As Joe Namath prepares to leave, so Bert Jones (see Key Player) arrives. In Baltimore they are already comparing Jones, the snuff-dipper from the bayous, to the legendary Johnny U. At 6'3" and 215 pounds, Jones is bigger and stronger than Unitas. He also likes to run the ball (47 carries for 321 yards in 1975), which Unitas never did. And his passes travel with Jim Palmer velocity and accuracy, whereas Unitas was more of an early-day Randy Jones.
Miami's Bob Griese lacks Jones' outgoing personality, and he does not dip snuff, but he is healthy again after missing the last four 1975 games with torn tendons in his right foot, and a healthy Griese has long established himself as a winning quarterback. What Buffalo would like to start is someone named Joe Marangi—or Gary Ferguson. Joe Ferguson throws better than Gary Marangi, but Marangi is a more charismatic leader, a better improviser and a stronger scrambler. Without O.J. to give the ball to, though, quarterbacking in Buffalo will be a thankless job. Jim Plunkett has left New England, and Steve Grogan will try to replace him. Plunkett bristled when Coach Chuck Fairbanks sent in plays, but Grogan has no such objections. "I think I've called the plays in only one game in my life," he says.
The only thing certain in New York is that an Alabama quarterback will operate the Jets: Joe Namath or Richard Todd (see Newcomer), take your pick. Namath was the worst $400,000 quarterback in pro football in 1975; he threw an NFL-high 28 interceptions and completed less than 50% of his passes. Namath's major task may be to supervise the transition of power from J. W. Namath to Richard Todd.
Buffalo had the best attack in the NFL last year but it has packed up and left town. O. J. Simpson took his 1,817 yards and rushed to Hollywood, free-agent Wide Receiver Ahmad Rashad signed with Seattle, and Wide Receiver J.D. Hill was traded to Detroit. In all, the Bills lost 2,900 yards of their offense—more than 50%—and without Simpson, in particular, the holdovers will not be so productive. Coach Lou Saban will work Roland Hooks and rookie Darnell Powell in Simpson's old position. The departure of Rashad and Hill leaves Bob Chandler as the only dependable receiver, but Chandler is not a deep threat. Without O.J., the Bills will be more deliberate on offense. Still, Fullback Jim Braxton (823 yards up the middle) works behind a solid line, featuring Guards Reggie McKenzie and Joe DeLamielleure, although McKenzie may lose interest without his sidekick O.J.
Miami, which missed the playoffs in 1975 for the first time in six years, is so deep in running backs that just one year after losing Butch and Sundance, Coach Don Shula traded the second leading rusher in Dolphin history, Mercury Morris (875 yards last year), to San Diego. Bulldog Don Nottingham and a healthy-for-a-change Norm Bulaich combined to produce 1,027 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns from Larry Csonka's old position. High-stepper Benny Malone replaces Morris; however, he has a history of being sidelined by pulled muscles. Placekicker Garo Yepremian returns, but Shula was not happy with his three missed field goals in the two critical Baltimore defeats.
Baltimore still lacks an established heavy-duty, Csonka-style inside man to complement Lydell Mitchell. Although at 5'11" and 190 pounds Mitchell hardly seems big enough to invade the middle, he slugged through the trenches for 1,193 yards in 1975, caught 60 passes for 544 yards and scored 15 touchdowns.
Sam (Bam) Cunningham has a three-year, $600,000 contract in his pocket, and New England will make him earn it. Healthy again after breaking his right leg in 1974 and suffering a series of nagging injuries in 1975, Cunningham may get the ball 30 times a game as Grogan tries to find his way around the league. Three regulars were seriously injured last week; Receivers Randy Vataha and Steve Burks are lost for at least part of the season, and Guard Steve Corbett for all of it. One mistake the Patriots must eliminate is their critical turnovers: last season they had 50, and threw a staggering 17 interceptions inside their own 20.
John Riggins (1,005 yards) left New York in a huff, claiming the Jets did not give him the Namath-style treatment or salary, and Carl Garrett (566 yards), a regular no-show at practices, was sent to Oakland, but the Jets have added free agent Ed Marinaro from Minnesota. There's always next year for new Coach Lou Holtz.
Nick Buoniconti's last-minute return from retirement means that the division will have one "name" player working in the middle. At the same time, Shula's admission that he needs a player he had previously talked into retirement and the television booth means Miami's defense is thin. Buoniconti works with second-year man Steve Towle, who played both on the outside and in the middle in 1975 and made a Dolphin-record 164 tackles.
Twice discarded by divisional rivals (New England and Buffalo), Jim Cheyunski replaced Mike Curtis in the Baltimore middle after the Colts lost four of their first five games. Baltimore promptly ran off a nine-game winning streak and won the division title from the Dolphins. However, Cheyunski still seems troubled by a balky knee; he obviously lacked mobility and pursuit throughout the exhibition season. Buffalo did not replace Cheyunski a year ago because the penurious Bills failed to sign Bob Nelson, their second-round draft choice from Nebraska, until almost the opening gun. Then Nelson injured a leg and played spectator the rest of the year. Penn State rookie Greg Buttle may be the best man for New York. New England uses four linebackers behind its three-man front, but Steve Nelson plays opposite the strong side—and does it so well that he was voted the Patriots' MVP in 1975.
Manny Fernandez, Bob Heinz, Doug Swift, Dick Anderson, Mike Kolen, Jake Scott. For reasons of health, retirement or discontent, they don't start for the Dolphins anymore. But don't worry about Miami's defense. Shula has located another bunch of No-Names. Randy Crowder has replaced Fernandez (knee and shoulder injuries) at tackle alongside Don Reese, while No. 1 draft choice Larry Gordon joins the linebacking corps and Barry Hill and Jeris White add youth to the secondary.
In Baltimore, the Colts spent the off-season trying to come up with a name for their front four. "Sack Pack" was one suggestion, because John Dutton. Freddy Cook, Mike Barnes and Joe Ehrmann helped the Colts make an NFL-high 59 sacks in 1975. Thanks in part to the pressure they applied on opposing quarterbacks, the Colts picked off 29 passes, second-best in the NFL last season, with Outside Linebacker Stan White intercepting eight, a record for linebackers. Still, the Colts will again need outstanding seasons from Corner-back Lloyd Mumphord and Safety Jackie Wallace. And with starter Tom MacLeod out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon, they now need linebacker help.
New England had three first-round selections and used two of them to bolster a sagging defense. Arizona State's Mike Haynes starts at cornerback, and Ohio State's Tim Fox moves in at free safety. Steve Nelson and Sam Hunt are superior linebackers and if down linemen Julius Adams, Arthur Moore and Sugar-Bear Hamilton stay healthy. New England's fickle fans will stop criticizing Fairbanks' stubborn insistence on a three-man front.
The joke around Buffalo is that O.J. demanded that trade just so he could get to run against the Bills' defense. Indeed. Buffalo ranked 24th among the NFL's 26 clubs in total defense in 1975. Line Coach Stan Jones and three of his charges—Pat Toomay, Walt Patulski and Earl Edwards—have departed, but the Bills have acquired moody End Sherman White from the Bengals. Top draft Mario Clark strengthens what was the worst secondary in football.
Paging Tackle Carl Barzilauskas! Like a lot of New York Jets, the 6'6", 280-pound Barzilauskas had a terrible 1975; he missed more tackles than he made, and he was regularly run over by hordes of blockers, all of whom were kind enough to reach down and help him to his feet. As a team, the Jets gave up 433 points, the most in the NFL by 54 points. There seems to be no noticeable improvement.
Once the glamour division, the East has suffered the departure of O. J. Simpson, Ahmad Rashad, Paul Warfield, Larry Csonka and Jim Plunkett and faces the imminent retirement of Joe Namath. Consequently, season-ticket sales have dropped 25% in Buffalo and 20% in New England. The Jets drew a total of less than 25,000 for two of their exhibitions in New York.
Dressing-room dressing-downs of coach and team by Colts Owner Bob Irsay preceded the resignation last Sunday of Coach of the Year Ted Marchibroda. Irsay was irate over the Colts' poor preseason record. The players had backed their coach. Buffalo players are disenchanted with a management they feel is saving money at the expense of the club. "They haven't done anything to improve the team," says one veteran. "They've got rid of experienced people but haven't got any experienced people back."
Last season the Colts went from last place to first on the passing of Jones, the running of Mitchell and the birth of the Sack Pack. They can stay there if Irsay's outbursts have not damaged morale. Miami is easily the best of the rest, with New York the worst of the worst.
The big rap against Bert Jones in his first two Colt seasons was that he bailed out of the pocket too quickly. "What pocket?" Jones asks. "When you don't have any protection, you don't stay in there and get killed. Now I can stay in the pocket all day." Working behind Baltimore's enormously improved line, Jones passed and ran the Colts from last place to first in 1975. He threw for 2,483 yards and 18 touchdowns, completed 59% of his 344 passes to break Johnny Unitas' club record, pitched an NFL-low eight interceptions and scrambled for 321 yards despite four cracked ribs. "Coach taught me how to attack the clubs we played," Jones said before Marchibroda quit. "Now I know why we do things. I never had that concept before." Said Marchibroda, "Bert's a quarterback with no 'ifs.' You know, 'if he could do this,' or 'if he could do that.' He can do it all."
Richard Todd has long idolized Joe Namath. Like Namath. Todd is a quarterback. Like Namath, he played for Bear Bryant at Alabama. Like Namath, he is single. Like Namath. he has Jimmy Walsh for a lawyer, and Walsh has negotiated a five-year, $600,000-plus contract for Todd with the Jets. Unlike Namath, though, the 6'2", 210-pound Todd is blond. Unlike Joe Willie, he calls himself "just plain Richard." And most important, unlike Namath, he has two healthy legs. He also runs the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds. Namath doesn't even run it. Operating the Alabama wishbone. Todd ran for almost as many yards (1,254) as he passed (1,642), but his only running for the Jets will be in self-defense. Namath will start for New York, but he is on the final year of his contract, and if the Jets open poorly, as expected. Todd takes over.