There is a strong suspicion that the most valuable member of the Patriots last season was Bill Bates. Bates does not run, pass, kick, block or tackle. He tapes. As the team trainer, Bates taped the Patriots to a 4-8-2 record, worst in Boston history. But, in retrospect, it is difficult to understand how he and the team did that well.
Due to injuries, Boston played much of the year without its only experienced running back (Larry Garron), its best pass receiver (Art Graham), an All-League linebacker (Tom Addison), a starting offensive guard (Charlie Long) and a starting corner back (Tom Hennessey). Graham had tendonitis, which is unusual enough. But Addison and Long were affected all year by early-season cases of mumps. Not even Bates had the answer to that.
As a result, Coach Mike Holovak could no longer hide what has always been a Patriot weakness—a serious lack of depth. He also abandoned the continuous blitz, a tactic that proved futile against big backfields, and thus revealed further gaping holes in the Patriot defense.
Quarterback Babe Parilli, who never got much blocking anyway, got even less after the offensive line was hit by some key injuries. The Babe never knew who was going to be lining up in front of him from one Sunday to the next and, though he had at least been introduced to his backs, he was never completely sure which way they would be going. The Patriots lost their first five games, were last in scoring, last in rushing, last in kickoff and punt returns and next to last in kicking and catching.
In a way this was a fate deserved by the Boston hierarchy, which in all the seasons since the founding of the AFL had been last in money paid to graduating college seniors. It is mortal sin in pro football to take a cheese-paring approach to the signing of talent, and the Pats have been among the sinners. But last winter somebody must have decided that new blood was important to the balance sheet, and Boston spent some money. The result was the most meaningful draft the team has ever had.
To patch up the offensive line Holovak signed two excellent prospects—6-foot-3, 250-pound Karl Singer of Purdue and 5-foot-11, 254-pound Dick Arlington of Notre Dame—and moved strongboy Len St. Jean over from the defense. Singer is bulky enough to occupy three positions, and his work in the exhibition games brought an immediate improvement in the blocking of the Patriots' line, as well as a marked decrease in the number of men pouring in to push Parilli's face into the ground. Arrington has been a slow learner, however, and so another rookie, Jim Boudreaux from Louisiana Tech (6 feet 4, 260 pounds), has been converted from a defensive end. These three new faces in the relatively colorless and unheralded position of offensive blocker could mean as many as three games to the Patriots. Second-year men Justin Canale and Tom Neville and Center Jon Morris—all are young and improving—return for more on-the-job training.
Parilli is 36 now and though last year was a miserable one for him neither John Huarte, who was well paid for carrying a clipboard and earphones down the New York sidelines last season, nor anybody else on view in the Patriot camp is about to replace him.
Parilli may not have to throw 30 times a game, as he has for the last two years, if Fullback Jim Nance is the runner he appears to be. Nance had a so-so rookie year after fighting a weight problem. But he will start the season at 230—almost 20 pounds lighter. He feels much quicker and has learned to block.
Nance's development, along with that of first-year backup man Bob Cappadona, has made it possible for Garron to return to halfback, where he belongs but where he now finds himself battling J. D. Garrett for the job. In any case, the Boston running attack looks 100% improved.
Whether the same can be said for the receiving probably depends on the health of Graham. He handles the split-end position admirably if he can keep away from injuries, but he has been out for long periods ever since he came into the league three years ago. The excitement over Joe Bellino has subsided so drastically that he has been cut from the club, and so the flanker will again be Gino Cappelletti. who is small and slow but catches more than his share of passes and may be the best field-goal kicker in football. He scored a record 28 points in the final game last season to win the scoring title with 132. Tony Romeo, who can block, and Jim Whalen, who can catch, fight it out for the tight-end job, and rookie Charlie Smith from Boston College may be a sleeper.
On defense, the Pats still have some of the best in Ends Larry Eisenhauer and Bob Dec and Linebackers Addison and Nick Buoniconti, who is small hut the real thing. But they could use some help. Opponents run away from Tackle Houston Antwine—into the void on the opposite side. Holovak desperately needs another tackle, but his chief prospects—veteran Jim Lee Hunt and rookie John Magnum—seem lacking, and he may have to go trading. Jim Eraser, acquired from Kansas City, will solve the punting problem but, at 29, his All-Star linebacking days are over. Corner Back Hennessey, completely recovered from a knee injury, could be a star in his second year. The rest of the secondary, though experienced, is inconsistent.
Boston finished strong after the injury hex had departed last season, but it has always been a strange team to figure. All of a small nucleus of quality players—Parilli, Cappelletti, Nance, Graham and the defensive standouts—have to have good years for the Patriots to finish respectably in the East. They may make a race of it, but it is a long road back. Probably too long.