Let's Get Involved," read the message in masking tape on a window at the training camp of the Buffalo Bills. Losers since 1967, the Bills got involved last year, winning nine games, rushing for an NFL-record 3,088 yards and leading the league in attendance.
Coach Lou Saban used the draft, half a dozen free agents and deals involving 45 players to find support for O.J. Simpson, most notably a youthful offensive line that turned the Juice loose for 2,003 yards and eight rushing records. In 1969, Californian Simpson had considered joining the short-lived Continental League rather than play in remote, often frigid Buffalo. But now he even has a home in a Buffalo suburb called Chapel Woods.
This year the offensive line may improve further if the Bills'No. 1 pick, Reuben Gant, can recover from a preseason shoulder separation and move in at tight end. Paul Seymour, a booming blocker who caught only 10 passes at that position last year, would then replace Tackle Dave Foley, whose mobility has become a problem. The defensive line must do without young Jeff Winans, a fierce performer who tore knee ligaments in training, but End Bob Kampa, a bull-riding enthusiast, and 6'5", 274-pound Tackle Mike Kadish are hale and hearty. Rookie Doug Allen adds depth to the linebacking corps, which is youthful. Except for All-NFL Cornerback Robert James, so is the secondary.
"We'll throw more, but not significantly more," says Quarterback Joe Ferguson. He passed only 164 times last season but this year, with bump-and-run coverage limited, speedy J. D. Hill may shake loose often enough to match the 52-catch season he had two years ago. And the Bills have acquired Ahmad Rashad from St. Louis. He caught 59 passes for 909 yards in 1972 when his name was Bobby Moore. Power running and blocking is expected from Fullback Jim Braxton, who missed eight games last year with a back injury.
"In our system we can give or fake to the fullback," Ferguson says. "With help, O.J. won't carry as often, but instead of six yards a crack he may get 20." A preseason victory over Washington had Saban beaming on his weekly TV show. "The Bills," he said, "are nearing the top of the hill."
But up there they will find Almighty Miami. Averaging six years of experience and two NFL championship rings per man, the Dolphins are just reaching their prime. The only immediate concern is aging (33) Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti; he injured a thigh against Los Angeles and will miss the opener. But Coach Don Shula is ready with hard-hitting Mike Kolen, who played the middle during the players' strike, and second-year Linebacker Bruce Bannon, who made 17 tackles against Detroit last year. Vince Costello, who replaced Bill Arnsparger as defensive coach, will stay with a strategy that yielded only 3,281 total yards, third-fewest in the NFL.
Rookie Receivers Mel Baker and Nat Moore caught a lot of Miami's preseason touchdown passes. They would be fine prospects elsewhere, but no one elsewhere has Paul Warfield, Marlin Briscoe and Howard Twilley.
Shula's worries will begin next year when Warfield, Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick go to the WFL. Warfield's loss had been anticipated, since he had said he would retire after this season. He caught only 29 passes in 1973 but 11 went for touchdowns. Mercury Morris, Miami's chief outside threat, had already beaten out Kiick, but who can replace Csonka and his three straight years of 1,000-yard rushing? "He doesn't make 90-yard runs," says teammate Bob Matheson, "but guys who tackle him wish he had." It seems obvious, but look for the Dolphins again at the Super Bowl.
Baltimore reeled when General Manager Joe Thomas made 20 trades last year, dealing away nearly a dozen starters or former starters. Sixteen rookies and 31 understandably insecure veterans remained to lose 10 games, the Colts' poorest performance in two decades. "No one knew what was up last year," says Tight End Ray Chester. The Baltimore pass rush sacked fewer quarterbacks than any other AFC team and opponents completed 60.1% of their passes against the Colts. Coach Howard Schnellenberger complains, "We had to play offense in a defensive manner."
The Baltimore offense was not too bad at that. The Colts scored only 26 touchdowns, but Lydell Mitchell broke the team rushing record with 963 yards and Glenn Doughty averaged 23.5 yards on his 25 receptions, the second-highest average in the league.
This year Thomas parted with All-AFC Linebacker Ted Hendricks and anyone else who signed future contracts to play in the WFL, and a horde of new rookies infiltrated the Colts. Slowly the turmoil subsided. "We understand what's being done now," Chester says, and Quarterback Marty Domres adds, "Last year was very disjunctive. It was wait and see. Now we all drink beer together." Four newcomers have come to the aid of the defense. Ends John Dutton and Fred Cook spent much of the preseason in opposing backfields, giving Baltimore a badly needed pass rush. Cornerback Doug Nettles moved right into the lineup and Linebacker Dan Dickel played well enough to press Tom MacLeod, who came to the Colts in the Hendricks deal. The main concern among the rookies was whether Roger Carr, a receiver who has speed and can catch, would let his crew cut grow. Veterans wondered how long Domres can hold off Bert Jones, a better thrower.
Schnellenberger must be concerned about what will happen if the Colts finish under .500 again. Reserve Receiver Ollie Smith, fast and graceful but used sparingly in 1973, and John Andrews, shifting from tight end to fullback, along with Punter David Lee, who can kick for height, may turn out to be plus factors that will keep Schnellenberger at the helm.
New England Coach Chuck Fairbanks, discounting rookies, says, "Our greatest chance for improvement is for the players we have already to improve." Whatever dissatisfaction Fairbanks felt about the Patriots' 5-9 season was concentrated on the defensive line, which yielded 5.1 yards per carry. O.J. alone swept through New England for 469 yards in two games, almost 25% of his record season total. Fairbanks has decided to revert to a 3-4 defense, hoping his linebackers will be an asset in a gang-tackling defense. The secondary, headed by Cornerback Ron Bolton, gave New England the second-best figures for pass defense in 1973, but that could be misleading since most teams took the easier ground route to clobber the Patriots.
Quarterback Jim Plunkett's totals of 193 completions for 2,550 yards were bettered only by Roman Gabriel. Plunkett has an army of fleet receivers. Reggie Rucker caught 53 passes, and Darryl Stingley, Randy Vataha and Bob Windsor each had at least 20. Expect more bam out of Fullback Sam Cunningham, who last season was disconcerted by his 10 fumbles. The sweetest surprise should be a left-footed English placekicker named John Smith, from Oxfordshire, who booted 15 field goals in 18 attempts and 35 consecutive PATs to lead the Atlantic Coast League in scoring.
Fairbanks believes the rule changes open the door for an attack like the Wishbone and the Patriots might try it. "I've got the quarterback," Fairbanks says, meaning Jack Mildren, who played for him at Oklahoma and who was acquired from Baltimore. But Fairbanks and the Patriots also have a tougher schedule this year and improving on 5-9 will border on the miraculous.
Charley Winner supplants his father-in-law Weeb Ewbank in New York (the Jets' current highlight film is called End of an Era). One problem is fragile Joe Namath, who has not played a full season since 1969. He missed seven weeks last year with a separated shoulder. His offensive line does not look strong. Emerson Boozer rolled up 831 yards, his best as a pro, but he is in his ninth season, rare for a running back. Fourth-year man John Riggins followed his near-1,000-yard performance in 1972 with a contract dispute and a disappointing 482 yards last year.
Winner, who is only 5'6", 138 pounds, drafted size. Tackle Carl Barzilauskas is 6'6", 265 and even better than expected. But Linebacker Godwin Turk, 6'3" and 230, may miss the entire season because of a dislocated shoulder.
The Jets again have good receivers. Jerome Barkum, Rich Caster and Eddie Bell will be assisted by David Knight, who last year beat out Don Maynard. Maynard used to attach a feather to his helmet during the glory days, and Caster still tucks one in his sock. If the Jets can improve on their 4-10 mark, it would put a feather in Winner's hat. But the offensive line must develop or this will be the year Joe Namath gets creamed for good.
Lou Saban: BUFFALO BILLS
Charley Winner: NEW YORK JETS
Chuck Fairbanks: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS