The names of its superstars may grow more familiar by the yard, game and season, but the constant of professional football is change, as evidenced in 1976 by the departures of George Blanda and Lenny Dawson and the competitive arrival of a crop of fresh faces. Foremost among them is Chicago's Walter Payton, the second-year running back from Jackson State who leads the NFL in rushing and last Sunday surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in the Bears' 24-13 victory over Green Bay.
New blood is the lifeblood of every franchise. Precocious rookies occasionally dazzle their way into starting lineups, as Minnesota's Sammie White and St. Louis' Mike Dawson have done this year. More often, though, talent requires a year or two of seasoning, often on the special teams. Thus, the "sudden" emergence of Dave (Ghost) Casper, Oakland's third-year tight end, as the AFC's No. 1 pass receiver with 45 catches. And, across the Bay, the "sudden" appearance of San Francisco's Delvin Williams, the third-year running back, who recently shattered 49er records by rushing for 194 and 180 yards on successive Sundays.
But the impact new blood can make on a franchise is most obvious in New England, where two second-year men, Quarterback Steve Grogan and Tight End Russ Francis, and two rookie defensive backs, Mike Haynes and Tim Fox, have helped revive a franchise that has not had a winning record in a decade. In the Patriots' 21-14 upset of Baltimore last Sunday, Grogan ran for two touchdowns and passed for another, while Haynes intercepted two Bert Jones passes.
Obviously, the new boys on the block mean business.
The Cardinals' Mike Dawson, a 6'4", 270-pound first-year defensive tackle from Arizona, stalks rival quarterbacks and javelinas with equal ferocity.
Denver's Rick Upchurch has returned punts 73, 47, 92 and 55 yards for touchdowns and gained 20.3 yards every time he has touched the ball.
Greg Pruitt describes himself as "arrogant," drives a van with his picture painted on the side and needs only 238 yards rushing to match last season's 1,067 for the much-improved Browns.
Billed as Dallas' linebacker trio of the future, second-year men (left to right) Bob Breunig, Randy White and Thomas—not Tommy or Tom—Henderson give the Cowboys the best depth in the NFL. Breunig played at Arizona State and now sings on the country-and-Western circuit. Middle Linebacker White, a 'defensive end while at Maryland, is a muscular physical-fitness freak who answers to "Manster"—half man, half monster. Henderson, out of Langston (Okla.) University, originated the slam-dunk-spike-over-the-goalpost-crossbar after returning a kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown.
Nicknamed "Trophy" when he arrived with his Heisman, John Cappelletti languished on the Rams' bench for two years, but this season has rushed for 581 yards and answers to "Cappy."
Nicknamed "Stonebrick" because he once ran into a stone building, Minnesota rookie Sammie White giggles when he speaks and laughs last: six of his 38 receptions have been TDs.
Chicago's No. 1 draft choice three years ago, 6'6", 260-pound Tackle Wally Chambers anchors the ferocious "Monsters of the Midway" defensive front, and he has six sacks.
New England's fifth-round selection in 1975, Quarterback Steve Grogan occasionally makes like a halfback: he has passed for 12 TDs, rushed for eight and averaged eight yards per carry.
Blithe spirit Russ Francis, New England's 6'6", 240-pound tight end, wrestler and airplane pilot, catches the ball when Grogan throws it and blocks for Grogan when he runs it.