With only a nucleus of quality players the Patriots usually manage to finish higher than they should. Two years ago Boston won the Eastern Division. Last year the Pats were second to Buffalo. The manpower for such finishes is not present, but Coach Mike Holovak keeps winning. One reason is that he has Babe Parilli—the best quarterback in the league. Another is the presence of the AFL's Most Valuable Player, Gino Cappelletti, who scored 155 points last season and kept the Pats in the race by kicking a 41-yard field goal in the final second to beat Houston by one point. Still another is that Holovak has disguised his defensive weaknesses by using a full blitz and getting a strong rush from two fine ends, Larry Eisenhauer and Bob Dee. But along with each of those strengths, Holovak may have a concomitant problem this year.
Parilli passed for 3,441 yards and 31 touch-downs last season without the benefit of either a first-class receiver or good pass-blocking. He can get rid of the ball in a hurry and he has a talent for finding alternate receivers. But Parilli is prone to minor injuries that he does not easily shake off. When a pro is 35 minor injuries have a way of becoming major. For protection, Holovak traded for Eddie Wilson, the Kansas City backup quarterback for the past three seasons. The Patriots also signed a promising rookie quarterback, Charlie Green from Wittenberg College.
But the quarterbacks need more help, especially from the running game. Boston has never had a good, big fullback. Larry Garron usually plays the position. He can't, however, until a shoulder injury knits. Rookie Jim Nance of Syracuse might be able to handle the job and rookie Ellis Johnson of Southeastern Louisiana is a possibility. Johnson, a 9.7 sprinter, is the fastest man on the team. At running back Ron Burton has never regained his speed after a spinal operation and may be replaced by J. D. Garrett. The newcomer causing the most excitement in Boston is Joe Bellino, the former Navy All-America who has just finished four years of service (SI, August 9). Bellino will be tried as a flanker and perhaps as a running back. He is only 5 feet 8 and weighs 185 pounds, but he has exceptional agility. However, four years away from football is a long time, and the transition from aircraft-carrier deck to pro playing field will be difficult. The flanker may turn out to be rookie Jim Whalen from Boston College.
Cappelletti's pro career has been amazing. He is small and slow, but he has good moves and sure hands and catches a lot of passes. As a field-goal kicker he is probably unexcelled. But Cappelletti sprained his left ankle while wrestling for a pass in a scrimmage, and the early goal tries may have to be left up to rookie Justin Canale, who is powerful but inconsistent.
Boston is badly in need of quality at both offensive and defensive tackle. Veteran Defensive Tackle Jesse Richardson retired to become a coach on Holovak's staff and will have to find his own replacement. Holovak was hoping rookie Jim Wilson from Georgia would be the man, but Wilson signed with San Francisco as well as Boston and decided the other day to go to the 49ers. Holovak must have a thundering rush to make his defense work. Fortunately for the Pats, the line-backing is outstanding. Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti is as good as any in the league. Strong Side Linebacker Tom Addison, the Boston captain, was AU-AFL last year. The secondary is slow. Several AFL coaches believe this is the year the rest of the league will at last catch up to the Boston defense. They could be right, but they have been saying that for two seasons and have not done it yet.
The secret in Boston is unity. Holovak, who seldom wins an exhibition game, brings his team along slowly and with a spirit of camaraderie. "Most of us weren't big stars in college. There's never been any jealousies. We respect each other," says Eisenhauer. Until this year, the Pats had changed their faces less than any other team in the AFL. But Boston signed 12 of 19 draft choices and two futures in the realization that the rest of the league might indeed be catching up. "For us to be better, four to six new men must make our club," says Holovak. That does not seem likely to happen, but the Pats can finish second again.