This was traditionally one of the most ferociously competitive divisions in football, but now it's a two-tiered society. The Bills, the Jets and Colts are the have-nots. Miami is the aristocracy. But this is the year the NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS join the upper crust. All the signs are there.
Sign No. 1—Happiness. Everyone's signed: rookies, guys who'd played out options, prominent starters. And this is a team that usually lets its productive veterans drift away, e.g., Shelby Jordan, Mike Haynes, Russ Francis, Don Hasselbeck, Leon Gray. What's more, the Patriots got up the dough to remove fullback Craig James from the USFL, which also supplied them with quarterback Tom Ramsey.
Sign No. 2—The Steinberg cycle. Dick Steinberg was a scout for the Patriots in the Chuck Fairbanks era, when New England went from nowhere to the playoffs as Steinberg came up with a heavy load of talent. Then he moved to the Rams as director of college scouting, and three years later they were in the Super Bowl. He has been back with the Patriots as chief scout for three years now, and the talent influx is ready to take hold. They have players—lots of them.
Sign No. 3—The defense is coming on. It was young last year. Seven of the starting 11 were in their first or second year, but the defense held opponents to seven points or less five times in the last nine games. In Rod Rust, a quiet, 56-year-old Iowan, the Patriots have one of the game's finest defensive coaches. Andre Tippett can stand alongside the superstar outside linebackers in the NFL; Raymond Clayborn's a big league cornerback. If the line comes on, the Pats' defense will be formidable. A lot depends on left end Kenneth Sims, the No. 1 draft choice in the NFL in '82. In two seasons he has done zip.
Head coach Ron Meyer's offense, which was largely hunt and peck last year—find something that works and stick with it—now has settled into a one-back power concept: Bang away behind one of pro football's more massive lines. The Pats can come at you with an almost inexhaustible supply of backs—James, Tony Collins, Robert Weathers and Mosi Tatupu, the most underrated back in the NFL. Put Tatupu in an offense that would feature him, and he'd routinely crank out 1,000-yard seasons.
Meyer cannot escape his SMU upbringing. He's happiest when the runners (such as ex-Mustang James) are doing the work, and a big key this year is center Pete Brock, coming back from two knee operations. But the air game, with wideout Irving Fryar, the NFL's No. 1 draft pick, taking the heat off Stanley Morgan, could be effective. The Pats were driving for a playoff spot last year until quarterback Steve Grogan went down with a broken left fibula in game No. 12. Kicking was a major problem, but Meyer feels he's solved it with a trade for the Eagles' Tony Franklin.
These should be happy days for MIAMI DOLPHINS coach Don Shula. In the off-season he signed a three-year contract for a reported $2.4 million. In 1987 the Dolphins should be in their new stadium, and Shula's excited about the prospect. No Dolphin has been lost to the USFL, and in Dan Marino Shula has a QB to build a future around. But there are problems.
The toughness that Shula has always liked eroded a bit last year. The running game wasn't consistent. Toward the end of the season the Dolphins had trouble stopping the run. In the last four games, counting the playoffs, three enemy runners went for over 100 yards. Many of the problems were hidden behind the glitter and flash of Marino throwing the deep one to the breathtakingly fast Mark Duper, but then Marino missed two games at the end of the season. When he came back for the playoffs, the rust showed, and the Dolphins lost to Seattle.
In the preseason this year Marino went down again with a broken index finger on his throwing hand, and Shula worried about all the snaps his young quarterback was missing; Marino is expected to be fit for the opening game of the regular season. The Dolphins were saddened by the death of halfback David Overstreet in a car accident in June—he was the third Miami player to die in three years. Overstreet was the closest thing to a breakaway back Miami had, and now Shula's looking to replace him, either through a trade or with a sleeper, 20-year-old rookie David Nelson from Heidelberg College, a 230-pounder who can run a 4.58 40.
The defense isn't in great shape, either. The keynote linebacker, A.J. Duhe, is recovering from knee and shoulder surgery and is still out. Two more linebackers, Earnie Rhone and Bob Brudzinski, pulled hamstrings on the first day of camp. Top draft pick Jackie Shipp (Oklahoma) will help fill the gap there, and the second-round choice, Jay Brophy (Miami), a tough guy with limited speed, probably will, too. But nobody can fill Duhe's vital double-duty role of linebacker and down lineman. And everyone's waiting to see what the Dolphin defense will look like with Bill Arnsparger gone (to LSU as head coach) and Chuck Studley in control.
Joe Ferguson drops back to pass for the BUFFALO BILLS. He looks down-field for Frank Lewis. No Frank Lewis. He's retired. He looks for Jerry Butler. Nope, he's gone for the year with a postop knee. Got to dump it off to Joe Cribbs, but it'll have to be a hell of a throw—all the way to Birmingham, where little Joe was all-USFL for the Stallions.
Ghosts...Rich Stadium is filled with ghosts. Those that were, those that never were: quarterback Jim Kelly, the team's No. 1 draft pick in '83, USFL Player of the Year in '84, 44 touchdown passes and each one a dagger in the heart of every loyal Buffalo fan; Tom Cousineau, No. 1 choice in '79, helping to make the Browns' linebacking healthy.
Prayer, hope, a million maybes—that's the Bills' future for '84. Fergie takes the heat, but what's a guy gonna do with a bunch of minor league receivers? Buffalo has had only one keynote No. 1 draft pick in the last seven years, Butler in '79. Now there's halfback Greg Bell, coming in with a wing and a prayer, off an injury-ridden career at Notre Dame.
Kay Stephenson, the Bills' head coach, feuded with his defensive coordinator of last year, Bob Zeman. Now Zeman's gone, which means that Darryl Talley, a flashy rookie linebacker in '83, will be a regular. As many as 10 rookies could make the club this season, and I'll give you the name of a guy to watch—Rodney Bellinger, a shrimp of a cornerback. A Rod Perry clone.
It's the summer of 1981. NEW YORK JETS middle linebacker Stan Blinka calls a press conference. He wants to be traded. He has started every game for two years, led the team in tackles for two years. He wants his $40,000 salary upgraded. (The year before, the Jets had given wide receiver Lam Jones a record rookie contract of $2 million.) "There are situations in which a contract might be upgraded, but not after a 4-12 year," says Jim Kensil, the president. Keep that quote in mind. It's significant.
Now it's the summer of '83, the year after the Jets played in the AFC championship. Jerry Holmes, the starting right cornerback, is in his option year. He's making $92,500. All spring people have been begging Kensil to get Holmes signed. He says there's time. In September Holmes signs with the USFL. So do two other defensive backs, Jesse Johnson and Johnny Lynn, the nickel. They had been earning, respectively, $71,500 and $77,000. The Jets lose two out of the three. Lynn comes back because the L.A. Express coach at the time, Hugh Campbell, had a case of the fogs and put a buy-back clause in the deal.
It's draft day 1984. No more luxury drafts, like 1983, when the Jets took a quarterback, Ken O'Brien, as a hope for the future. Now it's time for good old need, a cornerback, Russell Carter of SMU. Carter signs a four-year package for $1.2 million, and the floodgates are open. Money is flowing like Hess Oil. Twenty-five veterans' contracts are redone. A new phrase has come into the league—a Gastineau contract. Howie Long wants one, so do Randy White and Too Tall Jones. A Gastineau contract means $3.75 million for five years. The Jets are the NFL's rich boys, and if you can't figure out their new math—pay the big money while holding firm on the smaller contracts—join the group.
That policy isn't the only thing that's weird about this club. The offense sputtered last year. Halfbacks Freeman McNeil and Bruce Harper went down with injuries. The offensive line was banged up. Wesley Walker, the blue-chip receiver, floundered. So who got all the blame? Quarterback Richard Todd. Off he went to New Orleans, leaving the Jets with O'Brien, who didn't take a snap in '83. He has a gun, all right, but in his first exhibition game he was sacked six times. His escape ability seems minimal. Call it a rebuilding year for the Jets.
On the morning of Thursday, March 29, 1984, employees of the Baltimore Colts came to work to find a building stripped bare. They were ushered into an empty conference room where they were told they no longer had jobs. Goodby and good luck. Thus began the glorious saga of the INDIANAPOLIS COLTS.
The news out of Indianapolis? Owner Bob Irsay is given 40 acres of prime real estate and the city will build him a training site. Irsay is sued by an Indianapolis restaurateur over distribution of season tickets. The team had trouble signing its two first-round draft choices, cornerback Leonard Coleman and guard Ron Solt. "I don't expect the people of Indianapolis to pay a player $1 million when he doesn't deserve it," Irsay said.
Meanwhile, coach Frank Kush worries about his secondary. And his offensive line. And his quarterback situation. Mark Herrmann, the man he'd favored to replace Mike Pagel, broke his passing thumb. How will they do? Well, Curtis Dickey should break a few long runs on the artificial turf, and the defense can play it tough at times, if the enemy doesn't get too pass happy. But leadership begins at the very top, and you can give the Colts a zero in that department.
Lacking an experienced passer, the Jets will have to rely on McNeil's wheels this season.
Collins, who rushed for 1,049 yards in '83, is top-ranked in the Patriot army of runners.
They're painting the town blue in the new Colt home, but this year Indy's going no place.