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Original Issue


Strengthened by trades and superior to the other teams in every phase of offense and defense, Buffalo should nun away with the division title

The big difference in the Eastern Division of the AFL this season is that the Buffalo Bills should be a better club than they have been for the past few years. That is not the sort of news that will cause much pleasure among the four other Eastern teams who have had to scrabble about in the debris the Bills left while passing them up. Buffalo won AFL championships in 1964 and 1965 and the Eastern title in 1966 with a club that was carried by its defense. This season the Bills ought to have a superior offense as well, and there is no Eastern challenger in sight.

Buffalo's defense is still good. After winning by two points in an exhibition game in which Buffalo had a long touchdown pass called back, Detroit Coach Joe Schmidt, one of the finest middle linebackers the NFL ever produced, discussed his admiration for the way the Bills played defense. "Their defensive line and linebackers work together as smoothly as any NFL team I have seen," said Schmidt.

But it is the possibility of finally coming up with a dangerous offense that is causing the most excitement in Buffalo and the most gloom in Boston, New York, Houston and Miami.

The Bills leaped into the trading market after losing the championship to Kansas City last season. Defensive End Tom Day, backup Quarterback Daryle Lamonica, Split End Glenn Bass and Defensive Tackle Dave Costa—all quality players—were peddled away. In return, Buffalo got Quarterback Tom Flores and Split End Art Powell from Oakland, Running Back Keith Lincoln from San Diego and Kicker Mike Mercer, who was involved in a complicated deal with Kansas City. Those four have the ability to help bring the offense up to the defense, which is at a level no other Eastern club has been able to reach.

Buffalo's weak point is its injuries list. Split End Bobby Crockett, a regular as a rookie last season, is lost for the year because of torn ligaments in his left knee. Offensive Guard Billy Shaw, the team captain, is out for half the season with torn ligaments in his right knee. Out, too, is Offensive Tackle Dick Hudson. Running Back Bobby Burnett, AFL Rookie of the Year in 1966, was limping during the training season from a hip bruise. Tight End Charley Ferguson has had a sprained ankle. But Powell can replace Crockett and Lincoln can replace Burnett. Only the absence of Shaw and Hudson from the offensive line will hinder the Bills much—unless, of course, other injuries occur.

To adjust for his losses in the line, Coach Joe Collier, at 35 the youngest head coach in the league, has moved Stew Barber from left tackle to left guard and has put a rookie, Dick Cunningham of Arkansas, at left tackle. In exhibition games the Buffalo running attack was sloppy. As Cunningham progresses, so will the Bills' running backs.

The passing should be distinctly improved. Buffalo has never had a receiver as consistently brilliant as Powell, who has been trying for years to get himself traded closer to his home in Toronto. The presence of Powell will take much of the attention off the other wide receiver, Elbert Dubenion, who has fine speed but has been upset by a fairly steady menu of double coverage.

Quarterback Jack Kemp, one of the league's smarter operators, was handicapped last season by tennis elbow in his throwing arm. His arm apparently has healed, but Kemp was not very sharp in the early exhibitions. Flores, however, came in to throw three touchdown passes, including the one that was called back, against Detroit and started the following game against Boston. Flores is a very accurate drop-back pocket-style passer who is reluctant to run with the ball. Kemp has a more powerful arm, when it is well, and does not hesitate to scramble. Between the two, Collier ought to be able to find one who can get the Bills' offense going any given day.

Lincoln, who frequently has been hurt and has not had a really good year since 1964, is returning to the scene of his most spectacular injury. In the championship game of 1964 at Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium, Lincoln had just caught a swing pass when he was interrupted by Linebacker Mike Stratton, who smashed a couple of Lincoln's ribs. When he is well, Lincoln is an outstanding runner and good receiver. At San Diego he was forced to play fullback, a position he never preferred. At Buffalo he will go in both at fullback and at running back, occasionally teaming with Fullback Wray Carlton, a fine pass blocker and short-yardage runner, in a power backfield. With Lincoln at fullback and Burnett, when he fully heals, at running back, the Bills have a pair with the speed to go outside.

Defensively, there has been one change. Remi Prudhomme, a swing man last year, has moved in at end in place of the departed Tom Day. The rest of the line is its old stubborn self. Tackles Tom Sestak and Jim Dunaway are two of the best in the AFL. Marty Schottenheimer is pushing Art Jacobs for one linebacking job, and Charley King and Booker Edgerson are pressing Art Janik and Butch Byrd at the corners. Otherwise, this is the same Buffalo defense that has won championships.

The rookies who are expected to help the Bills are Tackles Dick Cunningham and Gary Bugenhagen of Syracuse, Guard Jim Lemoine of Utah State and Flanker John Pitts of Arizona State. Lemoine is trying to make the switch from tight end and Pitts, with some difficulty, from defensive back. Cunningham is the most polished of the rookies and has excellent balance. He has, of course, been getting a cram course in pass blocking techniques.

Buffalo's kicking should be tops in the East, with Paul Maguire to do the punting and Mercer, who apparently has recovered completely from a pulled muscle, as the field-goal kicker. Mercer scored 98 points kicking last season for the champion Chiefs.

Although the Bills ought to run off with the Eastern championship, they got quite an argument about it last year from the Boston Patriots, who were in the race until the final weeks. If the Bills are to have trouble with anyone this season, it again will be with Boston.

Boston Coach Mike Holovak is noted for getting good results from ordinary material and outstanding results from his above-average players. His primary offensive weapons are the running of Fullback Jim Nance, the passing of Quarterback Babe Parilli and the kicking of Gino Cappelletti. Nance set an AFL rushing record in 1966 and intends to repeat. "I want to weigh 230 by the opening day this year because I plan to go outside a lot more," says Nance. "Once a man starts thinking jinx, he starts believing it. So I'm thinking I'm going to have another good year, and that's all there is to it."

Nance will have to do well again to pull Boston into another second-place finish, as will Parilli. For the last two years observers have been predicting that the 37-year-old Parilli would succumb to age, and he has in fact showed signs of it. But the Pats have no adequate backup quarterback unless John Huarte should suddenly blossom. Holovak admits he would like to trade for another quarterback, but adds hastily that this has nothing to do with charges that Parilli visited a gamblers' hangout. He and the club have complete faith in Parilli's honesty.

The pass receivers lack speed, except for Art Graham. Boston also is weak at running back, where Holovak has been experimenting with former Navy All-America Joe Bellino. The trouble with Bellino is he is too small to block for Nance on sweeps. But Boston's offensive line is second only to Buffalo's in the East. If it can keep opening spaces for Nance to run 20 to 30 times per game and if it can keep Parilli intact, the Patriots will score.

Linebacker Nick Buoniconti, who has been ailing, Larry Eisenhauer and Bob Dee and Tackle Houston Antwine are the core of a good defense that is built around the blitz. The problem will be in the secondary. Boston's No. 1 draft choice was Purdue's John Charles, who did well in exhibition games but is a rookie nevertheless. So is Leroy Mitchell, who could become a defensive starter.

Defense is Holovak's specialty, but he was disenchanted with his own after the Patriots were beaten by Baltimore in an exhibition. "We're still behind the NFL in this one respect," he said. "It will be a while before we catch up."

Holovak, though, scarcely ever wins an exhibition. The Pats start playing when the season begins. They lost their first exhibition this year 55-13 to New York and prompted Jet fans to talk about this being New York's big year. But Jet followers usually carry on this way early in the season and get steadily quieter as January approaches. This year most likely will be no exception. After that first Boston game, the Jets were soundly beaten by Kansas City and Philadelphia. Worse yet, they played very poorly in both games. The presence or absence of their one-and-a-half-legged quarterback, Joe Namath, didn't seem to make much difference.

Namath is starting his third season as a professional and has yet to become the superstar that he was expected to be and might have been were it not for a crippling knee injury. With his weak knee, Namath has a hard time setting up solidly to pass from the pocket, and of course it is out of the question for him to scramble. He does release the ball very quickly, and he does have a superstar's arm. Last year he threw for 3,379 yards and hit 19 touchdown passes. But he also led the league in interceptions with 27, twice throwing five interceptions in a single game. In one other game, however, he threw for five touchdowns and three times he passed for more than 300 yards. For the Jets to finish higher than third, Namath must be much more consistent. His replacement, Mike Taliaferro, is injured and possibly out for the year. Jim Turner is filling in until help comes.

One of the keys to the New York offense is Fullback Matt Snell. At 220 pounds, Snell is a complete fullback with power inside and the speed to run the sweeps. He has led the Jets in rushing for three years. Running at halfback is Emerson Boozer, a second-year man who had some exciting afternoons as a rookie. Boozer is the fast, darting type who needs to improve his blocking on runs and pass protection.

The Jets have a good group of receivers. The two best are Split End George Sauer and Tight End Pete Lammons, who were teammates on the University of Texas team that beat Namath and Alabama in the 1965 Orange Bowl. Lammons has been an especially pleasant surprise for Jet Coach Weeb Ewbank. As a rookie he caught 41 passes for 565 yards, most of any tight end in the AFL. The other wide receiver, Don Maynard from Texas Western, has better moves and speed than hands.

To protect Namath, Ewbank put together an offensive line that is larger than some of the defensive lines it faces. Tackles Sherman Plunkett and Winston Hill, for example, weigh 300 and 275. With Namath unable to maneuver, the idea is to build a fence of flesh around him and hope the blitzers bounce off. "We have given up the notion of blitzing the Jets," says one AFL coach. "Those guys are so big you've got to run around them, and by the time you get there the ball is gone." The Jets, though, were blitzed thoroughly by the Eagles and it could be that they will see the blitz more often during the next few months. One solid blow on Namath's knee would make the Jets less than a third-place club.

The defensive line, despite the presence of two potentially superb ends, Verlon Biggs and Gerry Philbin, has never been one of New York's areas of strength. To complicate the situation, Biggs reported to camp vastly overweight and has been moving like a fat man. The linebacking has improved. The secondary is good enough. The corners are Cornell Gordon, who was bothered by a shoulder injury last season, and Johnny Sample, the hot-natured NFL veteran who has few peers at man-to-man coverage. He has shut out some of the best receivers in both leagues on days when he felt personally affronted.

The kicking game is good. So, persist the rumors, is the Jets' oral kicking in their locker room. Several important squad members do not entirely agree with Ewbank's method, and Owner Sonny Werblin is a constant offerer of advice through the daily newspapers. Ewbank has had three 5-8-1 years at New York and last season was 6-6-2. There seems to be little chance of beating that record in 1967, and that could put Ewbank into more of a jam than his contract can cope with.

The team that should come on in the last half of the season to compete with the Jets for third place is Houston, which had one of the better drafts in either league last winter. The Oilers are in the midst of a general rebuilding program. General Manager Don Klosterman and Coach Wally Lemm inherited a club that had gone stagnant after winning championships in the AFL's formative years. Early last season it appeared Houston's defense would be tremendously improved by the presence of Tackle Ernie Ladd, and there were hopes that the new regime could promptly cure the clique-ridden Oilers of their family bickering.

But that was not to be. The Oilers won their first two games by big scores and then folded up like a card table. The defense was awful. The feuds kept up. By midseason there were rumors of unsporting activities on the part of the Oilers, and a few of the larger bookies refused to accept bets on any Oiler game. Nothing was ever proved. The rumors, which have not yet died, had an effect on the team.

Lemm had little control. Some of the players were clock watchers, showing up for practice and going through their duties perfunctorily. When workouts were over, the players vanished into Houston's urban sprawl. There was no unity. "There are good players on this club," Lemm said while the Oilers were sliding to a 3-11 record. "But to improve we've got to change the attitude and develop a singleness of purpose."

The Oilers gave up 35 touchdowns passing in 1966, which pointed out very clearly that they needed an overhaul of the secondary and the pass rush. The offensive line needed depth. Quarterback George Blanda, a clique leader, was put on waivers when the season ended. Let go, too, was Flanker Charlie Hennigan, once envied by other receivers as having the finest moves in the league. In the draft Houston went first for George Webster, the big linebacker from Michigan State, who replaces Outside Linebacker Johnny Baker, traded to San Diego. Notre Dame's Tom Regner and Nebraska's huge Carel Stith were drafted to help the offensive line. Four fast rookie backs were drafted for the secondary. They and Miller Farr, who came in a trade from San Diego, will make Houston's pass defense much tighter, although it will be near the end of the season before the improvement will be noticeable.

In an effort to create unity, the Oilers moved their training camp away from an expensive triangle of real estate in Houston, with a view of both the Astrodome, where the Oilers would like to play, and Rice Stadium, where they do play. The new camp was at a small junior college named The Schreiner Institute in Kerrville, Texas, deep in the Hill Country, a short drive from the L.B.J. Ranch. Lemm installed an 11 p.m. curfew and a 75-mile travel restriction. Unable to go to Houston, and with San Antonio and Austin also out of bounds, the players stayed around camp and, they say, began to develop the attitude Lemm wants. They contend their wild fight in Rice Stadium with the Kansas City Chiefs last month was evidence of team closeness. Defensive Tackle Willie Parker, who started the ruckus, got a standing ovation from the home crowd, first for an Oiler in recent memory.

But unity or no, the Oilers remain stuck with a problem that has haunted them for years—do they have a quarterback? Jacky Lee of Cincinnati and Don Trull of Baylor came along as the heirs to Blanda's job, but neither was able to take it until the final half of last season when Trull became the regular. Trull was oddly ineffective in the early exhibitions this year. Against the Chiefs he could not seem to bring himself to throw the ball and was dropped for several losses. Against the Raiders he couldn't hit his receivers. "I'm not worried. I'll work it out," Trull says.

Lemm played his rookies extensively during exhibition games. "We want to win," he said, "but these rookies must get experience." The blocking of the offensive line began to look brighter at once. Running Back Sid Blanks, who rushed for 756 yards as a rookie but was ineffective the last two seasons because of injuries, looks as if he has found himself again. He is being pushed by rookie Woodie Campbell from Northwestern. Fullback Hoyle Granger is a tough, bullish runner who is still learning his position. Little Ode Burrell, Houston's best running back for two years, has been moved to flanker to take advantage of his speed and hands. Lemm believes he will be outstanding when he is removed from the heavy pounding a running back must take. Charley Frazier, split end, is regarded by Lemm as one of the best receivers in pro football. Lawrence Elkins, who was supposed to be that good, is playing behind Burrell.

Garland Boyette, Ladd's uncle and a former Pan-American Games decathlon performer, has moved in at middle linebacker. Webster has looked as if he will be everything the Oilers hope for. The defensive line suffered when End Gary Cutsinger went out for the season with a pinched nerve in his back. Lemm transferred Pat Holmes, 6'5" and 270 pounds, from right tackle to Cutsinger's left defensive end position and has been working rookie Willie Jones and 270-pound sophomore George Allen at ends also. Ladd, who has trimmed down to 290 and claims the Oilers' new attitude is contagious, is the left tackle.

This is the fastest Oiler team ever. "All these cats need," says Webster, "is to get the taste of winning." Two of their last four games are with Oakland and San Diego and will have an important bearing on the Western Division championship. The other two are with Miami, the team Houston must beat to stay off the bottom of the Eastern Division.

The Dolphins, according to their coach, George Wilson, are "100% improved over last season." The reasons, says Wilson, are a better relationship between coaches and players, much better running, better quarterbacking, better line-backing and the presence of excellent receivers. Joe Auer was the only steady running back a year ago. Now Sam Price at fullback and Abner Haynes, alternating with Auer, have added explosiveness. Haynes has been running like the old Abner, a former AFL Player of the Year. Wilson traded his son, George Jr., and has settled on John Stofa at quarterback. Stofa played only one game last year after roaming around minor league football for three seasons, but in that one he threw four touchdown passes against Houston. He is poised, intelligent and a good deep passer. Rookie Bob Griese and Rick Norton back him up. Norton, the $300,000 bonus boy who last year had a leg injury, stomach troubles and two broken jaws, was given another chance, while Jon Brittenum was traded.

The Dolphins have added John Bramlett and Jerry Hopkins, linebackers from Denver, to a crew that includes young Frank Emanuel, a future star. The receivers are Howard Twilley, a sensation in camp, Frank Jackson, Karl Noonan, Doug Moreau, Dave Kocourek and rookie Jack Clancy. Billy Neighbors is back at one guard, but a rookie free agent, Freddie Woodson of Florida A&M, will be forced to occupy the other guard. The Dolphins have moved light Maxie Williams to tackle to replace Alphonse Dotson. He will team with a good young lineman, Norman Evans, but Miami is very short on replacements.

Defensively the Dolphins are improved. End Mel Branch had one of his best exhibition seasons. Ed Cooke is at the other end and Ray Jacobs is the soundest of the tackles. There is concern over the secondary. Free Safety Willie West, out until November with a shoulder separation, will be replaced by Ross O'Hanley, who was All-AFL in 1960 but lacks speed. Second-year man Bob Neff is the strong safety if he can beat out rookie Tom Beier. The corner backs, Jim Warren and Dick Westmoreland, who came from San Diego in the player pool, are first rate. "We have a long way to go at some positions, but there's no comparison between our outlook now and a year ago," says Wilson. "At least we know what we're doing and who we're doing it with. Last year we were just feeling our way."

The four lesser clubs in the Eastern Division are drawing closer together in ability and should be very close in won-lost records. But they will be far behind the Buffalo Bills.



Bobby Burnett of Buffalo, with fine outside speed, was Rookie of the Year in '66 and AFL's fourth leading rusher.


Jim Nance of Boston, smashing into tough K.C. line, was Player of the Year and league's top rusher in 1966.