Just as momentum seems to shift in a given football game, a broader current works within teams, divisions and conferences. Along those lines, the AFL's Eastern Conference is now on the upswing. Led by the New York Jets, who are at or near the top of their cycle, the AFL East this year counts two superior teams (New York and Houston), two others well on the way up from their nadirs (Buffalo and Miami) and a fifth that is just beginning to move after two years of stagnation (yep, Boston).
Though the AFL West is still stronger on balance, the East can—and will—give it a run for the league money. And both conferences—preseason records notwithstanding—are as rough, if not as deep, as their NFL rivals.
Consider the Jets. A fluke, among other things, is a part of the tail of a whale. Don't mention the word around Shea Stadium or you'll end up like Captain Ahab. New York's is a sound, deep team that responds to challenge, this year as last, with the elan of the good, quick winners and the turn-it-on, turn-it-off control that self-confidence breeds. A team of truly big men (the interior of the offensive line averages 261 pounds), the Jets are slow to warm up but have an almost mystical ability to win, often in the nick of time, big games. The players speak unabashedly about a "family" feeling among themselves, and they are as good as their word: perhaps no team in either league is more "together." In fact, Pete Rozelle may have done the Jets a priceless favor with his Bachelors III edict. The thought of no more Namath annealed the Jets more effectively than any victory.
Don't doubt it: the Jets are stronger this year than last. Namath is throwing often and accurately to a splendid array of wide receivers, most notably George Sauer Jr. and Don Maynard. According to Larry Wilson, St. Louis' very tough free safety, no one hits harder than Matt Snell, and only Gale Sayers runs better. Wilson should know. In an exhibition game he planted himself to tackle the rambling Snell. Snell dipped a shoulder and bowled Wilson over, and you can count the times that's happened. Snell's running mate, Emerson Boozer, hasn't been picking up the yardage he did before his knee injury in 1967, but he's doing some staunch, if unheralded, blocking for Snell and White Shoes. The Jets' rushers also include Bill Mathis, who retired briefly before coming back more as a talisman than a threat, and young, 6'4", 240-pound Lee White, nicely healed from knee surgery and plowing just as nicely up the middle.
The offensive line lost the third guard, Bob Talamini (a 1968 inspirational acquisition), but the guard situation is O.K. if Dave Herman isn't needed to supplant Sam Walton at tackle, where Herman started in the Super Bowl. Since Coach Weeb Ewbank would prefer switching Herman back to guard, his first draft choice was Offensive Tackle Dave Foley of Ohio State, but Ewbank will have to go with Walton as Foley suffered torn knee ligaments against Buffalo and will be out for the year.
No More Yuks
Ewbank's biggest problem is at corner-back. Johnny Sample was cut (along with his loud mouth, which spoke both for the players during the Namath Crisis and too often on the playing field) to be replaced by quick-study Cornell Gordon. Randy Beverly, who intercepted two passes in the Super Bowl, has continued to shine in the exhibition season, but after Gordon and Beverly—help! Safety Jim Hudson stands firm. He's the guy who covered Baltimore's John Mackey "like a cheap suit," as one Jet gleefully recalls it. Ewbank may have lowered morale on the specialty teams by letting popular Punter Curley Johnson go, but as Ewbank said, "I can't lead with my heart." Johnson has been replaced by rookie Steve O'Neal of Texas A&M, whose 22 punts in the exhibition season were returned for less than 32 yards. However, another well-regarded kicker, a guy named Jim Turner, is still around. Ewbank made no mistake in letting Kick Returner Earl Christy go in favor of No. 12 draft choice Mike Battle, one tough, flaky, glass-eating kid out of USC. But the linebacking is shaky with Ralph Baker out for a month and Al Atkinson nursing a sprained knee.
Better and Betterer
If the Jets look better this year than last, the Houston Oilers look relatively betterer. Most of the ills that football flesh is heir to beset the Oilers last season, ranging from Quarterback Pete Beathard's appendicitis to Wide Receiver Rich Stebbins' service call-up. This year both are back and vital. Beathard, in his sixth season, has the stuff of a big year in him, as Bobby Layne remarked during a training camp stint. "Pete has the potential," said Layne, who has learned a word or two since leaving Pittsburgh. In case Pete doesn't become actual, Coach Wally Lemm can call on Bob Davis of Virginia, a third-year man, and Don Trull, an on/off Oiler reacquired last year after having been cut by Boston—yes, Boston.
If Beathard survives, he has a bevy of receivers to keep him in business. Stebbins (who ran second to Bob Hayes on his world-record 100-yard-dash day) is complemented by Tight End Alvin Reed (46 catches last year, one short of a league record for the position), second-year men Mac Haik and Jim Beirne and a couple of impressive rookies. SMU's runty (5'10") Jerry Levias and Grambling's Charlie Joiner are both quick and grabby, and Levias has already established himself as the team's premier punt returner. Another valuable rookie is Kicker Roy Gerela, a soccer-style Canadian who also punts. His accuracy is a boon, since the Oilers hit on only 12 of 29 field goals last year. And his specialty is boom! In his last year at New Mexico State only 18 of his 47 kickoffs were returned.
Houston's excellent offensive line is second only to its defense, which finished behind New York by 12 yards last season. All-AFL Linebacker George Webster and End Elvin Bethea are the standouts, along with All-League Cornerback Miller Farr. Though the Oilers were stunned when Cornerback Leroy Mitchell cracked a neck vertebra in camp, a cat named Zeke Moore from Lincoln University is filling the spot adequately.
Buffalo, by contrast, is coming out of two years of decay with the vitality of rampant fungus. Coach Johnny Rauch is taking his first season very seriously. Working with spotty material, he has the Bills in fine early season shape. Most important, he has scrapped the grind-it-out ground game that dates from Cookie Gilchrist's day in favor of a wide-open offense, replete with slots and swings that can set O. J. Simpson, Wide Receiver Haven Moses or even rookie Fullback Bill Enyart man-to-man on linebackers or safeties. O.J., of course, is the most closely watched train on the Buffalo track, but Enyart gives the Bills a head-on game that will free Simpson for end runs and passes. (And don't forget Ben Gregory, the team's leading rusher until he suffered a knee injury in mid-season; Gregory could be back by late October.) Another fine rookie prospect is Jim Harris, a black quarterback from Grambling who can zap the soul out of a receiver with his strong arm. Rauch isn't using Harris as part of any social experiment: he is a legitimate quarterback with a fine head and he started last week against the Jets. Harris' relief is Jack Kemp, who didn't play in 1968, and Tom Flores. Quarterbacking was the Bills' sorest spot last year. Kemp, of course, hurt his knee in a scrimmage a week before the season opener (a weird, punitive measure on the part of ex-Coach Joe Collier), and by November, Buffalo was down to its fifth-string quarterback, Wide Receiver Ed Rutkowski, throwing from a shotgun in a snowstorm.
With all that new talent, Buffalo is still weak on the offensive line and inconsistent in placekicking (Bruce Alford can't hit much beyond 40 yards). The Bills can pressure the passer and stop the sweep most of the time, but their defenders remain highly flammable on the deep patterns.
Despite losing five of six exhibition games, Miami should have a year in keeping with its three-year performance as an expansion team (12-29-1, best anywhere since football began growing). Quarterback Bob Griese seems about ready to live down Johnny Unitas' jinx; Unitas once called him "the best young quarterback in the game." Griese has the arm plus steady runners in Jim (Quick) Kiick and Larry (Zonker) Csonka. Unfortunately, Csonka has been zonked too often and is out for a month to let his head stop ringing, and Griese doesn't have an offensive line (two regulars are sidelined until October with ruptured knee ligaments), so he has been obliged to concentrate on throwing to his running backs.
The word on Miami's cornerbacks ("Pass on Westmoreland and run at Warren") is widespread but remediable, if Coach George Wilson can find the combination. There is a lot of depth in the defensive line, which, if properly applied in a strong pass rush, could relieve some of the pressure on the secondary. Safeties Dick Anderson and Bob Petrella are tough enough, and Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti, picked up from Boston, is an old shrewdie. The main thing about the Dolphins is a new sense of unity. After a brawl erupted in an exhibition game with Chicago, both benches emptied in a hurry. The Dolphins proudly point out that their bench emptied first.
And that leaves Boston. "We're not a good team," says the Patriots' new coach, Clive (pronounced Cleeve) Rush, formerly the offensive backfield coach of the Jets and a man given to blunt phrases. He adds: "Seven wins in two seasons is not a good record."
It won't be much better this year. Fullback Jim Nance, Defensive End Larry Eisenhauer, Tight End Jim Whalen and Defensive Tackle Houston Antwine are the only standouts, and the first two are recovering from injuries. But a new strength is aborning, if only the strength of transition. Quarterback Mike Taliaferro seems to have blossomed under Rush and the Jets' system, and, as one veteran says of Rush, "After seeing this man operate, we feel like we've been cheated all these years." The only reason the player wouldn't permit his name to be used is because Rush has forbidden any rap against the former regime. That's a good way to begin.