Miami Dolphins

Three cheers for a name you seldom hear mentioned in the Dolphins' organization—Chuck Connor, the team's player personnel director since 1978. The strength of the Dolphins of late has been the steady influx of young talent supplied by Connor, plus, of course, the direction Don Shula gives these newcomers. It's to Shula's credit that he gives Connor almost a free hand in running the draft. At the start of camp this year 27 players from Connor's first four drafts were still around—and half a dozen or so from the class of '82 could make the club. That youthful talent makes this edition of the Dolphins a vibrant team on the rise, a team that should remain at championship level for a while.

There are two problems: injuries and quarterbacking. Injuries seem to be almost contagious. One leads to another. Before you know it, you're in a battle for survival, and every week the p.r. man is playing the numbers game in his release: "The club has now placed 25 players on injured reserve this season, representing 502½ quarters of missed action."

Shula has been through it. His 1976 season, for instance, wound up on the sidelines on crutches. The Dolphins had their share of misery in this year's camp. Right Cornerback Gerald Small and Flanker Nat Moore were slow to recover from knee injuries, and a rookie whom Shula has been dying to try at Moore's spot, 4.28 blazer Mark Duper, was hobbling on a sprained ankle. Left Corner-back Don McNeal broke a rib in practice, Center Mark Dennard broke his left arm. Kicker Uwe von Schamann was being treated for colitis that had caused him to lose 25 pounds.

The second problem should be resolved by opening day. David Woodley, a gifted young quarterback, did fine last year—11-3 in games he started—right up until the marathon playoff game against San Diego. When Woodley faltered that day, 31-year-old Don Strock came off the bench in the second quarter and threw four touchdown passes. Six of his first seven drives put points on the board. So what does Shula do? Send Strock, who's always been more effective in relief than as a starter, back to the bench, or bench Woodley and thus lower the kid's confidence? The guess is that Woodley will be the starter, with Strock warming up.

If everybody gets healthy (Dennard and McNeal are expected back early in the season), the Dolphins should be in the postseason tournament. Two eye-catching rookies are outside linebackers Charles Bowser and Ron Hester, both 4.5 sprinters. Roy Foster, the No. 1 pick, could win a job on the offensive line by late season. "He's not an Anthony Munoz," one coach said, "but he's not the Pillsbury Doughboy, either."

New York Jets

The New York Sack Exchange deserved all the ink it got. What it did was turn a 4-12 club into a 10-5-1 playoff team. When a team that hadn't had a pass rush for a decade suddenly comes within one sack of the alltime record, it's like a muscle relaxer for the whole body.

So let's hear it for the front four—from left to right, Mark Gastineau, Abdul Salaam, Marty Lyons and Joe Klecko. Salaam and Lyons would get deep penetration up the middle, and when the quarterback tried to escape, Klecko and Gastineau would be there waiting for him. The result: 66 sacks.

The defensive backs could play bump-and-run, they could play combination zones, they could play anything they wanted, because the passer simply wasn't going to have that much time. The linebackers could play tighter coverages, the offense got better field position...the whole equation worked.

Richard Todd, the quarterback, had the best season of his career, adding almost 20 points to his ratings and chopping his interceptions from a league-high 30 to a near low of 13. The offensive line was deemed so sound that old pro Left Guard Randy Rasmussen was eased into retirement, giving way to 270-pound Stan Waldemore. The ranks thinned a bit when Center Joe Fields, a Pro Bowl choice last year, was lost for this season's first two games with a torn tendon in his right ring finger, and his backup, Guy Bingham, sprained a knee, but Right Tackle Marvin Powell is an All-Pro, and Right Guard Dan Alexander is close to it.

The flip side? Well, the Jets have never found the topflight runner they've lacked since John Riggins slipped away to Washington six years ago. The long-ball-receiving tandem of Wesley Walker and Lam Jones has shown flashes at times, but never terrorized enemy secondaries as predicted. Quick-drop quarterbacks who throw short, timed patterns have always hurt the Jets, and if the New York rush ever falters, the pass defense becomes vulnerable. Still, the Jets look a lot better than they did last year at this time.

Buffalo Bills

Chuck Knox bites down hard on his cigar and tries to control his growing rage. What he really thinks about the Buffalo organization will come out in two years, when his contract is up and Green Bay or somebody is announcing him as the new head coach. Frankly, he's had it with this club that won't pay the money to keep people in camp.

Early in April Knox had this to say about Linebacker Tom Cousineau, whom he had lost to Montreal in '79 and wasn't about to lose a second time: "I've said it all along and I'll say it now. If Tom Cousineau plays in the NFL this year, it'll be with the Buffalo Bills. A trade isn't even a consideration."

Three weeks later Cousineau was traded to Cleveland because Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson wouldn't pay the price. And then Joe Cribbs, the Bills' do-everything runner, and Jerry Butler, their brilliant young receiver, became holdouts in camp. Cribbs, on the third year of a four-year contract, was to make $115,000 this year, a figure he said he simply wouldn't play for. "It's clear to everyone but the Bills that Joe has outperformed his contract," said his agent, Jerry Argovitz.

"This club won't spend the money to be a winner," said Quarterback Joe Ferguson.

But you haven't heard the best one. That came in the off-season, when Wilson cut the regular front-office bonuses, including those of the coaches, in half. "Business wasn't as good this year," he said. He must have meant his insurance or car-leasing businesses in Detroit, because his football business is booming—two straight playoff years, the second-highest home attendance in the NFL last year (Knox's teams have almost doubled Buffalo's attendance in his four seasons), the new TV contract around the corner, etc.

The loss of Cousineau was a particularly bitter blow to Knox, because he saw what happened when a top inside linebacker was hurt last year. It took Shane Nelson's knee injury for people really to appreciate how much the six-year veteran means to Knox's famed Bermuda Triangle defense. With Nelson, the Bills were almost impossible to run against. Without him, very possible. Nelson's knee still is a question mark, and a Cousineau would be nice to have around.

Having Cribbs around is a necessity, especially because three of his prospective replacements—Roland Hooks (broken elbow), Robb Riddick (torn knee cartilage) and fourth-round pick Van Williams (stretched knee ligaments)—are on the shelf. The Bills bravely talked about using No. 1 choice Perry Tuttle as a replacement for Butler, if he shouldn't report, or for 35-year-old Frank Lewis on the other side. Oh well, in two more years Chuck Knox won't have all of Buffalo's problems to worry about.

New England Patriots

The first thing new Coach Ron Meyer did was look at last season's films. "There could be a lot of new players here this year," he said. The veterans nodded. Yep, that figured. Then Meyer looked at their performance charts, particularly in weightlifting. "Believe it or not, at SMU I had two running backs who lifted more than most of the linemen here," he said. A specialized weight-training program was instituted, and who could argue with that? Better off strong in this game.

Next he met with his players. "Hard work and discipline," he said, and yes, a few of the vets agreed that a 2-14 team might well need a bit of discipline. Sixteen draft choices arrived in camp, a dozen of whom figured to make the club, and leading the parade was 279-pound Defensive Tackle Kenneth Sims, the No. 1 pick overall.

By August, 10 vets had been traded, chopped or retired, with more to follow. Team discipline had been enforced. No ice cream at team meetings. No cigarettes on the team plane. No one to leave the hotel complex the night before a road game, an unheard-of rule in the NFL. "This is the NFL being played by NCAA rules," one veteran grumbled.

And Sims? His original nickname was Moneybags. He skipped a few practices—sore back, eye inflammation. Meyer had a heart-to-heart with him. "I'll be there on game day," he assured the coach. "I always am." So the players nicknamed him Gameday. In the first exhibition he had no tackles, no assists, and no quarterback pressures. "He wasn't all that bad," Meyer said. "If that kid were a free agent he'd be on the first bus home," one scout in the press box said.

Well, a lot of things can happen between now and the frosts of autumn. Sims won't start, but Middle Guard Lester Williams, the Patriots' other pick in the first round, could. So could Halfback Robert Weathers, a second-rounder. There are a lot of rookies. The quarterback job still bounces back and forth between Matt Cavanaugh and Steve Grogan.

As for Meyer and his discipline—well, maybe it'll work out, and maybe it won't. This is a team that has been seething with unrest for quite a while, and perhaps, if things really turn sour, one dark night a gong might strike, a trumpet sound, and the team might rise up and stone him. It's never dull in Foxboro.

Baltimore Colts

At Frank Rush's daily press conference at camp, someone asked the usual question: "Well, Frank, any new faces in camp today?"

The coach removed his Colts cap, rubbed his head and exhaled. "Ahhh yes," he said. He's not good with names. "What's his name?" he asked the p.r. staff. Blank stares.

"I don't know," Kush said. "Name's Harris or Harrison, something like that. Linebacker, right?" He paused. "It doesn't matter," he said. "There'll be a lot more like him. It's gonna be a zoo around here. But we gotta find people."

The rust is being scraped, the hull repainted, but it'll be a while before the ship will float. No one knows that better than Kush. He saw the films of last year's 2-14 team, which gave up 533 points, an NFL record.

"We were even worse than I thought," he said. "Defensively we were worse than the scores indicated. A lot of teams called off the dogs after they scored 35 points."

The starting lineup may change hourly. No veterans' jobs are safe, except those of running backs Randy McMillan and Curtis Dickey and Wide Receiver Ray Butler. Instant starters could come from the waiver wires, the free agent lists, anywhere. Kush was one of the few coaches to go on record as being opposed to the increased roster size—108 more players he can't get a crack at.

He ran a tough camp. The big emphasis, he said, would be on teaching. Right back to the beginning, left foot here, right foot there. His nine-man coaching staff is made up of teachers, seven of whom have never coached in the NFL before. But they've been around. Four of them were college head coaches. They know about fundamentals.

The logical place to start was at quarterback, where the wobbly passes of No. 1 draft choice Art Schlichter are a parody of the tight spirals Bert Jones threw. Schlichter, who admits his mechanics were fouled up at Ohio State, is a long-range project. Much more impressive, and the likely starter, is the fourth-round choice, Mike Pagel, who played for Kush at Arizona State.

Many faces from 1981 will be gone before opening day. There are enough athletes and high drafts on this roster to produce some surprises early, but Kush, and everyone else, knows it's going to be a long road back. Still, somehow you get the feeling they're headed in the right direction.

TWO PHOTOSWoodley (top) should start for Miami on opening day against the Jets, who need consistent running from Freeman McNeil (24). PHOTOBuffalo's attack relies heavily on Cribbs, who gained 1,700 yards rushing and receiving in '81.

PREDICTED FINISH

Miami 11-5
New York Jets 10-6
Buffalo 9-7
New England 4-12
Baltimore 4-12

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)