Realignment has changed the American Football Conference's Eastern Division for the better. The addition of the Baltimore Colts will certainly revitalize what in recent years had become a rather monotonous one-man show. The Namath Knee Hour, they called it. Now the club that Broadway Joe humiliated for the old AFL's first Super Bowl victory is right there—and with blood in its eye. What's more, a Colt family feud has also been added at another level: the Baltimore coach during its recent years of greatness, Don Shula, skipped during the winter to the Miami Dolphins and is bringing them rapidly to the verge of championship contention.
Last year the Colts were 8-5-1—compared to 13-1 the year before—but their record is not indicative of their true worth. Baltimore should give rookie Coach Don McCafferty, who for 20 years was the Colts' offensive backfield assistant, at least a division title. With luck, and the continuing good health of Quarterback John Unitas, maybe more.
Consider. Between them Unitas and his No. 2, Earl Morrall, are 73 years old, and age, class, is a factor of frangibility. Indeed, many of the Colts are aging, a fact of which McCafferty—who is 49 himself—is well aware. For example, not long ago, Lou Michaels, 33, the club's placekicker, was brooding about Jim O'Brien, a rookie kicker out of Cincinnati. "I've never had this feeling before," Michaels remarked, "but I get the idea they really want to keep this kid." They did, and put Michaels on waivers, but it helped that O'Brien could also play some wide receiver. Other promising rookies are Ron Gardin of Arizona, who could start at left cornerback; Jim Bailey, a defensive tackle from Kansas; Billy Newsome, a defensive end out of Grambling; and Michigan Safety Tom Curtis.
So deep are the Colts in fine young receivers that venerable figures like John Mackey, 28, Jimmy Orr, 34, and Willie Richardson, 30, showed up after the strike having to fight for their jobs. Richardson didn't make it—Ray Perkins beat him out and Willie was traded to Pittsburgh for Roy Jefferson. Nor did Orr. He was edged out by Eddie Hinton, 23.
In addition the Colts have a versatile offensive line, a young, aggressive line-backing corps, which has been stabilized after a midseason shake-up last year, the best safeties in the division in Rick Volk and Jerry Logan—and better morale than in 1969, when Unitas was overheard telling Shula: "Here, you take the ball and play quarterback."
Four for the Feather
However, the Colts are unsettled at cornerback and lack a running mate for Tom (Garbage Man) Matte, their premier rusher. Norm Bulaich of TCU, Baltimore's No. 1 draft pick, is the likeliest candidate now that his bum leg has come around.
"They'll all be out to get us," mused McCafferty recently. "Over the years we've represented the best in the NFL. All of the old AFL teams will want to do what the Jets did in the Super Bowl. It would be a feather in their caps."
Of course, no one wants that feather more than Joe Willie and the Jetties. Last year's failure can be traced to New York's defense, which broke down due to injuries to key people. This year it is again sound, with the exception of All-Pro End Gerry Philbin, who will miss half a dozen games following shoulder surgery. The secondary has got to be better. Jim Hudson is back full-time at strong safety; W. K. Hicks was obtained from Houston and will go at weak safety while Rookies Steve Tannen and Earlie Thomas, at cornerback, have the speed to stay with the new breed of wide receiver. John Dockery, of Harvard, who played corner last season, seems to have incurred Weeb Ewbank's wrath. "I just hope John doesn't become a silly Ivy League goofball thinker," he growled.
The Don Maynard-George Sauer Jr. pass-catching chorus is still zinging and is reinforced by Mutt and Jeff rookies Richard Caster (6'5") and Eddie Bell (5'9"). Running Backs Emerson Boozer and Matt Snell can still punch out the yardage and are ably backed up by Lee White and George Nock, who has been most impressive. But who stands behind Joe Namath and his arthritic knees? Al Woodall, a second-year man from Duke, of whom, like the Edsel, great things were expected. One plus is the schedule. The Jets have always lost the easy ones; this year they don't have any.
At Miami, Shula is building a ball club faster than the hotels used to go up along Collins Avenue. Coming off a 3-10-1 season, which put the Dolphins dead last in the weakling AFL East, Shula knew he had to work hard and fast. In Quarterback Bob Griese, Running Backs Jim Kiick and Larry Csonka, and Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti he had the makings. But some ingredients had to go. Shula canned backup Quarterback Rick Norton, even though Norton had $105,000 still coming to him on a $350,000 salary-bonus deal. More important, he picked up Center Bob De Marco from Pittsburgh and the renowned Paul War-field from Cleveland. "The Dolphins bought themselves into contention in the Eastern Division," commented Oakland's Al Davis when he saw Warfield catch one TD pass in traffic and set up another on a 46-yard pass in the exhibition win over Cincy.
Shula also obtained Tight End Marv Fleming from Green Bay, and drafted another big young feller who'll give Fleming a tussle for the spot: Jim Mandich of Michigan. Indeed, four rookies have made the club. Cornerback Tim Foley of Purdue and Safety Jake Scott of Georgia are practically sure starters barring injury. Scott, who played in Canada, is one of those hard-chargers whom coaches love to describe as "too dumb to choke."
Two rookie linebackers will flank All-Pro Buoniconti, Mike Kolen of Auburn and Doug Swift of Amherst—of Amherst? Swift—6'3", 230—is a free agent, something of an intellectual and a complete surprise. When asked during a hazing session to sing his school's fight song, the blond, bespectacled Swift was unable to comply. "To my knowledge," he said, "Amherst doesn't have one. We didn't exert ourselves overly, and only practiced two or three times a week."
Overall, Shula's employees have applied themselves so smartly to his new system that the team is bound to improve, and could win as many as eight games. The Dolphins should finish no worse than third in the five-team division and, with a bit of racing luck, could go even higher. If so, Offensive Line Coach Monte Clark's concept of positive feedback—"victories in terms of labor expended"—will have worked.
If dollars spent on acquiring new talent were any gauge of greatness, the Buffalo Bills should be at the pinnacle of pro football. Last year it was O. J. Simpson, this year Dennis Shaw, the San Diego State quarterback who emulated O.J. in his long-drawn-out signing negotiations (he outlasted Simpson, showing up at camp a day later than his fellow Californian did last year). O.J. is starting to pay off. So is Shaw, who showed he could move the club in an exhibition game with Atlanta, and may be the one to take over Jack Kemp's old starting berth, which he relinquished to run for Congress. Shaw has already beaten out Jim Harris, the black quarterback who was a flop in the preseason and was put on waivers. Shaw's remaining rivals are the well-battered Dan Darragh and Jim Ward, whom the Bills claimed from Baltimore.
Coach John Rauch is looking to youth in his defense, too—and, accordingly, has come up with a decidedly collegiate wrinkle: using Al Cowlings as a rover. Booker Edgerson, 31, a mainstay at corner, was traded and replaced by Robert James, 23; Middle Linebacker Edgar Chandler, 24, beat out Harry Jacobs, 33, who was waived; and Pete Richardson, 23, supplanted the waived George Saimes, 29, at free safety.
One offensive monument, Center Al Bemiller, who had played in 174 games, was toppled and cut, but Paul Maguire, who holds the AFL career record for punts (712) and set an unenviable record of 100 punts last year, endures.
Last and Least
If the Shavian touch materializes, the Bills could avoid the cellar this year. The Boston Patriots probably won't. Under Coach Clive Rush, Running Backs Jim Nance and Carl Garrett were the whole show last year and appear to be about it this season, too. Wide Receiver Ron Sellers needs a sharper quarterback than Mike Taliaferro to become a threat.
Bad luck dogged the Pats in the preseason. In their only home game, fire destroyed 20 rows of seats. Defensive End Larry Eisenhauer retired, leading the Pats to use their No. 1 draft choice on Phil Olsen of Utah State—only to see Olsen crippled in an All-Star practice session. Knee surgery will probably sideline him for the season. Actually, only two of the Patriots' first six draft choices emerged healthy. One rookie who should make the starting squad is Defensive End Dennis Wirgowski—and he more by attrition than talent.
In short, the Patriots will doubtless end up as also-rans once again. Still with the new/old face of Baltimore on the scene, even, the Pats are eager to begin the new season.
"I'm looking forward to playing the old NFL teams," says Defensive Tackle Jim Hunt. "It will mean even more once the regular season gets started."