Assuming Joe Namath's right knee is strong enough for him to play a season of professional football but not strong enough for him to do close-order drill in an Army uniform, the celebrated $400,000 rookie will take immediate command of the Jets from his two rivals—second-year man Mike Taliaferro and $200,000 rookie John Huarte. The Jets could, in fact, wind up with both Namath and Huarte playing ahead of Taliaferro, and that is one sign that the Jets are going nowhere this year. Despite the undeniable skills of the costly rivals, they still are rookies. Having two rookie quarterbacks means fine things for the future, but not for the present. Namath saw no defenses while at Alabama to compare with the sets he will see as a pro. It will require a considerable education for him to begin to be as effective as he was in college. Namath will have a few spectacular Sundays, but he will naturally have others when he is merely another rookie. Huarte's virtues are his poise and leadership and his ability to get into position and release the ball quickly. He throws in a sidearming style that would never be photographed for a how-to manual, and he is not good at throwing deep, but his short passes come from a flicking arm with exceptional accuracy and speed. However, Huarte played only one season of college football. He is good at the mechanics—the faking and handing off—but he needs work on play-calling. Taliaferro is a windup thrower who lacks the rookies' quick action.
Namath's knee is, of course, the center of concern for the Jets and for his draft board. After an off-season operation, he was dragging his right leg when he reported to camp. The knee is heavily taped and swells after a scrimmage, which is the usual reaction. The knee must be worked into shape. Namath wears no cleats on the heels of his shoes and wears short rounded ones on the soles to prevent a leg being twisted while the cleats are stuck in the ground. The knee pains him, but no more than it would after a game of tag, according to his doctors. The knee is likely to have a psychological effect on the Jets, who must concentrate on protecting it. And the knee is a gamble.
Another thing that complicates the situation of the rookie quarterbacks is the limited play selection resulting from the Jets' weakness at the running game. Matt Snell, the fullback, was the AFL Rookie of the Year last season and justly so. Snell is best at slants and at going outside rather than on straightaway power. He hits the holes fast and runs with the speed of a halfback. He is a strong pass blocker with an instinct for contact and is a good receiver who caught 56 passes last year. But the Jets need another back to go with Snell. Bill Mathis is a fullback playing halfback. Mathis does well as a pass blocker, but he does not have the speed to run wide. Rookie Bob Schweickert may develop. Schweickert was a quarterback in college and must learn to take the ball instead of handing it off. At 187, he may be too small for the pounding a running back takes. The Jets were impressed enough by Princeton's All-America back, Cosmo Iacavazzi, to give him a lengthy tryout, but finally gave up on him as not quite big enough to be a regular.
As deep receivers, the Jets have two of the league's best in Bake Turner and Don Maynard. Rookie George Sauer Jr. of Texas backs up Turner at split end and has the potential to be a standout. Jim Evans is the replacement for Maynard at flanker. Maynard or Turner could be traded to bring help at one of the Jets' weaker spots, such as at tight end. Gene Heeter is a fair blocker but not a good receiver, and the other tight end, Dee Mackey, catches well but can't block.
The Jets' offensive line does one thing very well—pass-block. Coach Weeb Ewbank stressed that phase of the game originally to protect Quarterback Dick Wood, who is tall, thin and practically immobile. There were entire games when Wood was not touched by an unfriendly hand. Wood is gone to Oakland now, but the same protection will be handy for Namath and his knee. The offensive line may not change in personnel unless John Schmitt, a second-year man, beats out Mike Hudock at center. Guard Sam DeLuca is good enough that the Chargers kept trying to lure him back to the West Coast after he left them. DeLuca can pull as well as pass-block. The other guard, Dan Ficca, is slow at leading plays but is a strong pass protector. Tackle Sherman Plunkett, 300 pounds, is a massive source of protection for a quarterback. "Getting around Plunkett is like taking a trip around the world," says San Diego's Sid Gillman. The other tackle will be 275-pound Winston Hill or 245-pound Pete Perreault.
The Jets will have to demonstrate much improvement on defense. The best possibilities are at the ends, but lack of experience will hurt there. Rookie Verlon Biggs, who has the qualities to become a star, is almost certain to start on the right side ahead of veteran LaVerne Torczon. Gerry Philbin will be at left end and is an excellent prospect, but Philbin missed eight games last season because of a shoulder separation and so is almost a rookie. The tackles—Paul Rochester and Gordy Holz—are average. Jim Harris, a rookie from Utah State, is pushing Holz. The Jets are thin at linebacking. Wahoo McDaniel, a favorite of crowds at Shea Stadium, is back in the middle and has trimmed down to 228 pounds. Rookie Skip Hoovler does not have the necessary speed or lateral movement, which means opponents' passers will pick on the Jets over the middle again. The fast and tough Larry Grantham handles the right side well. Second-year man Ralph Baker is on the left. One injury could seriously cripple the Jets' linebacking capability. Another major worry is at cornerback, where both leading contenders are recovering from severe injuries. Clyde Washington, on the right, had a severed Achilles tendon, an injury that has ended many football careers, but he appears to be responding satisfactorily. Rookie Cornell Gordon of North Carolina A&T is the alternate. Strong-side Corner Back Marshall Starks broke a leg last year; he has been dropped from the team and replaced by Willie West. Dainard Paulson, a five-year veteran, is at left safety and Billy Baird at the right. Rookie Jim Hudson from Texas is a good prospect as a swing safety. Defensively the Jets are not in the same category as Buffalo or Boston and are no better than Houston. With the lack of a versatile running game, the presence of two rookie quarterbacks, the absence of a quality short receiver and a dubious defense, the Jets will be last in the East. They are building, but they are far from being home yet.