NEW YORK JETS

The best Jets season since their Super Bowl year of 1968 left some bad memories: The loony phone call that got through to Coach Walt Michaels at half-time of the playoff game with the Raiders, the muddy field in Miami for the AFC championship game and, finally, Michaels' mysterious departure after the season. What's going on here? Michaels ain't talkin'. The club is paying him $140,000 a year to keep his mouth shut.

But the nagging questions persist. How could a caller get through to the head coach between halves of a playoff game? Where was the security? Why didn't anybody in the Jets organization check to make sure the drainage pumps were turned on in the Orange Bowl before that 14-0 loss to the Dolphins in the AFC championship game? A fast track was a necessity for All-Pro Halfback Freeman McNeil and Quarterback Richard Todd's two come-fly-with-me receivers, Wesley Walker and Lam Jones, who were as helpless as beetles in the mud.

Cop-out, say the Miami people. Dolphin Defensive Coordinator Bill Arnsparger had then Jet Offensive Coordinator Joe Walton's offense so wired, Miami would have beaten New York on a billiard table. There's some truth to that. Todd and Walton (now the head coach) were overmatched. Adjustments were minimal. Those that were made didn't work.

So why do we like the Jets so much this year? One word: personnel. "Incredible," said the Rams' Jack Faulkner after scouting the Jets in a preseason game. "No one has the people they do." That night the Jets were missing three defensive linemen, and still blew away the L.A. Raiders with nine sacks. Here's another reason we like the Jets: Billy Baird. The little free safety from the Super Bowl era personally took the secondary in hand last year and put it in coverages that produced a very competent pass defense, one that worked without the luxury of that ferocious firepower up front. The Sack Exchange was crippled in '82: Defensive End Joe Klecko went down in Game 2 with a ruptured patella tendon in his right knee, and the tackles, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam, dragged through the season with assorted injuries.

Well, Klecko is back now, maybe at full strength. Time will tell. Lyons and Salaam are still banged up, but the Jets are deep up front. Everywhere you look on this club there are All-Pros or budding All-Pros—on the offensive line (Marvin Powell, Joe Fields and Dan Alexander); in the back-field (McNeil); the receiving corps (Walker); the linebacking unit (Lance Mehl); and the secondary (Bobby Jackson and Darrol Ray).

MIAMI DOLPHINS

It's unfortunate that the lingering memory of David Woodley is his four-for-14 afternoon against Washington in the Super Bowl last January, because the young quarterback turned in some very solid performances on the road to Pasadena. But when the Dolphins drafted Pitt Quarterback Dan Marino in the first round, the whispers grew louder: Don Shula is looking to replace the 24-year-old Woodley. It turns out that Woodley wasn't the man Shula was trying to replace after all. It was his relief pitcher, Don Strock, who apparently is USFL bound.

Midway through the exhibition schedule Shula posed this question: "What two men would you say are the keys to our offense this year?" Woodley and Andra Franklin was one answer, Woodley and Marino another. Shula shook his head. No mysteries there. Woodley is the No. 1 quarterback, Marino the No. 2, and that, Shula said, is the way it'll stay. Franklin is his favorite fullback in the NFL.

"The keys," Shula said, "are David Overstreet and Dan Johnson."

Say again? It gets complicated. Last year's Dolphin defense was so competent (No. 1 in the NFL); no one noticed that the offense ranked only 19th. This year the defense has been rocked by the death of Linebacker Larry Gordon, whose heart failed while he was jogging in June, and the ruptured Achilles tendon suffered by Don McNeal, one of pro football's finest cornerbacks. Glenn and Lyle Blackwood played like madmen at the safeties in '82, but there will be more heat on them this year. The offense will have to score more points, show more flashes.

"We've had 15-play, 80-yard drives," Shula says, "but I'd like some 60-yard runs." From Overstreet, that is. Miami's No. 1 pick in '81, Overstreet took his nimble feet to Canada for two years. Now he's back and he runs, he darts—and fumbles, as do many freewheeling halfbacks. But if Shula says he's a key, who's to argue? As for Johnson, a second-year tight end from Iowa State who recently ran the 40 in 4.65 weighing 248, he could give Miami one regular to replace the trio that shared the position in '82.

A trade brought Linebacker Larry Evans, a seven-year veteran, from Denver and freed up either Earnie Rhone or A.J. Duhe for Gordon's spot on the outside. The draft brought a long-ball punter in Reggie Roby. Depth and talent on both sides of the scrimmage line give the Dolphins a very solid look, but pass defense could be a weakness.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Guard John Hannah retires and unretires, and the players grumble. The contract holdout of Tackle Shelby Jordan produces published hints of racial discrimination (a charge staunchly denied by some of the black players). Cornerback Mike Haynes also holds out. Halfback Vagas Ferguson is demoted to the jayvees. The quarterback soap opera finds Steve Grogan starting, Matt Cavanaugh traded to the 49ers and No. 1 draft pick Tony Eason holding the clipboard on the sidelines—at least for now. The veterans say Coach Ron Meyer ought to take his whistle and go back to the playground.

So what else is new? Hey, this is New England, isn't it? O.K., fellas, stop that muttering. Recess is over, time to get back to class. A few of the rules have been relaxed this year. No longer will a player have to raise his hand when he wants to go to the bathroom. One or both parents will no longer have to appear after two latenesses.

While everyone was bitching about Meyer last year, an interesting thing was taking place. The Patriots were rising from their 2-14 depths of '81 to 5-4 and a spot in the, you should pardon the expression, playoffs. True, they did it with a snowplow, but the point is: They became winners, if just barely, and things don't look all that bad for '83.

Dick Steinberg, their player personnel guy, has quietly been pumping talent into the team. The offense can control the ball, just as New England did in the old Sam Bam Cunningham days. Meyer says that this year the Pats will pass more, which will make Stanley Morgan happy; he's one of the NFL's finest long-ball threats. Pro football's No. 1 draft in '82, Defensive End Ken Sims, didn't catch fire last year, but people say he's about to. Also, there is a basketful of young and active linebackers—including Clayton Weishuhn, Johnny Rembert, Andre Tippett and Don Blackmon—to shuttle in and out and keep things lively. Grogan no longer scrambles, and a shorter passing game may improve his accuracy.

BUFFALO BILLS

The problems here aren't as noisy as New England's, but they go deeper. Coach Chuck Knox accomplished a major face-lifting but finally had enough of the front office and left for Seattle. Rumor has it his replacement, Kay Stephenson, agreed to take the job only if General Manager Stew Barber was fired. Barber was indeed axed. The job of handling contracts was given to Pat McGroder, who's in his 70s. Nevertheless, Jim Kelly, the Miami quarterback who was one of Buffalo's two first-round draft picks, slipped away to the USFL, and Joe Cribbs, the all-purpose halfback, will do likewise after this season. Complicating matters, the Bills were split into pro-and anti-Ed Garvey factions during last year's strike, and the bitter feelings linger.

It's up to Stephenson to put the house in order, and that might take a while. The '82 Bills battled New England to the wire for a playoff berth, but in the showdown game the Pats hit 'em for 418 yards, the most Buffalo gave up all year. Until then the Bills' defense had kept them in the hunt all season; it finished No. 2 in the NFL and held enemy passers to an amazingly low 44.5% in completions.

Cribbs looked as though he was serious about his lame-duck season when he ran for 64 yards in the first quarter of his first exhibition game. He'll have to carry the running game, and Stephenson will have to figure out a way to get Quarterback Joe Ferguson, who led the NFL in interceptions in '82, back on the beam. No. 1 draft choice Tony Hunter, who gives the Bills more speed at tight end than they've ever had, will help. On defense, freewheeling Linebacker Darryl Talley, the second-round choice, takes over Isiah Robertson's spot on the right side. But the Bills are still a long way from home.

BALTIMORE COLTS

The Colts drafted John Elway as No. 1, but after he balked and was dealt to Denver, what showed up was a 6'4" 286-pounder who ran a 4.9 40 and said, "I don't want to be here, but here I am." Chris Hinton, the main guy Colt owner Bob Irsay got from the Broncos, was immediately plunked into the left guard spot and told, "Please be great." They say Hinton got better and bigger (292 at the last weighing) every day in camp. When he pulls out to lead Curtis Dickey or Randy McMillan, interesting things could happen.

Mike Pagel is running ahead of another Denver tradee, Mark Herrmann, at quarterback, and Matt Bouza, the leading receiver, ranked 78th in the NFL in '82, and Do you really want to hear any more about the offense? O.K., we'll talk about the defense. It could be good. It could carry the team. The Colts gave up only seven points in the first two exhibitions. The night the defense squashed the Vikings, the Colts' phone lines stayed open for season-ticket orders—and 100 were sold. A name? Try No. 2 draft Vernon Maxwell, a linebacker out of Arizona State. He has become the Colts' designated-sacker (three in the preseason opener).

"In Baltimore," says General Manager Ernie Accorsi, "defense will sell tickets." And maybe bring a few wins.

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PHOTOSwift receivers, an All-Pro runner and a veteran line give the Jets' Todd an offense to shout about. CHARTBOB CONRAD

PREDICTED FINISH

New York Jets 11-5
Miami 11-5
New England 7-9
Buffalo 7-9
Baltimore 5-11

YARDS PER GAME RUSHING

AMERICAN CONFERENCE

NATIONAL CONFERENCE

TEAM

RANK

TEAM

RANK

EAST

BILLS 152
PATRIOTS 150
DOLPHINS 149
JETS 146
COLTS 116

1
2
3
4
14

COWBOYS 146
CARDINALS 134
REDSKINS 127
GIANTS 94
EAGLES 92

5
7
10
24
25

CENTRAL

STEELERS 132
BENGALS 105
BROWNS 97
OILERS 89

8
20
23
26

PACKERS 120
LIONS 114
BEARS 110
BUCCANEERS 106
VIKINGS 101

12
16
18
19
22

WEST

CHARGERS 125
RAIDERS 120
BRONCOS 113
CHIEFS 105
SEAHAWKS 88

11
13
17
21
27

SAINTS 140
FALCONS 131
RAMS 114
49ERS 82

6
9
15
28

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)