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One of the keys to the New York offense is Fullback Matt Snell. At 220 pounds, Snell is a complete fullback with power inside and the speed to run the sweeps. He has led the Jets in rushing for three years. Running at halfback is Emerson Boozer, a second-year man who had some exciting afternoons as a rookie. Boozer is the fast, darting type who needs to improve his blocking on runs and pass protection.
The Jets have a good group of receivers. The two best are Split End George Sauer and Tight End Pete Lammons, who were teammates on the University of Texas team that beat Namath and Alabama in the 1965 Orange Bowl. Lammons has been an especially pleasant surprise for Jet Coach Weeb Ewbank. As a rookie he caught 41 passes for 565 yards, most of any tight end in the AFL. The other wide receiver, Don Maynard from Texas Western, has better moves and speed than hands.
To protect Namath, Ewbank put together an offensive line that is larger than some of the defensive lines it faces. Tackles Sherman Plunkett and Winston Hill, for example, weigh 300 and 275. With Namath unable to maneuver, the idea is to build a fence of flesh around him and hope the blitzers bounce off. "We have given up the notion of blitzing the Jets," says one AFL coach. "Those guys are so big you've got to run around them, and by the time you get there the ball is gone." The Jets, though, were blitzed thoroughly by the Eagles and it could be that they will see the blitz more often during the next few months. One solid blow on Namath's knee would make the Jets less than a third-place club.
The defensive line, despite the presence of two potentially superb ends, Verlon Biggs and Gerry Philbin, has never been one of New York's areas of strength. To complicate the situation, Biggs reported to camp vastly overweight and has been moving like a fat man. The linebacking has improved. The secondary is good enough. The corners are Cornell Gordon, who was bothered by a shoulder injury last season, and Johnny Sample, the hot-natured NFL veteran who has few peers at man-to-man coverage. He has shut out some of the best receivers in both leagues on days when he felt personally affronted.
The kicking game is good. So, persist the rumors, is the Jets' oral kicking in their locker room. Several important squad members do not entirely agree with Ewbank's method, and Owner Sonny Werblin is a constant offerer of advice through the daily newspapers. Ewbank has had three 5-8-1 years at New York and last season was 6-6-2. There seems to be little chance of beating that record in 1967, and that could put Ewbank into more of a jam than his contract can cope with.
The team that should come on in the last half of the season to compete with the Jets for third place is Houston, which had one of the better drafts in either league last winter. The Oilers are in the midst of a general rebuilding program. General Manager Don Klosterman and Coach Wally Lemm inherited a club that had gone stagnant after winning championships in the AFL's formative years. Early last season it appeared Houston's defense would be tremendously improved by the presence of Tackle Ernie Ladd, and there were hopes that the new regime could promptly cure the clique-ridden Oilers of their family bickering.
But that was not to be. The Oilers won their first two games by big scores and then folded up like a card table. The defense was awful. The feuds kept up. By midseason there were rumors of unsporting activities on the part of the Oilers, and a few of the larger bookies refused to accept bets on any Oiler game. Nothing was ever proved. The rumors, which have not yet died, had an effect on the team.
Lemm had little control. Some of the players were clock watchers, showing up for practice and going through their duties perfunctorily. When workouts were over, the players vanished into Houston's urban sprawl. There was no unity. "There are good players on this club," Lemm said while the Oilers were sliding to a 3-11 record. "But to improve we've got to change the attitude and develop a singleness of purpose."
The Oilers gave up 35 touchdowns passing in 1966, which pointed out very clearly that they needed an overhaul of the secondary and the pass rush. The offensive line needed depth. Quarterback George Blanda, a clique leader, was put on waivers when the season ended. Let go, too, was Flanker Charlie Hennigan, once envied by other receivers as having the finest moves in the league. In the draft Houston went first for George Webster, the big linebacker from Michigan State, who replaces Outside Linebacker Johnny Baker, traded to San Diego. Notre Dame's Tom Regner and Nebraska's huge Carel Stith were drafted to help the offensive line. Four fast rookie backs were drafted for the secondary. They and Miller Farr, who came in a trade from San Diego, will make Houston's pass defense much tighter, although it will be near the end of the season before the improvement will be noticeable.
In an effort to create unity, the Oilers moved their training camp away from an expensive triangle of real estate in Houston, with a view of both the Astrodome, where the Oilers would like to play, and Rice Stadium, where they do play. The new camp was at a small junior college named The Schreiner Institute in Kerrville, Texas, deep in the Hill Country, a short drive from the L.B.J. Ranch. Lemm installed an 11 p.m. curfew and a 75-mile travel restriction. Unable to go to Houston, and with San Antonio and Austin also out of bounds, the players stayed around camp and, they say, began to develop the attitude Lemm wants. They contend their wild fight in Rice Stadium with the Kansas City Chiefs last month was evidence of team closeness. Defensive Tackle Willie Parker, who started the ruckus, got a standing ovation from the home crowd, first for an Oiler in recent memory.