If you pick NEW ENGLAND, the law of averages is with you. How many years have you heard, "The Patriots have the material to go all the way"? And how many years has their curious self-destruct mechanism taken the Patriots out of it? Now they claim that psychologically they're ready to cope with anything. "We are the masters of adversity," says Coach Ron Erhardt.
In 1977 the favored Patriots started poorly when Leon Gray and John Hannah, the All-Pros on the left side of their offensive line, missed three games because of contract hassles. That was a convenient excuse right through December. In 1978, Coach Chuck Fairbanks was gonzo to Colorado as the final curtain went down. That was a convenient excuse for the Patriots' quick exit from the playoffs. And in 1979—in a startling preseason maneuver—they traded Gray to Houston, a deal that haunted them at the end of the year when their offensive line was crippled. Now there's the crisis of 1980: The Slusher Four—four clients of agent Howard Slusher—All-Pro Cornerback Mike Haynes, starting Fullback Sam Cunningham, starting Defensive End Richard Bishop and backup Quarterback Tom Owen—have refused to show up until they get new contracts. "At least this time we knew it was coming and we had time to prepare for it," says a Patriot official. "The other crises caught us kind of sudden."
If the Patriots hold firm and trade the holdouts rather than sign them, that could result in a lot of extra draft picks for next year. One-on-one cover men of Haynes' caliber are like gold in this pass-happy era, and the Patriots would hate to lose him, even though the party line now trumpets Ray Clayborn on the left side as better than Haynes. No. 1 draft pick Roland James is being tried at strong safety, a trouble spot, while last season's No. 1, Rick Sanford, is getting a look at Haynes' position. Fullback insurance came by trade from Minnesota in the person of Chuck Foreman, whose rabbit diet of carrots and lettuce has him hopping lightly at 211 pounds. Still, Foreman hasn't taken firm command of the position.
Elsewhere, the cast is pretty much the same. The Patriots still seem capable of winning big against anybody, or blowing it. They haven't won a playoff game since the early AFL days, but sooner or later their luck will change.
In MIAMI, Don Shula has a different kind of problem. Which quarterback does he go with: Bob Griese, who can work a game but doesn't have the big gun anymore, or Don Strock, who can gun it but doesn't quite have Griese's smarts—or maybe somebody else? Shula wrestled with the problem last year until one day a few of the team's elders came to him and said. "Look, Don, Bob's a great guy and we love him, but his legs are shot and he just can't do it." Shula said, "Don't crowd me, boys." But a week later Shula started Strock, soon to be replaced by Griese, then Strock again. This confusion continued right up to the Dolphins' playoff game against Pittsburgh, when everything collapsed.
The Griese-or-Strock dilemma would be minimized if the Dolphins had a big, thumping ground game to hide behind, but their offensive line is still finding itself, and Fullback Larry Csonka left in a huff over $20,000 (Joe Robbie offered $230,000, a raise of $100,000; Zonk wanted $250,000). Dolphin coaches swear that second-year Fullback Steve Howell will give them everything Zonk did, and more, including some bullish blocking for Delvin Williams, but who knows?
What kept the Dolphins on top of the division last year, and will keep them near the top in '80, is defense, but there's a snapper there, too. After the first 11 weeks the Dolphins' defense led the NFL, but then three straight quarterbacks threw for more than 300 yards against it, and in the playoffs Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers handled it easily. So, which defense is the real defense? In any case, No. 1 draft choice Don McNeal has been impressive, and he could be a starting cornerback by the end of September.
The NEW YORK Jets are a knockout puncher with a glass jaw. Their offense will be dazzling, something to frame and hang on the wall. Their defense? Well, last season they allowed more passing yards than any team in history, and the same people are back, except for rookie Free Safety Darrol Ray. There will be a lot of scoring in Jet games this year, a lot of 42-35 shootouts. On draft day the Jets traded two No. 1 picks to get 4.34 Wide Receiver Lam Jones, who carried the baton and won a gold medal for Uncle Sam in the Montreal Olympics. Great, said Jet fans. Can he rush the passer? Then they picked Ray. Is he a safety-blitzer? Then they chose Ralph Clayton, whom they projected as a fullback. Fine, put him on steroids, bulk him up to 260 and teach him how to rush the passer.
The problem, you see, started one rainy afternoon in Foxboro in 1971, when the Jets lost two outstanding defensive linemen, John Elliott and Gerry Philbin, to injuries. They haven't had a pass rush since. Oh, they've had good individual rushers—none better than a guy they have now, Joe Klecko—but never a consistent rush. Last year they drafted for pass rush, picking Marty Lyons and Mark Gastineau 1 and 2, but Lyons had trouble mastering a new position, defensive end, and Gastineau never got it going. This year they returned Lyons to his natural position, tackle, and he will play next to Klecko on the right side.
But the offense! Ah, what a work of art. You start with a line, featuring Tackle Marvin Powell, that produced the NFL's No. I running attack last year; add a 217-pound halfback with speed named Woody Bennett; stir well with the proved deep-passing combination of Richard Todd to Wesley Walker; and finally top it off with Jones, who had a brilliant preseason. What you've got is an attack that might not outscore everybody, but certainly will scare 'em.
Bad trades helped wreck the once proud BUFFALO franchise, and now Chuck Knox is trying to put it back together again. He suffered a setback when Joe DeLamielleure, the right guard and a five-time Pro Bowl choice, said he'd had it with the Bills. He said he didn't like the way Knox handled the team, the way he ignored the solid citizens and coddled the problem children, such as Linebacker Isiah Robertson and Defensive End Sherm White. So the Bills got on the phone and tried to make a trade that wouldn't embarrass them. They acquired Guard Conrad Dobler from New Orleans, but Dobler couldn't hack it any longer on his arthritic knees and was cut. And DeLamielleure was traded to Cleveland.
What hurt Knox about l'affaire DeLamielleure was that he has always prided himself on being a players' coach, a guy who could use the old noodle when he had to and get through to moody types. Hadn't Knox gotten a good year out of Robertson after the Rams gave up on him? Hadn't White had his best year? What also hurts is that the Bills have a good collection of young running backs, but without Joe D. there is no All-Pro guard pulling on the sweeps. And this comes after a year in which the Bills had the NFL's worst rushing attack.
Elsewhere, Buffalo is still patching and groping, picking up older vets (Roosevelt Leaks, Phil Villapiano, Ron Jessie) and hoping to get lucky. The solid spots on the team are quarterback and wide receiver, with Joe Ferguson and Jerry Butler coming off productive years.
Baltimore wins with Bert Jones at quarterback, loses without him. In 1978 the Colts were 2-1 with Jones, 3-10 without; last year the numbers were 3-1 and 2-10. Now Jones says the injured right shoulder that kept him out of 25 games in the last two years is fine, thanks. He is stronger now, too, bigger in the upper body. He lifted weights in the off-season, carried groceries, plowed fields, uprooted trees. His right arm is two inches bigger than it was last year. "I can throw as well as I ever could," he says, "except that it might take me a little longer to limber up."
Mike McCormack, the Colts' new coach, follows the script, which reads, "This isn't a one-man team," but he's keeping his fingers crossed, even though on the surface he's bubbling with enthusiasm. The fans are not bubbling; first, they've got the Orioles to worry about. Only 28,000 Colt season tickets have been sold, down 4,000 from 1979.
If Jones doesn't get hurt, Baltimore will have an interesting offense. No. 1 draft Curtis Dickey can fly out of the backfield, but you won't see him in the same lineup with Joe Washington, not when there's blocking to be done. George Kunz' bad back has passed muster, and he's back at his familiar right tackle spot after a year in the NBC TV booth. Roger Carr is still threatening to run that deep, deep pattern back to Louisiana, but the Colts will tolerate his threats as long as he's got two hands that can grasp a thrown ball. Raymond Butler, the fourth-round pick from USC, has been shockingly good at wide receiver.
Keep that shoulder limber, Bert.
NEW ENGLAND 11-5
NEW YORK JETS 9-7