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Linebacker is one of Houston's strongest points. Left Linebacker George Webster was both Rookie of the Year and All-AFL last season. In the 40-yard dash he runs a 4.7, the same time as Frazier. Middle Linebacker Garland Boyette, 245, is, according to Lemm, "an exceptional athlete who can be one of the great middle linebackers." Olen Underwood, once a starter for the Giants, is on the right side. Linebacking depth includes two former All-Americas, Ron Caveness and Rich Stotter, who was a guard in college, and Pete Barnes. The Oilers set league records last year for fewest points and fewest touchdown passes allowed. "With us it'll be a matter of remembering how we did it last year," says Norton. "You know we made a lot of people mad, winning like we did. They'll be shooting for us. I think we'll be better because our offense will be better. We fought back from a miserable season in 1966. Now we have a new challenge, and we have the personnel to meet it." For a change, there will be some people watching the Oilers at home. After steadily losing money, Owner Bud Adams worked out a deal to play in the Astrodome, and Houston fans responded by buying 30,000 season tickets. That is more than the Oilers sold for all but one of their home games last year.
The Jets, like Houston, have some notable personnel, the most notable of all being, of course, Joe Namath, a quarterback with a wonderful arm, two bad knees and a questionable relationship with his coach, Weeb Ewbank. A public display of the Namath-Ewbank affair occurred in the Astrodome while the Jets were losing an exhibition game to the Oilers. Namath, who had knee surgery again off-season, spent the evening standing on the sidelines with his feet sunk in a carpet of Astro Turf and his ear pressed against a telephone. Rather than a uniform, he was dressed in one of his customary dapper outfits. Earlier he had been observed in intense conversation with Ewbank, who looked as if he were swatting flies. Namath's reason for not putting on his football clothes was that his knees hurt, which sounds reasonable enough since both have now undergone surgery. Ewbank, however, discussed the matter with the team doctor and was not convinced. "He told me Joe's knees are better than they have ever been since he's been with the club," says Ewbank, who has coached the game's best quarterback, John Unitas, and one of the game's best passers, Namath.
The almost total lack of rapport between Ewbank and Namath has been building toward a this-town-ain't-big-enough-for-both-of-us showdown for a couple of years. A year ago Namath seemed certain to win it. Sonny Werblin was the club's president and spokesman and was Namath's ally, naturally enough, since Werblin had been instrumental in signing him to his first $400,000 contract. The rumor was that Ewbank was on his way out and would be replaced by a rather well-known coach who has been living in Wisconsin. But Werblin owned only a small piece of the Jets, and his partners were not pleased by his prominence in print. Once they could solve a complicated stock arrangement, they bought him out. Werblin, though, signed Namath to a new contract before he left. Namath's friend and attorney, Mike Bite, had suggested the star be paid $3,000 for each exhibition game, which is roughly 15 times the going rate. Perhaps the considerable risk to Namath's future as a ballroom dancer makes it worth that much for him to step onto a football field, but all parties involved say no such deal was ever culminated.
Still, Namath did not play in Houston. Some of the Jets were less than delighted by the sight of their leader on the sidelines. Although most of them understood there was little need to risk his wobbly knees in a game that did not count, they would have preferred that he suit up and pretend to be one of them. Even The New York Times was annoyed and expressed an opinion that Namath should be traded for the good of the club. There is hardly a coach in professional football who does not get wet palms at the thought of having a passer of Namath's talents, but there are a number of coaches who would have a hard time deciding whether he would be more of a blessing than a problem.
Despite the recent trade for Quarterback Babe Parilli, the fortune of the Jets still depends on Namath's knees. His left knee was operated on last winter, and both knees are heavily taped with metal braces before each practice. "They're coming along pretty well," says Ewbank with a straight face. "We protect them all we can." The protection includes two cops, one with a megaphone, who try to keep overeager young autograph seekers from red-dogging Namath when he is on public display. More important in the way of protection is the Jets' offensive line, which was designed as a pass protection fence rather than as a mobile unit that can put running guards out ahead of backs on sweeps. For years one of the mainstays of that line was Sherman Plunkett, who would be nobody's picture of agility but is as big as two ordinary men. Getting past him in order to reach Namath was like having to circle the block. But the idea of size went to Plunkett's head, and elsewhere. He reported to camp weighing 336 pounds. That was too much for Ewbank, who eventually put Plunkett on waivers and promoted Sam Walton to the right-tackle position.
Walton, a 275-pound rookie, went to college at East Texas State on a basketball scholarship but changed to football—although he had not played the game in high school—when he discovered only football players could eat at the training table. The other tackle, Winston Hill, played part of last season on a sprained ankle, made no less painful by the fact that he weighs 280 pounds. Hill is a good pass blocker. Behind Walton and Hill is Jim Harris, at 275, who had been a starter on defense for three years. Guards Dave Herman, Randy Rasmussen and the recently acquired Bob Talamini, who was All-AFL six times with Houston, and Center John Schmitt are Namath's other protectors.
The Jets have three fine receivers, all of whom played in last year's AFL All-Star game. George Sauer led the league in catches with 75, while Don Maynard led in yardage with 1,434. Pete Lammons topped all tight ends as a rookie with 41 catches, then caught 45 more last season while Namath, playing with a sore thumb among other injuries, completed 258 passes for 4,007 yards and 26 touchdowns with 28 interceptions.
A passing offense alone will not win championships. Ewbank thought he had acquired a good running game for balance until Fullback Matt Snell tore a knee cartilage in the season opener last year against Buffalo. By the time Snell returned, Halfback Emerson Boozer was out with torn knee ligaments. Snell is a fine runner and a good receiver and is currently healthy. Boozer has recently been released from the Army because of his knee, which still pains him. After spirited negotiations the Jets signed Lee White, a 6'4" fullback from Weber State. White, New York's first draft choice, rushed for 3,062 yards and scored 34 touchdowns in college. "He reminds me of Marion Motley," says Ewbank. " Marion was a kind of skater when he ran, and so is White."
If Namath's knees finally give way, the Jets can turn to Parilli, an aging quarterback who is capable of some very hot days. "When Babe is right, he can destroy you," says Hank Stram of Kansas City. "He'll be muddling along, and all of a sudden he starts hitting and is liable to complete 10 or 12 in a row." To get Parilli from Boston, the Jets swapped Mike Taliaferro, who was tired of playing behind Namath and had asked to be traded. "Parilli knows all the finer points of the game," Namath says. "He has been in every situation possible. He'll help me and the team a lot."