On the first of April the National Football League issued Waiver Notice No. 44. It contained just one name—Joe Namath. The biggest gate attraction in the history of football, the highest-paid quarterback in the game, the man who had almost single-handedly made the AFL, on waivers? April Fool, right? Wrong. Namath remained on waivers for the full 10-day claiming period and not a single NFL club so much as nibbled. When the waiver period expired last week, the New York Jets were asked if they wished to recall waivers and reclaim their greatest player ever. They said no. Thus, Joe Namath was unceremoniously cut adrift from Broadway.
While this turn of events may have seemed humiliating, Namath took it in stride. "Some of my best friends have been on waivers," he quipped. Indeed, most people viewed the waiver process as little more than a charade staged by the 28 NFL teams to allow Namath to fulfill one last football fantasy: playing quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. Nevertheless, the question was not how and when Namath would become Freeway Joe, but whether anybody in L.A. really wanted him on the team. Judging from radio talk shows and letters to local newspapers, the majority of Ram fans preferred that Joe Willie White Shoes confine himself to peddling his Butter-up Poppers and Brut. When 38 sportswriters at the Santa Anita Derby were queried about Namath, 36 said the Rams would be making a mistake if they signed him. In fact, Namath may not even be the first choice of the Rams themselves. The quarterback they really want appears to be Houston's Dan Pastorini.
Namath cleared waivers not as a result of any conspiracy on the part of the NFL clubs but because of the two words that followed his name on Waiver Notice No. 44—"guaranteed contract." That means "no cut." If a team claimed Namath, it would be obliged to pay him for the entire 1977 season, even if his weak knees didn't hold up. And under the new standard player contract, Namath, who would be entering his option year, would have to be paid 110% of his previous year's salary. In 1976 Namath was the NFL's lowest-rated regular quarterback despite his $500,000 salary. So, a team claiming Namath would have to pick up a $550,000 no-cut contract.
Clearing waivers accomplished two things for Namath. It freed him to talk to any club and removed the stumbling block of his inflated salary. Namath has made it clear that he is interested in dealing only with the Rams, and he apparently is willing to take an enormous pay cut to play for them. In fact, he supposedly is agreeable to taking a $350,000 pay cut, which means he would be playing for the Rams for $150,000.
"This is an important year in the career—the whole career, not just the football career—of Joe Namath," says one NFL team executive. "He wants to get into acting, and he knows a lot more doors will open for him if he's still playing. It gives him an identity, a base. Imagine if he's playing for the Rams next season, and on the Friday night before a big game he shows up at the Polo Lounge with some starlet. There'll be 18,000 reporters after him for a story. Pictures everywhere of him and the broad. A young actor can't buy that sort of publicity. But if Namath's not playing football, who would care? There wouldn't be any news there. Everybody already knows Namath likes broads and booze."
While no one questions that Namath's aspirations play a large role in his desire to finish out his career in Movieland, sources close to the quarterback argue that his prime motivation is a desire to go out with a winner. "Over the last few years," says one of Namath's close friends, "I could see the frustration in the man at not winning, not getting the job done, not having the great individual games. There was a certain sense of embarrassment about it."
Clearly, Namath needs the Rams. But do the Rams need Namath? Last season L.A. Quarterback James Harris led the NFC in passing with a rating of 89.8 points. However, he finished the season playing second-string behind 24-year-old Pat Haden, the Rhodes scholar from USC, who had 94.7 points but didn't throw enough passes—only 105—to qualify for the title.
Some teams might gloat over having two quarterbacks of this caliber, but the Rams are not satisfied. Harris has difficulty finding secondary receivers and doesn't protect the ball well when he gets hit, which happens all too often while he is trying to remember where those secondary receivers are supposed to be. Moreover, because Harris is the only black quarterback in the NFL playing regularly, his every promotion and demotion prompts media questions about racial strife. Haden is the golden boy of the future, but he is small, injury-prone and short on experience. In four years under Coach Chuck Knox the Rams have won four division titles but have started four different quarterbacks—John Hadl, Harris, Ron Jaworski and Haden—in the opening round of the playoffs. Quarterback is their Achilles' heel, and they are looking for help.
Yes, the Rams think Namath could be the answer. "Namath has a great feeling for the game," says L.A. owner Carroll Rosenbloom. "It's an injustice to say he's a loser or that he's over the hill. The last few years he just hasn't had the supporting cast he needs." The Rams feel that with a solid running attack and good protection, which he rarely had his last few seasons in New York, Namath could pick defenses apart the way he did Rosen-bloom's Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. But Rosenbloom adds that the Rams aren't making any hasty decisions and that, in fact, they have nine trades in the works, including a deal for Pastorini.
Like Namath, Pastorini is in his option year. Like Namath, he wants to play in Los Angeles. Unlike Namath, though, he cannot call his own career shots yet. Pastorini is 27, a sturdy 6'3", 205-pounder with a strong arm. Hollywood looms large in Pastorini's considerations, too, but his interest in movies is confined to the career of his wife, actress June Wilkinson. They had a brief separation last year while she pursued her career in Hollywood and he played football in Houston. "Moviemaking is not my cup of tea," Pastorini says. "I just want to play football. I made a movie once. It was called Weed, and I played a marijuana smuggler. That was the end of my movie career. It was kind of a third-rate movie. No, it was most definitely a third-rate movie."
If the Rams do sign Namath, they must weigh what effect he will have on their program. Despite his flamboyant reputation, Namath has the respect of his peers. He is thought of as the consummate team man, the epitome of dedication to his job. On the whole, though, the Rams probably view Pastorini more favorably than Namath because, as one Ram man puts it, "He has a long future. We can build with him."
In return for Pastorini, the Oilers have asked the Rams for their first-and second-round draft choices this year and next, plus an extra second-round choice the Rams own this year. The demand for five top draft choices should come as no shock to Los Angeles, because it set the precedent for this sort of deal by exacting roughly the same price from the Green Bay Packers for Hadl. And Houston has logic on its side. Under the new player contract, if Pastorini plays out his option this year and signs with another club for more than $200,000 (only about $25,000 more than he is currently earning), the Oilers would automatically be compensated with two first-round draft choices. So, in effect, Houston is asking the Rams for three second-round choices for the privilege of having Pastorini one year sooner.
Apparently, Los Angeles considers the price too high. "Sure, the Rams want Pastorini," says an Oiler assistant coach, "but they're not willing to give us anything for him." Around the NFL this posture surprises no one, the Rams being famous for their niggardly dealings. "All Los Angeles will try to do is steal Pastorini," says one club executive. "The Rams don't have enough guts to pay a boxcar figure for a quarterback. Look at their history. They never make a trade unless it looks good in the papers. If they really think that a quarterback is the only thing that's keeping them from being a Super Bowl team, and if they can keep their present team intact and get the catalyst they need just for draft choices, there's no reason why they shouldn't pay that price."
Last week Rosenbloom, his son Steve, General Manager Don Klosterman and Knox met in the Ram offices to mull over their quarterback situation. In the course of the discussion Knox volunteered that he had signed Namath to his first pro contract. Knox was a Jet assistant coach at the time, and he got Namath to agree to a three-year, $427,000 contract, an unheard-of figure in those days. Then Knox "baby-sat" Namath for two weeks to protect him from the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals until he had played his final collegiate game in the Orange Bowl and could formally sign an AFL contract.
Hearing this, Rosenbloom nodded toward his son and said, "And we made Joe Namath." Encountering a quizzical stare, Rosenbloom elaborated, "Because we owned the Colts when he beat us in Super Bowl III."
Wouldn't it be ironic if Namath now came to play for Rosenbloom?
"I'd only be delighted if Joe helped us win one," said the Ram owner. "If he made a contribution here, he would simply be paying me back. Joe Namath owes me one."