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"Last year," says Defensive End Gerry Philbin, "there was an undercurrent of resentment—nothing you could pinpoint, but it was there—about Joe's money and his publicity. That was at first. It disappeared when everybody found out what a great guy he is."
Curley Johnson, the punter, says, "Mainly we wanted to see how good he was. He really didn't throw the ball that damn well for a long time. Now, we know how good he is—the best."
Says the ace receiver, Don Maynard, "At first he'd knock us over on short patterns. Now he's slacked off. His timing is great, and he adjusts to situations like a veteran." To this, George Sauer Jr., another top Jet receiver, adds, "He never knew how to throw on the break last season. The ball was always early or late. Now it's there."
Not according to Joe Willie, though. "I haven't thrown well since Alabama," he says. "Maybe it's my leg. I don't know. If I knew, I'd throw better. You hear a lot about getting the ball up here by your ear, but that's junk. It doesn't matter how you deliver as long as the ball goes where you aim it and gets there when it's supposed to. I don't know how I throw the ball, and I don't remember anybody ever teaching me to throw it. But there's a lot I have found out."
For one thing, Joe says, the quarterback who has to call a pile of audibles (changing plays at the line of scrimmage) is a dumb one. "You're supposed to know what the defense will be when you're in the huddle. I'll only call five or six audibles a game now. Last year it was more. That's funny, too, because the public thinks it's a big deal if a quarterback can switch plays a lot at the scrimmage line. They think it makes him brainy. Man, most of the time it means he's stupid."
A simple thing it took Joe all last season to learn was that backs key on the mannerisms of a quarterback and cover their areas accordingly.
"For example," he says, "about 80% of the time when the quarterback takes the snap, turns and races back to set up with his back to the defense, he'll throw to the right. That's because it's easier, more natural, to plant your feet when you start that way. On the other hand, it's easier to throw left when you drop straight back, without turning around. There are defensive backs who'll play you for this and, of course, you have to cross 'em up."
Among the defenders that have Namath's highest respect are Oakland's speedy Dave Grayson and Miami's Jim Warren, who was with San Diego a year ago. "All you can say about 'em is they play you tight and cover you. To beat 'em, you have to run what we call progressive patterns, you know, something that goes out, slant, down and in. The whole game is trying to get the defensive man's feet turned wrong."
Strangely enough, Joe finds that the ball has a tendency to turn wrong on his home turf of Shea Stadium. "It's my unfavorite place to play," says he. "Somehow, the wind swirls in there, and I don't like what it does to the balls I throw. It could be some kind of fixation, I don't know, Like I have about throwing a night football. It's different, man, I swear. The coaches and the sporting-goods salesmen say it's the same ball, but it isn't. It goes different. So does the ball in Shea."
It certainly went differently in Namath's first home game of 1966. He passed for five touchdowns as the Jets humiliated the Houston Oilers 52-13. Joe's hottest streak of all so far came in the fourth quarter of a game at Boston, where he had to hit 14 of 23 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns so the Jets could salvage a 24-24 tie. This sent the Jets into pure ecstasy. "He brought us back from a bad day in a real clutch situation," said Ewbank. And Publicity Man Frank Ramos, with his usual sharp eye on statistics, pointed out, "The papers are raving about Terry Hanratty at Notre Dame, but do you realize Joe hit as many passes in one quarter as Hanratty hit against Northwestern all day long? I think that's interesting."