Last year the New England Patriots turned from a 3-11 club into an 11-3 wild-card team and came within a referee's whistle of knocking off Super Bowl winner Oakland in the opening round of the playoffs. So complete, convincing and continuing is the Patriot turnaround that New England now rates as the principal threat to Oakland's hopes for another Super Bowl championship.
The Patriots could hand the ball to Granny Goose, run to the left on every play and go unbeaten in 1977. Guard John Hannah, Tackle Leon Gray and Tight End Russ Francis, all Pro Bowl-ers, make up the best left side in the NFL—if, that is, Hannah and Gray, who walked out on the Patriots before the team's final preseason game, settle their renegotiation disputes with the club—while Fullback Sam (Bam) Cunningham is a crushing blocker. The Patriots are also loaded with good runners. Cunningham is a bruiser who busts tackles. His backup, Don Calhoun, is bucking for a starting job; last year Calhoun replaced the injured Cunningham and put together four straight 100-yard games. Halfback Andy Johnson had knee surgery this week and is lost for the season.
New England's other running threat is Quarterback Steve Grogan, who led all NFL quarterbacks with 397 yards rushing in 1976. "A lot of people keep asking if I'm going to run the ball this year," says the 6'4", 205-pound Grogan. "The answer is yes—if the defense lets me. Hey, I'm as big as most of the running backs."
In theory, the Patriots should never have to pass, and when they do go to the air, they should catch defenses napping. But their passing attack hardly resembles Oakland's bomb squad, and if Grogan is forced to throw, the Patriots' dream season could crumble. His top three receivers last year were Johnson, Cunningham and Francis, in that order. Enough said about New England's deep passing game. Darryl Stingley and rookie Stanley Morgan both can go deep, but Grogan has never shown accuracy at long range.
Typical of the Patriot turnabout is the improvement in their defensive secondary. Two years ago New England was inept against the pass. Now the Patriots are so solid that top draft pick Raymond Clayborn of Texas can't even break into the unit led by two 1976 first-round choices, Rookie-of-the-Year Cornerback Mike Haynes and Safety Tim Fox. Last season Haynes became the first Patriot ever to return a punt for a touchdown—and he did it twice. But now Haynes has turned the kickoff and punt-return duties over to Clayborn and Morgan, both of whom returned punts for touchdowns in an exhibition against Green Bay.
The Patriots again will use a 3-4 alignment up front. The linebacking is exceptional inside with Steve Nelson and Sam Hunt, but the line could be stronger.
Exploiting the Patriot weaknesses will be difficult, for New England has what appears to be the NFL's easiest schedule. The Patriots play only two teams that had winning records last season—Baltimore (twice) and Cleveland (once). Their other rivals had a combined record of 43-111. Even if New England falls on its face in its tough games, it should finish 11-3—and win the division.
"I don't understand why no one's picking us to win," says Baltimore Colt Coach Ted Marchibroda. "We've won for two years and people still don't believe we're for real."
It's the Colts' linebacking and secondary that people don't believe in. Tom MacLeod (out all last season after Achilles-tendon surgery) and Stan White are fine outside linebackers, but Marchibroda still is searching for a replacement in the middle for Jim Cheyunski, whose ailing knee forced him to retire. The Colts' Sack Pack front four last season led the AFC with 56 quarterback dumpings, but as Marchibroda says, "If we didn't get the big play from our front four we didn't get it at all."
To seal his leaky secondary, Marchibroda signed free-agent Cornerback Norm Thompson, formerly of St. Louis. Thompson has never shone against the sweep, but he is a good, if gambling, pass defender.
There are few questions about the Colt offense, which led the NFL in scoring last season. Bert Jones, 26, ranks with Kenny Stabler as the game's best quarterbacks. Halfback Lydell Mitchell is versatile and consistent; he has had 60 receptions and 289 carries in each of the last two seasons, and rushed for 1,193 and 1,200 yards behind a solid line led by Tackle George Kunz. Second-year man Ron Lee gives the Colts breakaway speed at fullback, but the main chore for a Baltimore fullback is blocking and protecting Jones, meaning that injury-prone Roosevelt Leaks has the edge. And when Jones takes to the air, speedy Roger Carr usually catches everything thrown his way.
Baltimore will have no trouble scoring, and if the defense holds up, the AFC East race could last until the Colts finish their game against the Patriots at about 7 p.m. on the season's final Sunday.
It still seems hard to believe that Miami Dolphins' Coach Don Shula had a losing record in 1976, his first in 15 years of coaching. Injuries have ruined the Dolphins the past two years. They don't just lose players, they lose whole units. Last season four linebackers went down. This year the offensive line looks doomed. Tackle Wayne Moore has recovered from torn triceps but Guard Bob Kuechenberg (two fractured vertebrae) will miss the first few games. In addition, Safety Charlie Babb is sidelined with a separated shoulder.
Compounding Shula's worries, Defensive Linemen Randy Crowder and Don Reese will spend the 1977 season in the Miami stockade as the result of a cocaine bust. And Shula sent Right Tackle Darryl Carlton to Tampa Bay after Carlton, who was in an off-season barroom brawl that led to a fiery car accident, defied him on the practice field.
On defense, the Dolphins will use a 3-4 and two of the three front men will be rookies—first draft choice A. J. Duhe from LSU and second pick Bob Baumhower from Alabama. Behind them will be two 1976 first-round selections, Larry Gordon and Kim Bokamper, along with third-year man Steve Towle and veteran Mike Kolen. Maybe the "New Names" will become known names like the Dolphins' old "No-Name" defense.
On offense, the Dolphins, who once passed to maintain ball control, will now run just enough to keep their air attack from being shot down. Miami's strength is a trio of fleet receivers—Nat Moore, Freddie Solomon and Duriel Harris. Shula is using all three at once—along with a tight end, either Jim Mandich or Andre Tillman—by putting one of the speedsters into the backfield. Quarterback Bob Griese will wear shatterproof spectacles because of blurred vision in his right eye. There is no hiding the fact that only desperation could have forced Shula to abandon his conservative attack.
For the Buffalo Bills, the idea will be to have O.J. Simpson run for 500 yards and 10 touchdowns a game because the Bills will require at least that to compensate for their inept defense. Simpson needs only 374 yards to join Jim Brown in the exclusive 10,000-yard club. Fullback Jim Braxton, a smashing blocker, returns from the knee injury that ended his 1976 season after his very first carry. Up front, the "Electric Company" boasts two fine guards, Joe DeLamielleure and Reggie McKenzie, and the Bills have added speed to the tackle spot by replacing Donnie Green (traded to Philadelphia) with second-year man Joe Devlin.
The key to the Bills' offense will be Quarterback Joe Ferguson, who was having an exceptional season last year until four broken transverse processes in his back sidelined him for the final seven games. "My first couple of years with this team, I didn't have any leadership ability at all because I was scared to death," Ferguson admits. "All the pressure was on Juice. Now, this season, the pressure will be shared." What Ferguson needs most of all is a receiver to share some of the burden with Bobby Chandler, preferably a speedster who can help open up the defense. John Holland has the speed, but not much else.
The Bills' defense was one of the NFL's worst last season, and there is no new talent to upgrade it. Instead, Buffalo will try to get results through hocus-pocus, using blitzes to harry opponents into errors. The question is: How long will it take rivals to solve the Bills' bag of tricks?
The New York Jets are rebuilding. Again. They have, at last, rid themselves of the delusion that Joe Namath could crank one more Super Bowl out of his arm, and they have, finally, put a solid football man—Jim Kensil, formerly Pete Rozelle's right-hand man as the NFL's executive director—in charge of the show.
Understandably, new Coach Walt Michaels will lose with youth. On offense, he has moved Richard Caster, never glue-fingered, out to wide receiver and switched Jerome Barkum to tight end; Caster, however, suffered a broken hand in the last exhibition and will miss about four games. Rookie Flanker Wesley Walker's speed will open defenses, but Walker dropped almost everything in the exhibitions. Another critical problem is that Quarterback Richard Todd has shown no ability to throw deep. Second-year Linebacker Greg Buttle buoys a kid defense that may average 45 minutes per game on the field.
"I think we'll surprise a few people, mostly ourselves, by winning a few games," says Offensive Tackle Marvin Powell, the Jets' No. 1 draft choice. Only a few.