New York led the AFL in pass defense in 1967. "There's been a big change in our defense since I got here two years ago," says Cornerback Johnny Sample. "Then we had great individuals but we were playing as individuals. Now the defense is playing together. We all know what the others are doing, and that makes for a good defense." But the situation is not quite as bright as that may sound. The defensive line could use a bit of help. John Elliott, a second-year man who played linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle in 1967, has settled at right tackle. Backing him up is rookie Ray Hayes, a 12th-round draft choice. Veteran Paul Rochester is a fixture at left tackle, and Ends Gerry Philbin and Verlon Biggs can be very effective. Right Linebacker Larry Grantham weighs only 210, but he is starting his ninth season and has played in five All-Star games. Left Linebacker Ralph Baker is coming off a good year and will be starting for his fifth season. In the middle is Al Atkinson, picked up as a free agent in 1965. Atkinson is tough against the run and tied for the club lead in interceptions with five. Carl McAdams, the fourth linebacker, missed the entire 1966 season because of an ankle broken so badly that it required three operations. At 240 pounds he started the Jets' final game last year at defensive tackle. Left Cornerback Johnny Sample played on two championship teams for Ewbank at Baltimore in 1958-59, moved on to Pittsburgh and Washington, then joined the Jets as a free agent. He is good at individual coverage. The opposite corner is occupied by Randy Beverly, who is similar to the rest of the Jets' secondary in that all were free agents. Bill Baird, who holds the AFL record for longest punt return (93 yards), is battling Cornell Gordon for the free-safety spot. The strong safety is Jim Hudson, who has been somewhat underrated. Hudson is lucky to be back this year. Last spring he was bitten on the leg by a black widow spider, an injury unique in the AFL.
The Buffalo Bills had just turned in a shabby performance in an exhibition game and Coach Joe Collier was furious. "We'll scrimmage Monday," he roared, "and we may scrimmage every day after that." As it turned out, however, Monday was the only day the Bills scrimmaged. During one of the ruggedest drills the Bills have ever had, Quarterback Jackie Kemp dropped back to pass. Just after he released the ball, Defensive End Ron McDole, one of Kemp's best friends, fell and caught the quarterback's right leg under his body. Kemp fell on his back and let out a low moan of pain, then lay silent. Some of the Buffalo players hurried up to see what had happened. What they saw was the end of any chance Buffalo might have had of winning the Eastern Division title. Kemp had torn the ligaments in his knee, an injury that required an immediate operation, putting him on the sidelines for the entire season. In his place will be Kay Stephenson, the second-string San Diego quarterback whom Collier immediately traded for, Tom Flores, Kemp's backup last year, or rookie Dan Darragh, who appeared in control during his limited playing time. Either way, the situation is still critical.
The injury to Kemp was a continuation of the bad luck that dogged Buffalo last year. At one time or another 24 Bills missed at least one game because of injuries. "It was a nightmare," says Guard Billy Shaw, the team leader. "The injuries were like an epidemic, and everyone was either out of the lineup or playing out of position."
This year Kemp's injury was not the first. Right Guard Joe O'Donnell, who teamed with Shaw and Al Bemiller to give the Bills one of the best interior blocking combinations in the AFL, tore knee ligaments in an exhibition game against Miami and may be lost for the season. With Tackle Dick Hudson still hobbling from an operation, Dick Cunningham must stay at tackle. O'Donnell will be replaced by rookie Bob Kalsu or journeyman George Flint. Collier had hoped to use Cunningham at least part of the time at center, where Bemiller had taken a pounding. There is a question whether Stew Barber, the other tackle, has the size to handle the league's larger defensive ends. The offensive line is where the Bills are thinnest, so thin, in fact, that one fan placed a Help Wanted ad: "Offensive linemen, no experience necessary."
Buffalo does have three promising-looking running backs—Max Anderson, Ben Gregory and Gary McDermott. "We had our best draft yet," says Collier. "Those three can help us right away." McDermott is big and strong, with the quickness to run wide and the power to hit off tackle. "He's a beautiful back—great mentally, good blocking ability, good runner and good receiver. He has all the things a good back needs," Collier says. Anderson, only 5'8" and 180 pounds, will be used on kick returns and as a spot ballcarrier. In the exhibition against Miami he gained 112 yards on six carries from scrimmage. With the three rookies, the Bills also have veterans Wray Carlton and Keith Lincoln, both top runners.
The Buffalo offense was in such trouble last season that Flores, who started the season as the No. 1 quarterback, did not throw a touchdown pass. This year the receiving should be much better. Rookie Haven Moses will probably start at flanker ahead of veteran Elbert Dubenion. Split End Art Powell, for years one of the best in the league, has been released by Collier in a rather mystifying move. That leaves rookie Richard Trapp contesting with Bobby Crockett for the position. Crockett was a starter in 1966, sat out last season with a knee injury, but seems to have recovered. Tight End Paul Costa, 246, is an excellent receiver, although he missed much of the early work this year because of an ankle operation. Charley Ferguson has been backing him.
If the offensive line can hold together well enough to get some use from the new backs and receivers, the Bills will be hard to beat. Their defense is still first-rate. "They're as hard to move the ball against as any team in the league," says Hank Stram. "This team," says Ferguson, "is built around a solid defense. It's not by accident. All the good teams—the big winners in pro football in recent years—have had the same outlook."
Collier was the defensive coach but was elevated to the head job after Lou Saban quit. As an assistant, Collier got much of the credit for putting the Bills into championship games. His defensive unit is highly coordinated, relying on containment and pressure, seldom using the blitz or stunting the linemen. The action is keyed around a strong rush by the front four. Left End McDole and Tackle Jim Dunaway are in the all-league class. The other tackle, Tom Sestak, has been slowed by operations on both knees but is still formidable. At right end the fight for the starting job is between Howard Kindig and Dudley Meredith.
Buffalo's linebacking trio of Harry Jacobs, Mike Stratton and John Tracey started 80 games in a row before Jacobs was knocked out last year with a shoulder separation. Now Tracey has retired, but his replacement, Paul Guidry, is young and quick. Stratton, the All-AFL right linebacker, is the enforcer, a brutal tackier. Jacobs, in the middle, is a keen anticipator of plays. Cornerbacks Booker Edgerson and Butch Byrd and Safeties George Saimes and Tommy Janik are all veterans. Byrd has lost 22 pounds, down to 196, in an effort to regain his ALL-AFL rating. Janik and Saimes are very fast at coming up against the run, and Janik intercepted 10 passes last year.