It had begun by looking like a repeat of the astonishing, legendary Super Bowl year of four seasons ago. Joe Namath (see cover) and the New York Jets appeared to be back in their glory, ready again to stand the world on its ear. When New York opened on the road with riotous, high-scoring wins over Buffalo and Baltimore, only the most discourteous observers were so impolite as to suggest that the Jets were getting by with only half a team.
The better half was the Jet offensive, Namath at the controls, and it was explosive enough to carry an understaffed, uncoordinated defense—at least until the Jets faced winless Houston. There in the Astrodome, Namath was progressively stymied by an Oiler defense that swarmed around his butterfingered receivers like bird-sized Texas mosquitoes on a humid night. The final was 26-20, an upset which meant that there was only one NFL team left unbeaten after just three weeks of play. That was of problematic consolation to the Jets, however, since the unbeaten team just happened to be Miami, which New York faces this week in its home opener.
Really, though, the Jets are not so bad as they appeared against Houston. Minor injuries have worn away at a club that is surprisingly thin, so that when they cost Namath his first-string running backs and Ed Bell, the tiny wide receiver who has been one of his best targets, he was not left with enough tools to cope with an unexpectedly keyed-up young Houston team.
Anyway, what beat New York, even more than its manifold failings on defense, was Dan Pastorini, the second-year quarterback from Santa Clara, who outpassed Namath for the day—and out-kneed him as well. Pastorini was carried off late in the first half, showing excruciating pain from a hyperextended left knee, but he came back early in the second half and wound up completing 14 of 26 passes—with one touchdown and no interceptions. Namath was 18 for 38—with two touchdowns and two interceptions at crucial moments. Also, in contrast with Namath, Pastorini demonstrated that he could break out of the pocket and run with the ball.
When Weeb Ewbank, the New York coach, begins setting up for the Miami game, he must start restructuring the Jet defense. The secondary, afflicted by injuries, has not played together long enough to react instinctively. That can come only with time, but against Houston the Jet deep men were too often shifting uncertainly as Pastorini sought out his receivers. Of course, they got no great help from their defensive line, especially after Tackle John Elliott left the game with a pulled hamstring.
To be fair, the Jet scoring apparatus was short of some vital cogs in Houston; when Namath has all his people together, New York is a solid contender against Miami and Baltimore in the AFC East. Against the Oilers, though, he could not make use of a hobbled Emerson Boozer, and John Riggins, the big running back from Kansas who leads the conference in rushing, was also put out for a while. So without a sound rushing threat, the fold-back, seven-man Houston zone could concentrate more on shutting off Namath's passing game.
"We've been looking at pictures of him," said Bill Peterson, the new coach of the Oilers, a couple of days before the game. He got out of his chair to demonstrate. Peterson is a short, thick-chested man who looks not at all like Namath, but his act was convincing.
"He's got this," he said, snapping his arm down and across his body quickly, looking like a chunky baseball pitcher. "Gets rid of the ball so fast you can't rush him. And follows through all the way, like any quarterback who ever played for Bear Bryant."
Eddie Bell sees Joe Willie's white shoes from another angle. As a small target, he needs an accurate gunner. "He throws a quick ball but a soft ball," Bell says. "It doesn't knock you down. The players play for him because they have so much confidence in him. Even after they beat Los Angeles and Minnesota two years ago with Al Woodall they didn't have the confidence in him that they do in Joe. It shouldn't be that way. President Kennedy was a great man. I cried when he died. But they replaced him in two minutes. That's how important most people are. Joe gives the team confidence, but the team gave Al confidence. When Joe came back last year against San Francisco to bring us within three points, it was like the coming of the Messiah."
At first glance, Namath appears more subdued these days. It has been some time now since he was involved in any sort of first-rate controversy, and he often disappears altogether from the public view. Even when he speaks out now, the brashness of old appears to have given way to humility and homily. But, for the players, it's still the same old messiah.
"Sure, Joe has matured a lot," says Linebacker Larry Grantham, "but we all do that. A football player comes out of college into the pros, and he's one of about 1,100 people in the country doing what he does. If you're a starting quarterback, then you're only one of 26. It takes everybody a while to get his feet on the ground. I don't see how he handled it as well as he did."
"Always, whenever you read about Joe's football ability, you have to multiply it to get a true picture," says Don Maynard, who has caught passes from Namath for eight seasons. "And what you read about his night life you have to divide."
"I never had any trouble with Joe," says Coach Weeb Ewbank. "I don't care anything about his social life, but he has always been a dedicated football player, willing to do anything to help the club. He'll take a movie projector home and study game movies for two, three hours a night, I guess. He plays with pain and never moans about it. And he hasn't changed."
Guard Dave Herman suggests a slight twist on that whole question. "It isn't Joe who has changed," he says. "It is the world that has changed toward Joe—or caught up with him. He used to be one of the only players with long hair, for instance. By now, he's one of the few players without a mustache."
Aside from the clean upper lip, the quick release, the accurate arm and the aura of confidence that can infect a whole team, Namath possesses something else every truly fine quarterback must have. He can analyze or read a defense instinctively. He not only recognizes what kind of a defense the opposition is playing—most quarterbacks can do that—but he picks up a significant detail in the three seconds or so he has to drop back, set up and pass.
A perfect example of his ability to react almost instantaneously to a new situation occurred in the Baltimore game two weeks ago in which he threw six touchdowns and gained 496 yards passing. In the final quarter, with the Colts threatening, Namath had thrown a 79-yard touchdown to Rich Caster, his tall, fast tight end. Caster had run a post, a pattern in which the receiver makes his last cut toward the goalpost. As soon as the Jets got the ball again, Namath called for another pass. At the last instant Namath noticed that a new defensive back, Rex Kern, had picked up Caster.
"I had two receivers open," Namath said afterward, "but when I saw those two clean white numbers, 44, I knew where I was going to go."
For his part, Caster faked the post this time and cut the other way. The Colts had played a zone in the first half, but Namath had handled that so well that the Colts had been forced into a combination zone and man-for-man. Caster was being covered man-for-man. "I was running my dig patterns deep and in the middle seams," little Bell said. "That took them out of zone coverage and, while they were wasting a man deep covering me, they let Richard alone. But he's too fast and too tall to stop one-on-one." The pass over the bright, clean numbers to Caster went 80 yards for the touchdown.
Of course, breaking any zone depends in large part on having the time to wait until a receiver can find the seams. Before the Colts got to Namath on a pass the Jets' offensive line had gone 11 straight games without letting an opponent once sack him. Says Herman: "Jerry Kramer was telling me after our Super Bowl win about the pressure of being the defending Super Bowl champions, but I told him that playing in front of a white-shoed quarterback taught you all you had to know about pressure."
"I worry about my pass blocking," says Riggins. "Of course, you never want to miss a block, but I think that if you missed when some other quarterback was in, and he got hurt, the coaches would say you did a poor job, but if Joe was in and he got hurt because you missed a block, they'd call it inexcusable."
A couple of other factors make protecting Namath all the more a strain. "He has so much nerve. He stays in that pocket," says Caster, "and you know those knees of his are like a light bulb, ready to crack any minute."
And Boozer, a 5'11", 195-pound halfback, who has to devote much of his energies to picking up 230-pound blitzing linebackers, adds: "Joe has a quick release, right, but Joe holds the ball a long time before he finally releases it, so you have a long time to hold your block. A lot of quarterbacks, they throw the ball too soon, but Joe never does. He always waits until the last second—or split second—until the rush is only this far away." Boozer held up his hand six inches in front of his face. "And then he throws. And then he gets hit in the mouth. But he throws without ever thinking about possibly getting hit in the mouth."
Above all, perhaps, Namath's asset as a quarterback is his extraordinary faculty for lifting a team all by himself. Only a very few—John Unitas and Norm Van Brocklin come first to mind—have ever been capable, as Namath, of making a team play up to and sometimes even beyond its potential. "He's so cool, so much in control," Boozer explains. "Sometimes it frightens me. You know, like maybe he should blow up or fall apart. But he doesn't. He does his homework and he comes into the game sure of what we can do and he makes us do it."
Ewbank seldom bothers to send plays in to Namath, but when he does it is understood that Joe has the option to ignore the suggestion. "So often he's setting something up on his own," the coach said, watching Namath work out the day before the Houston game. Throwing, Namath grimaced, but only in disgust because he overthrew Maynard; he says his knees feel better than they have in a long time. He threw the same pass again, and this time it was perfect.
"If he misses a receiver by three or four feet, it's because he's throwing the ball away," a Houston lineman said at the Oiler practice the day before the game. "Most quarterbacks throw it into the stands then, but Joe is an artist even when he's throwing a ball away."
Namath has that kind of debilitating psychological effect on the team against which he is playing, and Houston, off to a discouraging 0-2 start, looked forward to the Jets with no relish at all. Although the Oilers had been peculiarly vulnerable to the run, most of them anticipated faring at least as poorly against the Jets' passing.
"Joe and his receivers work so well together," said one of the Oiler defensive backs, "the receivers never look back. Their passing is so well coordinated that the receiver runs his pattern, finally looks around and there's the ball."
Because of his knees, Namath does offer some hope for defensive lineman. The Jets do not even have any roll-out plays for him in the offense. "I know he thinks he's the best," Pat Holmes, a Houston defensive end, said before the game, "but I don't necessarily go with that because he can't move around as well as some of the others. That means you can get to him now and then, and if we can get in his face some, we'll do all right."
Holmes was dead right. Though the Oilers never dumped Namath before he could throw, they harassed him steadily. Altogether, last week's was hardly a scintillating performance by any part of the Jet offense: Namath, his line or his receivers. Ewbank can dismiss that as an off day, though; his ongoing problem remains the defense.
When Ewbank was coaching the Colts, one of his wide receivers was Jimmy Orr, a Georgian who had an enormous respect for Ewbank's fabled ability to judge players. "You could have 15 guys jump over a Ping-Pong table with Weeb watching," Orr once said, "and when they got through, he could tell you each one's best position and which ones should start."
Perhaps Ewbank will have several secondary candidates available to jump over a Ping-Pong table this week before Miami comes to town.
Namath never did get sacked, but Oiler linemen like Elvin Bethea made being close count.
John Riggins maintained his position as the leading rusher in the AFC, but his fumble hurt.
Is there no justice on the gridiron for a man with a clean lip and two light-bulb knees?
Weeb's secondary is his primary concern.