The rookies who are expected to help the Bills are Tackles Dick Cunningham and Gary Bugenhagen of Syracuse, Guard Jim Lemoine of Utah State and Flanker John Pitts of Arizona State. Lemoine is trying to make the switch from tight end and Pitts, with some difficulty, from defensive back. Cunningham is the most polished of the rookies and has excellent balance. He has, of course, been getting a cram course in pass blocking techniques.
Buffalo's kicking should be tops in the East, with Paul Maguire to do the punting and Mercer, who apparently has recovered completely from a pulled muscle, as the field-goal kicker. Mercer scored 98 points kicking last season for the champion Chiefs.
Although the Bills ought to run off with the Eastern championship, they got quite an argument about it last year from the Boston Patriots, who were in the race until the final weeks. If the Bills are to have trouble with anyone this season, it again will be with Boston.
Boston Coach Mike Holovak is noted for getting good results from ordinary material and outstanding results from his above-average players. His primary offensive weapons are the running of Fullback Jim Nance, the passing of Quarterback Babe Parilli and the kicking of Gino Cappelletti. Nance set an AFL rushing record in 1966 and intends to repeat. "I want to weigh 230 by the opening day this year because I plan to go outside a lot more," says Nance. "Once a man starts thinking jinx, he starts believing it. So I'm thinking I'm going to have another good year, and that's all there is to it."
Nance will have to do well again to pull Boston into another second-place finish, as will Parilli. For the last two years observers have been predicting that the 37-year-old Parilli would succumb to age, and he has in fact showed signs of it. But the Pats have no adequate backup quarterback unless John Huarte should suddenly blossom. Holovak admits he would like to trade for another quarterback, but adds hastily that this has nothing to do with charges that Parilli visited a gamblers' hangout. He and the club have complete faith in Parilli's honesty.
The pass receivers lack speed, except for Art Graham. Boston also is weak at running back, where Holovak has been experimenting with former Navy All-America Joe Bellino. The trouble with Bellino is he is too small to block for Nance on sweeps. But Boston's offensive line is second only to Buffalo's in the East. If it can keep opening spaces for Nance to run 20 to 30 times per game and if it can keep Parilli intact, the Patriots will score.
Linebacker Nick Buoniconti, who has been ailing, Larry Eisenhauer and Bob Dee and Tackle Houston Antwine are the core of a good defense that is built around the blitz. The problem will be in the secondary. Boston's No. 1 draft choice was Purdue's John Charles, who did well in exhibition games but is a rookie nevertheless. So is Leroy Mitchell, who could become a defensive starter.
Defense is Holovak's specialty, but he was disenchanted with his own after the Patriots were beaten by Baltimore in an exhibition. "We're still behind the NFL in this one respect," he said. "It will be a while before we catch up."
Holovak, though, scarcely ever wins an exhibition. The Pats start playing when the season begins. They lost their first exhibition this year 55-13 to New York and prompted Jet fans to talk about this being New York's big year. But Jet followers usually carry on this way early in the season and get steadily quieter as January approaches. This year most likely will be no exception. After that first Boston game, the Jets were soundly beaten by Kansas City and Philadelphia. Worse yet, they played very poorly in both games. The presence or absence of their one-and-a-half-legged quarterback, Joe Namath, didn't seem to make much difference.
Namath is starting his third season as a professional and has yet to become the superstar that he was expected to be and might have been were it not for a crippling knee injury. With his weak knee, Namath has a hard time setting up solidly to pass from the pocket, and of course it is out of the question for him to scramble. He does release the ball very quickly, and he does have a superstar's arm. Last year he threw for 3,379 yards and hit 19 touchdown passes. But he also led the league in interceptions with 27, twice throwing five interceptions in a single game. In one other game, however, he threw for five touchdowns and three times he passed for more than 300 yards. For the Jets to finish higher than third, Namath must be much more consistent. His replacement, Mike Taliaferro, is injured and possibly out for the year. Jim Turner is filling in until help comes.