Practice makes poifect.
—old New York saying
Friday is always "polishing day" for the New York Jets, the one workout of the week in which all that has been learned from chalk-talks and movie-watching, grass drills and scouting reports is supposed to fuse. Last Friday, as they prepared to play host to the Miami Dolphins—whom they beat 34-31 with their patented fourth-quarter heroics, which produced 18 points—the Jets frisked onto the greensward of Shea Stadium in Flushing, N.Y. with all the grace and style of, well, a world-champion street gang. Polishing day indeed. It looked like a job for Aerowax.
In the first place, the field was a mess. Since the Mets' World Series triumph, most of the sod in Shea has been transplanted to other locations, like backyards in Bayside, Hollis and Whitestone, leaving vast, elliptical scars on what is laughingly known as the playing surface. The players themselves didn't look much better. Clad in a motley of shredded sweat shirts, bloodstained foul-weather jackets, dirty wool caps, work-worn shoes, their noses and cheekbones scabbed and leaking pus, their mouths leaking gallows humor, the Jets came on like stragglers from the Eastern Front.
First off, the punters started working. Steve O'Neal, the lanky, redheaded rookie from Texas A & M who booted Curley Johnson clear over to the New York Giants, boomed long, spiraling kicks from sideline to sideline—53 yards apiece, well in keeping with his league-leading average of 46.9 yards. Mike Battle, the feisty kick-return specialist from USC, moved in on one of O'Neal's punts with the abandon that typifies his style—and dropped it. Battle stood for a moment, stunned, then picked up the ball and served it in O'Neal's direction with his fist, volleyball fashion. On the next punt that came his way Battle fielded the ball faultlessly and scooted upheld. "Way to ramble, kid," yelled Babe Parilli, the veteran backup quarterback, some of whose own punts were exceeding O'Neal's. But, as Parilli confessed, he had inflated his ball with helium.
Next Joe Namath began unlimbering his costly arm. George Sauer Jr., his long blond hair trailing from the bottom of his helmet, was Joe's most difficult target: a Custer figure with his budding yellow mustache, Sauer executes each feint and deadleg so eloquently that it has to wow any defender—or even a passer. Namath throws behind him. "Goddammit!" Broadway Joe whips off his woolly cap and throws it to the ground. Then he flashes that white, happy-wolf grin, his unshaved cheeks bulging with glee.
Then Don Maynard cuts out with his jackrabbit gait. Some parts of his body go in one direction, other parts fly another way, and one wonders why the slight, scrawny creature doesn't simply fly apart and collapse, the separate pieces still faking and twitching on the ground. Maynard is all jaws and legs, a Faulknerian creation—Flem Snopes in shoulder pads—who gives no more thought to danger than he does to molecular physics. He looks so frail that, as a teammate puts it, "You'd think a Paramecium could gobble him up—or even a single mecium. Haw, haw, haw!"
On this particular pattern Namath reads Maynard's final cut and throws the ball perfectly, but Don cuts so hard that he falls down before he gets to the intersection. He jogs back in, his jaws working furiously, and a few plays later he nabs a high pass in his armpit—a hard-thrown ball that should have torn him to pieces. Coming back to the line of scrimmage, Maynard holds the point of the ball against his shoulder, as if it had skewered him. "Good catch, Barney," somebody yells. Maynard is addicted to The Andy Griffith Show and identifies strongly with Barney Fife. Hence the nickname.
In fact, as the practice moves along, it becomes evident that nearly all the Jets have nicknames. Running Back Bill Mathis is known as Birdie. Well, now, how can you call a man of 30 years who stands 6'1" and weighs 220 Birdie? Because he's got "birdlike legs." Sometimes, just for the heck of it, Mathis is called Cymbals. That's because when he catches a pass he slaps his hands together—clang! Like that.
These are the men who triggered New York's resurgence as the capital of the sporting world, the exemplars of the new breed of anti-heroes, the guys who made the Mets and the Knicks possible by doing the impossible in the Super Bowl. By beating Miami, the Jets now stand 6-2 on the season (precisely the record they had last year at this point), have a commanding lead in the AFL's Eastern Division, and the same protective coloration that helped them in 1968 is once again at work. They have a tendency to lose, or barely win, breathers but they have that fine tuning—that ability to put it all together for the big games. So far this season they have played superlative ball only twice—in the preseason against the Giants for the Super Bowl Championship of New York and against Houston, which was touted as the competition in the East, but after being upset by Boston last week has now lost as many games as it has won—four.
Like the Packers of yore, the Jets court disaster. Week after week they seemingly try to find out how close they can come to the edge without falling off. Except for the Giants, whom they beat 37-14, the Jets have yet to crush anyone. They're apparently above that sort of thing. "We don't have to rub anybody's nose in it," says Cornerback Randy Beverly. It's almost as if it would be ungentlemanly for the Jets to whomp the stuffing out of another team. Champions do it with style, not bludgeons.
In the past the Jets have been nearly synonymous with Namath. Now, for the first time, it is becoming evident that they are a band of individuals, many of them superb ballplayers in their own right. Running Backs Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer are among the leading rushers in the league—on a team that is primarily renowned for its passing. The two seem handcrafted to their roles: Snell, powerful, fast-talking, confident, with the strong features of a Polynesian, is the classic fullback figure; Boozer, quiet, soft-spoken, with veiled eyes and subtle insights, is the archetypal broken-field runner. Both men have gone through the supreme test of knee surgery and both have emerged sound—in body as well as mind. And both talk convincingly of what it means to be a Jet.
"What it's all about, man, is being the complete ballplayer," says Snell, punctuating his words with Rooseveltian thrusts of the jaw. Boozer chimes in: "For me, that's blocking, catching the ball and running, in about that order. A good block is as satisfying to me as an 80- or 90-yard run. I mean, guys will compliment you today and tomorrow and next week if you keep the enemy away from Joe's knees." Where most blocking backs would cut down a blitzing linebacker at the knees, the Jet blockers take them close and high, to prevent the rusher from falling on Namath. As Boozer explains, "The only good excuse for letting a guy hit Joe is if he walks right up the front of you—clop, clop, clop, like a mountain climber—and then jumps off your hat and lands on Joe."
The Jets are motivated like no other team in football—and what motivates them is protectiveness. "The mother-hen complex," Kicker Jim Turner calls it. The Jets may practice like a band of mildly insane roughnecks, but when they play the game they play it with a maturity born of concentration. On Namath. Joe Willie turned them into winners and brought them lots of money.
The Jets are urged to do anything and everything to keep him healthy—and they are only too delighted to do so. Winston Hill, the 280-pound offensive tackle, equates Namath with his wife: "I love my wife and I protect her with my life from attackers. That's the way I'm protecting Joe, because then I'm protecting my money." In the second Boston game Namath sparked a fourth-quarter resurgence that led to a 23-17 win by running 16 yards. With his fragile knees—the right is held together by a tendon transplant, he has bursitis in the left—Joe shouldn't have to run. But when he does he fires up the team. Mike Battle, who was standing on the sidelines when Namath took off, recalls his emotions. "I wanted to go in there and throw a block for Joe," he says, "do anything to keep him from getting hit." And Battle is capable of almost anything. In his wilder moments he will eat a beer glass on a bet ("If you don't swallow the larger pieces, you're all right"), or push his head through a plaster wall to show his machismo. Battle's nickname is Razor, because he has sharp edges.
It is revealing, in fact just a bit poignant, that Namath has taken Battle under his wing. Mike's father suffered a heart attack last week, and the rookie was eager to get back to his Manhattan apartment to make a private phone call to find out how his dad was doing. Broadway, who isn't really the unreflective swinger many make him out to be, packed Battle into an E-type Jag and zipped him to phoneside. It brings to mind the somewhat misleading graffiti on the Jets' locker room door: "Donna loves Joe," "Monica loves Joe," "Joe Willie and Bernadette," "Joe is Love," "I love Joe. [signed] Joe." That's not how it is, sports fans.
The weirdest thing about the Jets lies buried in the player-coach relationship. The Mets may talk with awe of their "Mr. Hodges," whose cool, underplayed gestures can reverse even an umpire's decision, and over a matter as minor as shoe polish. But the Jets—forget about it. To them it's always "Weeb," never "Coach." Many Jet followers Still refer to the man as Eub Weebank. (Think about it and then try to say it straight.) Yet the short, kindly, indeed cuddly little coach has worked a personal miracle with the Jets. "I built something out of nothing," he says. "It's a bit like building a house." In his home in Bronxville, Ewbank mounts his trophies conspicuously. There are many of them, but none is closer to his heart than a game ball from the Super Bowl.
"If I had to isolate my greatest satisfaction as a coach," he muses, "it would have to be this: I gave the American Football League a Super Bowl winner for the first time, and it was over Baltimore." (The Colts fired Ewbank although he had led them to NFL championships in 1958 and 1959.) Then his friendly blue eyes flicker a bit behind his glasses, his hesitant but predominantly smiling little mouth curls into a moue, and the past comes rushing up. Earlier this year many Jet fans (and a few Jets) squawked when Ewbank cut some of his older players, men like Cornerback Johnny Sample and Curley Johnson. "You hate to do it but you can't lead from the heart," says Ewbank. He flashes back in time to Baltimore. "I hated to cut Artie Donovan and it was tough to tell Buddy Young he'd have to go. Perhaps I waited too long. The Lions when they were on top, the good Giant teams, even the Browns—all of them waited too long to cut the deadwood. That word may sound cruel—deadwood—but pruning is the kindest thing you can do to any growing thing."
And the Jets, believe it, are a growing thing. Both Ewbank and Namath are innovative thinkers on offense, and each week sees a couple of new wrinkles. The Jets are still primarily a passing team, but the key to defusing Namath's long bomb is already well known. As Clive Rush, the former Jet offensive coach who now heads the Patriots, has demonstrated, all you have to do to stop it is double-team Sauer and Maynard. But when you do that you're vulnerable to the run. It's significant that last year Sauer and Maynard were among the league leaders week after week in receiving, while Snell and Boozer hovered way down the list on rushing. Now they are third and fourth respectively, while Sauer and Maynard are no longer on top. As for Joe Willie, he seems to have learned a lesson about leadership. Though he still would prefer to go for the dynamite score, he realizes he has some equally effective weapons in his running backs, a line of thought which developed after the Super Bowl win, in which Snell's running played such a vital part.
"Hell, there's no play that's perfect," argues Ewbank. "Joe and I have this understanding about play-calling. Hindsight is always 20-20. I remember once when he came in from failing to convert a third down and said, 'I should have called the draw.' I told him, I said, 'Hindsight is always 20-20.' A few games later he came back in from failing to convert and I suggested that he should have tried a sneak. He looked at me kind of guileless and said, 'Gee, coach, hindsight is always 20-20.' As I said, we have this understanding."
The Jets' weakness is defense, particularly in the secondary. As Safety Bill Baird puts it: "When we went into the Super Bowl we had a total of 23 years experience in the defensive backfield. The other day I totted it up and we had only 13." Injuries have taken their toll, and Ewbank harps on it in practice. "Let's not hurt each other, boys." he pleads. But the Jets are hurting. Among others, Linebacker Ralph Baker went out in preseason with a bad knee; Defensive End Verlon Biggs was hurt as were Cornerbacks Randy Beverly and Cornell Gordon; Jim Hudson went out with an injured left knee, only to return and then be lost for the season with a ripped-up right knee. "You lose Hudson, it's like losing half the franchise," says one Jet. "He was the team pusher and the best strong safety in football."
Nonetheless, the Jets are on top and happy-go-lucky. After their final hard workout last week they went to the locker room for a little R & R. Grown, naked men skulked about, carrying cups of ice water, stalking one another for a chilling shot. At one point Namath ducked into Ewbank's office, chortling madly to himself: "John Elliot's been after me for 15 minutes. But he isn't going to get me." Joe had a bucket of ice water in his hand. "Now look here, Joe," said the coach. "I don't mind you throwing cups of that stuff at one another, but buckets is going too far. You better quit it." Said Namath, "Sure, Weeb." A few minutes later someone sloshed a bucket of ice water into the sauna bath, and at least four infuriated Jets charged out looking for revenge. Was it Joe Willie who did the dirty deed? Well, as they say in Flushing, practice makes poifect.