiller to give the Bills one of the best interior blocking combinations in the AFL, tore knee ligaments in an exhibition game against Miami and may be lost for the season. With Tackle Dick Hudson still hobbling from an operation, Dick Cunningham must stay at tackle. O'Donnell will be replaced by rookie Bob Kalsu or journeyman George Flint. Collier had hoped to use Cunningham at least part of the time at center, where Bemiller had taken a pounding. There is a question whether Stew Barber, the other tackle, has the size to handle the league's larger defensive ends. The offensive line is where the Bills are thinnest, so thin, in fact, that one fan placed a Help Wanted ad: "Offensive linemen, no experience necessary."
Buffalo does have three promising-looking running backs—Max Anderson, Ben Gregory and Gary McDermott. "We had our best draft yet," says Collier. "Those three can help us right away." McDermott is big and strong, with the quickness to run wide and the power to hit off tackle. "He's a beautiful back—great mentally, good blocking ability, good runner and good receiver. He has all the things a good back needs," Collier says. Anderson, only 5'8" and 180 pounds, will be used on kick returns and as a spot ballcarrier. In the exhibition against Miami he gained 112 yards on six carries from scrimmage. With the three rookies, the Bills also have veterans Wray Carlton and Keith Lincoln, both top runners.
The Buffalo offense was in such trouble last season that Flores, who started the season as the No. 1 quarterback, did not throw a touchdown pass. This year the receiving should be much better. Rookie Haven Moses will probably start at flanker ahead of veteran Elbert Dubenion. Split End Art Powell, for years one of the best in the league, has been released by Collier in a rather mystifying move. That leaves rookie Richard Trapp contesting with Bobby Crockett for the position. Crockett was a starter in 1966, sat out last season with a knee injury, but seems to have recovered. Tight End Paul Costa, 246, is an excellent receiver, although he missed much of the early work this year because of an ankle operation. Charley Ferguson has been backing him.
If the offensive line can hold together well enough to get some use from the new backs and receivers, the Bills will be hard to beat. Their defense is still first-rate. "They're as hard to move the ball against as any team in the league," says Hank Stram. "This team," says Ferguson, "is built around a solid defense. It's not by accident. All the good teams—the big winners in pro football in recent years—have had the same outlook."
Collier was the defensive coach but was elevated to the head job after Lou Saban quit. As an assistant, Collier got much of the credit for putting the Bills into championship games. His defensive unit is highly coordinated, relying on containment and pressure, seldom using the blitz or stunting the linemen. The action is keyed around a strong rush by the front four. Left End McDole and Tackle Jim Dunaway are in the all-league class. The other tackle, Tom Sestak, has been slowed by operations on both knees but is still formidable. At right end the fight for the starting job is between Howard Kindig and Dudley Meredith.
Buffalo's linebacking trio of Harry Jacobs, Mike Stratton and John Tracey started 80 games in a row before Jacobs was knocked out last year with a shoulder separation. Now Tracey has retired, but his replacement, Paul Guidry, is young and quick. Stratton, the All-AFL right linebacker, is the enforcer, a brutal tackier. Jacobs, in the middle, is a keen anticipator of plays. Cornerbacks Booker Edgerson and Butch Byrd and Safeties George Saimes and Tommy Janik are all veterans. Byrd has lost 22 pounds, down to 196, in an effort to regain his ALL-AFL rating. Janik and Saimes are very fast at coming up against the run, and Janik intercepted 10 passes last year.
Buffalo's kicking should be excellent. Mike Mercer, who was with Oakland and Kansas City before coming to the Bills, is a standout field-goal kicker. Paul Maguire, a nine-year veteran, is one of the league's better punters. This year, without the experienced Kemp to guide the team, Maguire may find himself doing a lot of work.
The trend in pro football conditioning the past few years has been toward weight-lifting (isotonics), isometrics and a gadget called the Exer-genie, which is a combination of the first two. The idea is to build strength and explosiveness that, many believe, do not come from old-fashioned calisthenics alone. But now the Miami Dolphins have come up with a new conditioning routine of their own—jogging. They got plenty of practice at it last season, chasing people into the end zone. Coach George Wilson, however, would rather that the Dolphins' running be a little more on the positive side. To achieve that, the Miami defense needs considerable improvement.
The offense shows promise. In Bob Griese, the Dolphins have a young quarterback who has quickly moved up among the class of the league. Griese became a starter as a rookie when John Stofa broke his leg in the opening game last year. Despite a shoulder injury that hampered his ability to throw deep, Griese's passes helped Miami win three of its last five games. The defenses were able to cheat on him, knowing that his arm hurt and that his receivers were not particularly fast. But Griese was unusually accurate with his short passes. In one stretch he threw 122 passes without an interception, a remarkable record for any quarterback, especially a rookie. "Griese showed a great deal of poise," says Wally Lemm. George Wilson goes a bit further. "I wouldn't trade Griese for any quarterback in the league, including Namath."
The Dolphins lived by the pass, and they died by it. Opponents threw for more than 200 yards per game against Miami and hit 31 touchdown passes. The Dolphins need a better pass rush and faster linebackers. Cornerback Jim Warren is a good one, but he may have too much of a burden to carry now that Dick Westmoreland has dislocated his shoulder. How well Miami does this season depends on a defense that should have been helped in the draft by six choices in the first three rounds.
The No. 1 choice was used for Fullback Larry Csonka of Syracuse, a power runner who could be in the same category as Jim Nance and Hoyle Granger. The addition of Csonka will mean an automatic gain for the Dolphins' passing game. Rookie Kim Hammond and third-year man Rick Norton are around to understudy Griese.
The Dolphins won seven games in their first two years, a good record for an expansion team. They have not done as well at the box office. For what Dolphins President Joe Robbie calls "economic reasons," two of Wilson's assistants were dismissed this past spring. The club has sold less than 15,000 season tickets this year. "It's an uphill struggle to establish a major league franchise in a new area," says Robbie.
The Boston Patriots fell to last place in the East in 1967, and there is every indication they will stay there for a while. After his worst year as a coach, Mike Holovak decided to scrub his roster. The Pats used to be known as a "family" team, boasting of having more originals from their 1960 club than any other team in the AFL. Now only Jim Colclough, Gino Cappelletti and Larry Garron remain. "Coming here this year is like coming to a new team," says Colclough.
The biggest surprise was that while Holovak was cleaning house, out went Quarterback Babe Parilli. Holovak and Parilli have been very close friends, and Parilli had been set for a job on the Boston staff if he wanted it after retirement. Instead, he was dealt to the Jets for Mike Taliaferro, who immediately moved into a contest with Don Trull and rookie Tom Sherman at quarterback. Trull did not last long. He was injured and released. His scrambling ability could have been important, since the offensive line has problems. Without much time to throw, Taliaferro and Sherman have put in extra sessions working with their receivers. Holovak may decide to alternate his quarterbacks. "I'm sure they won't like it, but maybe I will," he says. Art Graham will continue at split end with Bobby Leo filling in. Cappelletti, a fine field-goal kicker who is always among the AFL's top scorers, may lose his job at flanker to rookie Aaron Marsh.
The Boston offense relies mostly on Fullback Jim Nance, who has led the league in rushing the past two seasons. Nance has set his individual goal even higher this year. "I want to gain 1,500 yards. Nobody has ever done it, and I want to be the first," he says. Nance, 240, is one of the toughest runners the game has ever seen. If the Patriots could find a halfback with outside speed, Nance might get his 1,500 yards. But Boston's offense is too one-handed.
In prior years the Patriots were strong on defense. Last season the defense faded. Two starters from that unit are gone. But there are some bright spots. Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti and Defensive Linemen Jim Hunt, Larry Eisenhauer and Houston Antwine have All-Star experience. Leroy Mitchell and John Charles, starters at cornerbacks as rookies last season, should be much better with Charles shifting to safety to replace retired Chuck Shonta. Several other positions are uncertain. Holovak is especially distressed about the line-backing. "We need help at right linebacker, and I don't care who gives it to us," he says.
The Pats also had quite a lot of dissension last year. One of Holovak's aims in bringing in new faces and saying good-by to old ones has been to restore harmony in the "family." Even if that is accomplished, the Pats most likely will stay on the bottom.