By the time last Sunday afternoon was over, Garden City Joe Namath would have liked a recount, or at least a chance to change his ballot and vote for the strike. Anything, including walking a picket line, would have been a more enjoyable assignment than Namath's had been. He had returned to the scene of some of his worst disasters, bleak, blustery Buffalo, and very definitely found that nothing had changed. Afterward he hunched forward on a stool in the Jets' dressing room, adjusted the big ice pack strapped to his puffed right knee and asked himself, "Why is it like this here all the time?"
O. J. Simpson and the Bills had just thrashed the Jets 42-14, making Namath a loser for the seventh time in his nine visits Upstate. In fact, Simpson had gained as many yards on the ground—173—as Namath had through the air. Worse still, Namath had thrown four interceptions, including a perfect safety-valve touchdown pass to Buffalo Defensive End Pat Toomay, and had made 11 crash landings on the Rich Stadium AstroTurf, including two voluntary belly flops to avoid the Bills' fierce rush. But what had bedeviled Namath most of all was the Buffalo weather.
When the Jets landed there Saturday afternoon the skies were clear and the flags were still. "I won't sleep tonight," said Billy Atkins, the defensive backfield coach of the Bills. "We're starting two rookies in the deep secondary—and Namath will be throwing against them. I'm praying for another monsoon." Someone heard Atkins, for winter arrived the next morning, complete with leaden skies and chilly 20-mph winds. "What a perfect day," Atkins said.
Throwing an assortment of knuckle-balls, changeups and curves, Namath completed only 14 of his 36 passes. "Poor Joe," said O. J., shaking his head and smiling. "Twice in a row now the skies have turned against him up here. Last year we had like a hurricane when the Jets came to town, and Joe completed only, what, two passes? And now the big winds today, the first time all year. Nothing I can do about it. It's God's thing. Mind you, we're all happy for it."
The Jets had tried to psych themselves for the Bills by calling the game a "blood battle" because Buffalo had not joined them by going out on strike. "The Bills are just a lousy bunch," said Defensive End Richard Neal, the Jets' player representative who had tried to convince Simpson and his teammates of the merits of the strike. "They're trying to get something for nothing. They want a forfeit." Namath was slightly more subdued. He had voted against the strike for obvious reasons. As one Jet said, "Why would you cast your ballot for a strike when you're making something like $32,000 per game?" And he clearly was worried about his ability to execute in the old Namath manner—quick setup and quicker release.
Namath is 32 years old now, almost a senior citizen. He has abandoned the white llama rugs, the Manhattan penthouse and the Hollywood starlets for a semireclusive life in a rented house on a shady street out in Garden City, not far from the Jets' new Long Island training facility at Hofstra University. "Joe's quieter now, not as outgoing, not as verbal," Guard Randy Rasmussen said early in the week. "If we go to the Super Bowl again, I don't think he'll stand up and 'guarantee' that we'll win the game. I guess you'd say he's more mature. When it's time to go to work, he sticks to work. There's no more fooling around at practice. You've got to remember that Joe's not a spring chicken anymore."
Garden City Joe's quarterbacking style has changed, too, beginning midway through last season after the Jets had lost seven of their first eight games. "Joe way trying to force the ball deep instead of taking what the defense gave him," says Coach Charley Winner. "As a result he was throwing a lot of interceptions. We finally got him to start throwing little safety valves when the deep pass wasn't there, and overnight he became a more efficient quarterback, more efficient than he had ever been." With Namath disdaining the bomb and avoiding interceptions, the Jets won their last six games to finish 7-7 and stimulate talk of another Super Bowl.
"No one can create optimism the way Joe can," Rasmussen said. "We've had only three winning seasons during his career, but people tend to overlook the bad years because Joe's around, and maybe, just maybe, he'll do it again."
Namath shared the optimism when he reported to training camp after signing almost $5 million worth of contracts—$4 million with Fabergé and $900,000 for two years with the Jets. "I haven't put back-to-back seasons together in five years," he said, "but I played the complete schedule last season and now I feel fine." His knees seemed solid for a change. Namath wears something called a Lenox Hill Derotation brace on both knees; he doesn't need the braces, but after four operations feels more comfortable wearing them. "The braces tell a lot about Joe," Rasmussen said. "When they go squeek-squeek-squeek in good rhythm, I know he's O.K., but when they go squeek-squeek-(pause)-squeeksqueeksqueek, I know he's hurting. Now they sound like music."
In training camp Namath suffered a new injury, damaging the rectus muscle below his right rib cage when he twisted too sharply handing off in practice. "I just couldn't throw with that injury," he says, explaining why he had played only five quarters in the Jets' preseason games. "My whole mind and body are accustomed to working together. I just can't tell my hand that I'm not supposed to jerk it to a stop. I jerk it to a stop when I can't find a receiver, and it hurts me to jerk it like that."
Injuries aside, Namath was still the main man for the Jets as they flew to Buffalo. And, of course, he was Target A for the Buffalo defensive line. "If we give him one good hit, just one, chances are he'll leave the game," said End Walt Patulski. "If I get a shot, believe me, I'm going to take it. We have to make our living, too." Toomay complained that the Jets are "the best holding team I've ever played against" and called Rasmussen an "octopus." "They're all long-armed guys with excellent grips," he said. Earl Edwards, the big Buffalo tackle, agreed. "The Jets hold better than even Oakland. They'll do whatever's necessary to keep Namath from getting hurt. Who can blame them?"
Unfortunately for Namath, his protection broke down early on Sunday as the Bills poured through and knocked him to the ground repeatedly. Tackle Robert Woods was called for offensive holding on an early sequence, a penalty that brought standing cheers from the Buffalo bench, and Rasmussen later had to leave the game with bruised ribs.
By then Buffalo had established its superiority. With Simpson repeatedly skittering up the middle, the Bills built a 14-0 lead on their first two possessions before Namath pushed New York 71 yards against the gusting winds. He capped the drive with a 26-yard pass to Tight End Rich Caster. The teams matched touchdowns in the second quarter—Simpson scoring on a five-yard run and Namath tossing 12 yards to Wide Receiver Eddie Bell—to make the halftime score 21-14.
Buffalo's relentless offense and an errant Namath pass allowed the Bills to take firm control in the third period. They received the second-half kickoff and controlled the ball for almost seven minutes before scoring on a short pass to Tight End Paul Seymour. Moments later Defensive Back Charlie Ford intercepted Namath; in eight plays the Bills had another TD. While Buffalo scored twice during the first 10:24 of the third period New York ran but three plays.
"It was awful," mumbled Charley Winner. "I tend to agree," said Namath. Just how awful will not be known for several weeks. New York's thumping by the Bills, who look ready to improve on their performance of a year ago when they made the NFL playoffs for the first time, would normally be reason enough for the Jets to discard the optimism derived from their fast close in '74 and Namath's higher efficiency and musical knees. But there is always the possibility that the defeat was just another of those routine Sunday afternoons in Buffalo for Garden City Joe.