Don Shula doesn't like to admit it—in fact, he'll get very upset if you mention it to him—but he's got a nagging problem. Why do his MIAMI Dolphins play so poorly on the road against the other good clubs? The Dolphins have won only two of their last 13 road games against teams that finished with winning records. Youth? Inexperience? Not really. Lack of mental toughness? Not likely on a Shula-coached team. What, then?
No one seems to know what has afflicted Miami on the road, but Shula will find out very soon whether this season's Dolphins are better travelers. Before they're comfortably into October, the Dolphins will have faced the Vikings, Jets, Raiders and Patriots out of town. And to make matters worse, Shula has an iffy team, with an aging offensive line and a terrible recent injury history, but he's due for a change of luck. It could start with the resurgence of Larry Csonka, who returns after a four-year journey through Memphis of the WFL and the swamps of New Jersey where the Giants play. Zonk, who'll be paired with the talented Delvin Williams, has been working harder than ever, and Shula has rewarded him with the fullback job. Power is what the coach wants. No fumbles.
The offensive line situation is less clear-cut. The Dolphins limped into the playoffs last year minus guards Larry Little and Ed Newman—both had injuries requiring surgery. The tackles were 33-year-old Mike Current and 33-year-old Wayne Moore, who has been waived. In the draft Shula devoted a first-round pick (Jon Giesler), a second (Jeff Toews) and a sixth (Steve Lindquist) to the offensive line, but only Toews has offered a serious challenge—to Little at right guard.
Assistant Coach Bill Arnsparger's defense is an opportunistic one that gave up lots of yards but led the NFL in shutouts and takeaways, and allowed only nine points in the last three games. The secondary was—and is—ancient, but no one surpassed Miami's 32 interceptions. There are no weak spots in the line, which is led by Middle Guard Bob Baumhower and Right End A. J. Duhe, and the linebackers and cornerbacks are decent.
Somewhere in NEW ENGLAND there's a self-destruct mechanism. In the '76 playoffs, the Patriots had Oakland whipped 21-10 going into the final quarter, but it was the Raiders, not the Pats, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
In 1977, the John Hannah-Leon Gray holdout wiped out the first part of the season. And last year there was Coach Chuck Fairbanks' defection, followed by an el foldo in the playoffs against Houston. And now? Gray, the two-time Pro Bowl left tackle, has been traded to Houston for two draft choices. "I'll never sign another Patriot contract," says a depressed Hannah, the All-Pro left guard, setting the tone for what could be an interesting season.
Not that there's anything wrong with the guy who'll replace Gray; Dwight (Wimpy) Wheeler was rattling heads last year until he broke an ankle in the second game. But dealing away a 27-year-old All-Pro when you're going for the whole pot? Makes you wonder.
Things had been going so well, too. There had been no significant injuries during training camp. And no chilly looks from a cold, unemotional Fairbanks-type coach. Ron Erhardt, the new guy, is a player's man in the Red Miller mold, the Patriots say. Oh, sure, there had been a few contract hassles—Right Cornerback Mike Haynes announced he's playing out his option—but that's nothing new here.
Steve Grogan is coming back from off-season knee surgery, but he's tough. He has started 50 straight games, tops among NFL quarterbacks. And Erhardt says Grogan will call his own plays, something Fairbanks used to do for him. "At least now when they boo, I'll know it's for me," Grogan says. A return to health by Matt Cavanaugh makes New England deep at quarterback. The regular kicker, John Smith, is back, too, after missing most of 1978. Rookie Eddie Hare's punts are almost impossible to catch, say the coaches, and punting was a major Patriot failing last year. Julius Adams' return after a shoulder fracture bolsters a weak pass rush.
In BALTIMORE, they're praying that Bert Jones stays healthy, that the Sack Pack stays healthy, that Barry Krauss will be great. Pray hard enough, Colt fans, and maybe dreams will come true.
Baltimore won both of the games which Jones completed at quarterback last year, but were 3-11 in the ones he missed with a bad shoulder. The Colts have traded for Greg Landry, just in case, but they won't mind if he earns his dough on the bench. Jones' throwing and Joe Washington's running should be some two-man show. Remember the game Little Joe, then a newcomer to Baltimore, had against New England on Monday night TV last September? He scored two touchdowns on a kickoff return and a pass and threw for another TD. The media made a to-do about Washington after that performance, but Coach Ted Marchibroda wasn't so sure. "He doesn't know the Colts' system yet," Marchibroda said.
"If Washington doesn't know the Colts' system," one reporter wrote, "then maybe they ought to learn his."
Wide receivers Glenn Doughty and Roger Carr certainly are well aware of the Baltimore system, having caught 284 passes between them since 1974. They'll be joined on a regular basis by last year's first-round draft choice, 6'7" Tight End Reese McCall, who has shaken off his nagging leg injuries of '78.
The running game has been upgraded, too, by the rebirth of Don Hardeman and by the presence of flashy newcomer Ben Garry. The offensive line lost Right Tackle George Kunz to retirement, but the former regular left tackle, David Taylor, out last year with a broken ankle, now works on the right side.
In its good years (1974-77), the Sack Pack—Fred Cook, Joe Ehrmann, Mike Barnes and John Dutton—put so much heat on opposing quarterbacks that the Colts could hide a subpar secondary, but last year injuries ripped the Pack apart and exposed the defensive backfield's weaknesses to the tune of 29 TD passes allowed. Dutton, coming off two so-so seasons, missed all of training camp; he and his agent are testing pro football's reserve system.
Opponents' ballcarriers overran the Colt defense last year. Middle Linebacker Ed Simonini tried to throw his 210 pounds into the breach, but, clearly, something more formidable was called for. So 6'3", 235-pound Barry Krauss of Alabama became Baltimore's No. 1 pick, and so far he has proved to be formidable indeed.
For eight years the NEW YORK Jets have turned out All-Pro quarterbacks—for other teams. Jet fans have been treated to the sight of opposing passers standing flat-footed in the pocket as they directed traffic downfield, scanned the stands and checked the scoreboard before they finally let fly. Young New York cornerbacks became mental cases; safety-men became gaunt and glassy-eyed playing all those seasons behind the rushless rush.
But those grim days may be over, because two young college boys reported to camp with instructions to leave no quarterback standing. Marty Lyons, the Jets' No. 1 pick, became the instant starter at right end. This opening was created when last year's 3-4 defense was junked in favor of a 4-3, with Joe Klecko, the outside man who had been burning himself out against cut blocks and double-teams, breathing a sigh of relief and moving to the inside.
But the player who might wind up with the most sacks is 6'5", 253-pound Left End Mark Gastineau, the second-round choice and designated third-down pass rusher. The coaches were banging their watches against their heads and checking the mechanisms when Gastineau ran a 4.58 for the 40, but he said no sweat—he does it all the time. In fact, he claims his 6'1", 260-pound father, who's 44 years old, can run a 4.9. With a pass rush at last, with a quick pair of outside linebackers in Greg Buttle and Bob Martin and with No. 3 pick Donald Dykes ready to step in at cornerback, the Jets think they'll do just fine against the pass.
Now if Coach Walt Michaels can find his type of middle linebacker—big, mean, moves his lips and mumbles when he reads—his defense will be set. Aha, a sleeper. The Jets' seventh selection, Stan Blinka, 6'2", 230. Could be.
The offensive unit is just about all set now that Matt Robinson, unimposing physically but talented at moving a club, has won the quarterback job from Richard Todd, who is strong-armed but injury prone. The Jets have fine specimens on the offensive line, a dazzling wide receiver in Wesley Walker and a decent group of runners, none of whom jumps out of the pack.
Buffalo wanted Tom Cousineau to play linebacker, but will settle for Isiah Robertson. One is better than none. Chuck Knox is still muttering to himself over the loss of Buckeye Tom, the NFL's No. 1 draftee, who defected to Canada, but at least Isiah's happy. So far he hasn't done any of the grousing that led to his becoming persona non grata in the Rams' clubhouse. But Isiah's an outside man, and the Bills' problem was tackle-to-tackle last year. Actually, they had problems everywhere. When you give up more yards rushing (3,228) than any club in history, it's a team effort. The Bills will switch last season's 4-3 defense to a 3-4 because Knox says he has more linebackers than linemen, which tells you how desperate things are up front.
There's no lack of starting spots for young, willing draftees—notably Fred Smerlas at nose guard, Jim Haslett at an inside linebacker, and Jerry Butler somewhere in the passing lanes.
Terry Miller ran for 1,060 yards as a rookie in '78, and Quarterback Joe Ferguson performed decently during the brief time the offense was on the field. The line is O.K. So is Tom Dempsey, who kicked consistently in close but went 1 for 3 past the 40. The punting is no bargain, and neither is the schedule, which includes seven of the 10 1978 playoff teams, plus San Diego and Detroit.
NEW ENGLAND 10-6
N.Y. JETS 9-7