Houston's excellent offensive line is second only to its defense, which finished behind New York by 12 yards last season. All-AFL Linebacker George Webster and End Elvin Bethea are the standouts, along with All-League Cornerback Miller Farr. Though the Oilers were stunned when Cornerback Leroy Mitchell cracked a neck vertebra in camp, a cat named Zeke Moore from Lincoln University is filling the spot adequately.
Buffalo, by contrast, is coming out of two years of decay with the vitality of rampant fungus. Coach Johnny Rauch is taking his first season very seriously. Working with spotty material, he has the Bills in fine early season shape. Most important, he has scrapped the grind-it-out ground game that dates from Cookie Gilchrist's day in favor of a wide-open offense, replete with slots and swings that can set O. J. Simpson, Wide Receiver Haven Moses or even rookie Fullback Bill Enyart man-to-man on linebackers or safeties. O.J., of course, is the most closely watched train on the Buffalo track, but Enyart gives the Bills a head-on game that will free Simpson for end runs and passes. (And don't forget Ben Gregory, the team's leading rusher until he suffered a knee injury in mid-season; Gregory could be back by late October.) Another fine rookie prospect is Jim Harris, a black quarterback from Grambling who can zap the soul out of a receiver with his strong arm. Rauch isn't using Harris as part of any social experiment: he is a legitimate quarterback with a fine head and he started last week against the Jets. Harris' relief is Jack Kemp, who didn't play in 1968, and Tom Flores. Quarterbacking was the Bills' sorest spot last year. Kemp, of course, hurt his knee in a scrimmage a week before the season opener (a weird, punitive measure on the part of ex-Coach Joe Collier), and by November, Buffalo was down to its fifth-string quarterback, Wide Receiver Ed Rutkowski, throwing from a shotgun in a snowstorm.
With all that new talent, Buffalo is still weak on the offensive line and inconsistent in placekicking (Bruce Alford can't hit much beyond 40 yards). The Bills can pressure the passer and stop the sweep most of the time, but their defenders remain highly flammable on the deep patterns.
Despite losing five of six exhibition games, Miami should have a year in keeping with its three-year performance as an expansion team (12-29-1, best anywhere since football began growing). Quarterback Bob Griese seems about ready to live down Johnny Unitas' jinx; Unitas once called him "the best young quarterback in the game." Griese has the arm plus steady runners in Jim (Quick) Kiick and Larry (Zonker) Csonka. Unfortunately, Csonka has been zonked too often and is out for a month to let his head stop ringing, and Griese doesn't have an offensive line (two regulars are sidelined until October with ruptured knee ligaments), so he has been obliged to concentrate on throwing to his running backs.
The word on Miami's cornerbacks ("Pass on Westmoreland and run at Warren") is widespread but remediable, if Coach George Wilson can find the combination. There is a lot of depth in the defensive line, which, if properly applied in a strong pass rush, could relieve some of the pressure on the secondary. Safeties Dick Anderson and Bob Petrella are tough enough, and Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti, picked up from Boston, is an old shrewdie. The main thing about the Dolphins is a new sense of unity. After a brawl erupted in an exhibition game with Chicago, both benches emptied in a hurry. The Dolphins proudly point out that their bench emptied first.
And that leaves Boston. "We're not a good team," says the Patriots' new coach, Clive (pronounced Cleeve) Rush, formerly the offensive backfield coach of the Jets and a man given to blunt phrases. He adds: "Seven wins in two seasons is not a good record."
It won't be much better this year. Fullback Jim Nance, Defensive End Larry Eisenhauer, Tight End Jim Whalen and Defensive Tackle Houston Antwine are the only standouts, and the first two are recovering from injuries. But a new strength is aborning, if only the strength of transition. Quarterback Mike Taliaferro seems to have blossomed under Rush and the Jets' system, and, as one veteran says of Rush, "After seeing this man operate, we feel like we've been cheated all these years." The only reason the player wouldn't permit his name to be used is because Rush has forbidden any rap against the former regime. That's a good way to begin.