Until statisticians of the French Quarter have totaled up all of the divorces, empty wallets, instant wheelchair cases, kidnapped flower girls and lost rent cars at the end of Super Bowl Week next January, the answer to the biggest question in pro football this season—Will Al Davis have to build a two-ring garage?—may not be known.
By then, however, a great many other important things will have been determined. We shall have learned that:
Joe Namath either replaced Pat Haden as quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams or plunged headlong into show business by becoming the resident eel on The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
Tony Dorsett became the best "spot player" Tom Landry ever coached.
Bert Jones sold the North Slope, bought United Artists, and returned the phone calls of Cyrus Vance, Carlo Ponti and Dolly Parton.
George Atkinson retired from the game to track down Nazi war criminals in Argentina.
O.J. Simpson stole the ball out of Joe Ferguson's hands often enough to gain 2,546 yards and lead Buffalo to another 2-12 season.
Conrad Dobler so perfected his simultaneous neck bite and leg whip, it was adopted as universal therapy by the country's leading chiropractors.
The diamond-splattered, personally designed, 1977 Super Bowl ring of Oakland's Al Davis, largest of the XI, was subdivided and turned into condominiums and a shopping mall.
Atlanta owner Rankin Smith fired Leeman Bennett and replaced him with Bennett Leeman.
Johnny Rodgers and Joe Washington broke their legs in a violent collision at the Chargers' medicine cabinet.
Fran Tarkenton announced he would play only 10 more seasons, which he estimated would be enough for him to break Henry Aaron's home-run record.
Oakland's Gene Upshaw and Art Shell enabled Kenny Stabler to set a record of holding the ball aloft for 17 minutes before finding a receiver—who turned out to be Freddie Biletnikoff charcoaling a steak in Seattle's end zone.
When Ricky Bell was injured, Tampa's John McKay signed Grenny Lansdell, Orv Mohler and Cotton Warburton to round out his dream backfield with Anthony Davis.
In San Francisco, Executive Vice-President and General Manager Joe Thomas cut the 49ers' entire squad, hired 22 robots and called all of the signals himself on an electronic Pong machine in an office at the Pacific Bank of Commerce.
Both the New York Giants and New York Jets had starting lineups that no one in the NFL office had ever heard of.
Washington's Bill Kilmer passed for three touchdowns in a game against the Giants while being cranked into an upright position on his nursing-home bed.
Hank Stram invented the Notre Dame box.
A man named Bob (Red) Miller was revealed to be Denver's head coach.
At a football luncheon in Chicago, the Bears' Walter Payton ran out of a highlight film and sprayed roast-beef hash on six Kiwanis ties.
Agent Howard Slusher instructed all 1,260 NFL players to walk out on veal piccata and eggs Benedict—and play in Mozambique.
So much for the hard news. What of something perhaps more vital to the fan, to the man who has to live from Sunday to Sunday with little to chew on except injury reports and point spreads? What of the minds of the men who play the game that holds millions spellbound over their Hamburger Helper? What of the condition of the game itself?
With the interest of the fan in mind, we have conducted what can only be called The First and Last NFL Preseason Players' Straw Poll on Things Everybody Always Wanted to Know That Vince Lombardi Wouldn't Tell You—Plus a Lot of Other Outrageously Inside Stuff.
Here, then, are our carefully selected categories, results of the balloting, and the occasional comments of the head of the election bureau:
THE ABSOLUTE BEST FOOTBALL PLAYER AROUND TODAY, NOT ONLY TO BUILD A FRANCHISE AROUND BUT ALSO TO TAKE TO MOST ANY HOLLYWOOD PARTY
1. O.J. Simpson
2. Bert Jones
3. Chuck Foreman
4. Kenny Stabler
5. Roger Staubach
Not even close between O.J. and second place. As you might suspect, all of Staubach's votes came from Dallas. No other player was even mentioned, which may or may not come as a shock to Jerry Golsteyn.
THE ABSOLUTE BEST COACH AROUND TODAY, NOT ONLY TO MAKE YOU A WINNER BUT ALSO TO MAKE YOU FORGET HE MIGHT BE WEARING DOUBLE KNITS
1. Don Shula
2. Tom Landry
3. George Allen
4. John Madden
5. Chuck Knox
Shula was comfortably ahead. His support came strongly from within his division, the AFC East. Interestingly, Landry's came from well outside his own NFC East. Allen's support was fairly spaced. Some of the sentiment for Allen was based on his reputation for stroking the older players. Though one might be tempted to say they were being sarcastic, it must be reported that some Minnesota Vikings went for L.A.'s Chuck Knox.
THE COACH YOU WOULD MOST LIKE TO BEAT 66-0, OR WOULD ENJOY SEEING PUT OUT TO SEA ON A CEMENT-BOTTOMED SLAVE BOAT
1. George Allen
2. Hank Stram
3. Tom Landry
4. "Wherever Joe Thomas is"
5. "John Madden, but mainly because of Al Davis"
Maybe it's Hank Stram's vest and tie and his Offense of the '70s. Maybe it's Landry's hat. Maybe it is all the credit they've been given for inventing all the things they didn't invent—still, neither Stram nor Landry seriously challenged George Allen for first. It is a strange thing in football that dislike and respect sometimes go hand in hand. No one would ever say Allen wasn't a good coach. But, obviously, too many players have heard too many stories about Allen from Allen players—like how he might hold up a hand in the locker room before a game and say, with a pretense of emotion, "I'd cut this off right here to win this one today." It would always be the left hand, not the one he eats ice cream with.
THE MOST UNDERRATED, UNSUNG AND, IN ALL PROBABILITY, UNDERPAID PLAYER IN THE NFL
1. Charlie Waters, Cowboy free safety
2. Larry Brooks, Ram defensive tackle
3. Joe Ehrmann, Colt defensive tackle
4. Jethro Pugh, Cowboy defensive tackle
5. Ken Mendenhall, Colt center
Dozens were mentioned but Waters, Brooks and Ehrmann stood above the rest. As good as he is, Waters never seems to be as visible as his All-Pro teammate, Cliff Harris. The same goes for Ehrmann, with John Dutton stomping around. Brooks now has it better because Merlin Olsen has retired.
THE NO. 1 CHEAP-SHOT ARTIST IN THE GAME, WHICH DOESN'T NECESSARILY MEAN HE WOULDN'T GIVE A LADY FLOWERS ON MOTHER'S DAY
1. George Atkinson, Oakland
2. Conrad Dobler, St. Louis
3. Zeke Moore, Houston
4. Bill Bradley, Minnesota (traded from Eagles)
5. Doug Plank, Chicago
A landslide for Atkinson, whose licks on Lynn Swann and Russ Francis happened to be shown vividly on TV. One of Atkinson's teammates had a nice vote in rebuttal: "Try the whole Pittsburgh team." Other players specifically mentioned were Dwight White of the Steelers, Jack Tatum of the Raiders, Greg Brezina of Atlanta, Ken Houston of the Redskins, Wally Hilgenberg of the Vikings and Eddie McMillan of Seattle. It should be pointed out in defense of all gentlemen who pursue ballcarriers and pass receivers that what is sometimes a cheap shot to one man is second effort to another.
THE BEST AND MOST EFFECTIVE HOLDER IN ANYBODY'S OFFENSIVE LINE, AND NOT JUST BECAUSE HE COULD PULL AN ELEPHANT ACROSS TIBET
1. Gene Upshaw, Oakland
2. Conrad Dobler, St. Louis
3. Gene Upshaw, Oakland
4. Ralph Neely, Dallas
5. Gene Upshaw, Oakland
Upshaw voted for himself. Although Upshaw thought Dobler was overrated as a holder, a number of Cardinals voted for him. And a member of another team said, "Conrad is the only guy in the league who can bite, hold and leg whip at the same time, proving how agile he really is." One other was prominently mentioned—Art Shell of the Raiders.
YEAR IN AND YEAR OUT, THE MOST OVERALL HATED TEAM BY ANY SPORTSMANLIKE AND FAIR-MINDED COMPETITOR
5. Detroit, Houston (tie)
Nothing surprising about the winners being on top, but what did the Lions and Oilers ever do to offend anybody?
THE WORST CITIES TO SPEND THE NIGHT BEFORE A GAME IN, OR EVEN TO FLY A HOLDING PATTERN OVER AND THINK ABOUT
1. Green Bay
An inspired list that hardly any discerning individual could quarrel with.
BEST STADIUM TO PLAY IN, REGARDLESS OF WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN
1. Arrowhead (Chiefs)
2. Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Rams)
3. Texas (Cowboys)
4. Louisiana Superdome (Saints)
5. San Diego (Chargers)
WORST STADIUM TO PLAY IN, EVEN IF SOMETHING GOOD HAPPENS
1. Memorial (Colts)
2. Shea (Jets)
3. Astrodome (Oilers)
4. Candlestick Park (49ers)
5. Philadelphia Veterans (Eagles)
Kansas City's stadium won the best as handily as Baltimore's captured the worst. Even the Colts voted their own the worst. Which one do the champion Raiders like the least? Philadelphia.
POUND FOR POUND, CRUDE FOR CRUDE, AND FELONY FOR FELONY, THE WORST COLLECTION OF FAN RABBLE
2. And no one
3. else even
4. close to being
5. in contention
If there was a runner-up, it was Buffalo.
BEST UNIFORM TO WEAR IF YOU CAN'T BE A GUARD AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE
1. Dallas Cowboys
2. Los Angeles Rams
3. Seattle Seahawks
4. "Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders"
5. "Their mothers' jeans"
A shocking runaway for the royal blue, metallic blue and white, the same colors worn by Micki, Misty, Sandi and Ginger. Votes were also cast for the dreariest uniforms. The Chicago Bears and New York Jets tied. It was a hard defeat for the rooters of Oakland's soot and silver to accept.
BEST TV ANNOUNCER FOR FOOTBALL ONLY (NO POINTS FOR PAIRS ICE DANCING)
1. Frank Gifford and Don Meredith (tie)
3. Keith Jackson
4. Pat Summerall
5. John Brodie
Something like a 75-yard pass play separated Gifford and Meredith from all the others receiving votes, of which there were just those three mentioned. In the balloting for the worst announcer, Howard Cosell got as many votes as Gifford and Meredith got together for being the best, indicating that Cosell may be on more minds than any other announcer, beloved or not. So who's the real winner journalistically? Overall, a promo for Monday Night.
The players were asked for votes and comments in several other categories, the hope being that here and there, as in the above, some faint ray of light would pierce the season's darker mysteries—provide a mere hint, a delicate clue, an accidental subtlety, which might in turn give the fan some deeper insight into the 1977 season. Or that there might be some rare awakening of the kind that generally comes to a man in the form of a dreamy, distant voice, which seems to be saying, "Take Minnesota, give the three."
But there was nothing else, really, that you would want to carve in Jimmy the Greek's forehead, or tell Phyllis George at dinner. We asked who the all-pro complainers were. We got Oakland's Mike Siani, who doesn't like playing behind Biletnikoff. We got Baltimore's Roger Carr, who likes to negotiate his contract in the newspapers. We got New England's Bill Lenkaitis, a practicing dentist who has earned the nickname "Dr. Bitch" when it comes to the subjects of tape, food, weather and travel arrangements, etc.
We asked where the best groupies were, and found them in the same old places—New York and L.A. Was there a favorite hotel aside from the Crown Center in Kansas City? Yeah, "Any of 'em with X-rated movies in the room," said one voice. Hangouts? Same as always: Chili John's in Green Bay, The Left Guard in Bloomington, the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street, and any Marriott coffee shop.
Was there a Best Dressed award to present? No. Nothing like the title Pittsburgh's Frenchy Fuqua once held. Even Fuqua says he has a "current hold on style." Cedrick Hardman's $2,000 sequined overalls are a thing of the past. And what good is Lemar Parrish's mink coat if no one in Cincinnati knows what a mink coat is? Now it is either tailored suits and briefcases or pressed country and Western.
Nor are there any legendary hogs nowadays. The only serious nominees to reach our attention are Baltimore Defensive End Ron Fernandes and Pittsburgh's Ernie Holmes. In that regard, the Oct. 30 meeting of those two teams might especially recommend itself to gourmet fans, for it will match Fernandes, who has disposed of seven T-bones in a single sitting, against Holmes, who at one meal inhaled three New York strips with a dozen eggs.
Be kind to the 1977 schedule, by the way. Clip, save and caress it. It is the last of the 14-game regular-season slates. Starting next year, 16 games. Now study the schedule carefully for that one last intangible to hang your parlays on.
Ah, yes. There it is. Look at Oakland. Don't the Raiders like natural turf? Well, they get 12 of their 14 games on grass. How about Dallas? Don't the Cowboys prefer artificial surfaces? Well, they play 12 times on a rug.
If these circumstances have anything to do with getting Oakland and Dallas to what will be the insanity of New Orleans in January, it will be no surprise to the betting man.
The intangible was right there—as plain as the ice rink on Al Davis' finger.