Just as momentum seems to shift in a given football game, a broader current works within teams, divisions and conferences. Along those lines, the AFL's Eastern Conference is now on the upswing. Led by the New York Jets, who are at or near the top of their cycle, the AFL East this year counts two superior teams ( New York and Houston), two others well on the way up from their nadirs (Buffalo and Miami) and a fifth that is just beginning to move after two years of stagnation (yep, Boston).
Though the AFL West is still stronger on balance, the East can—and will—give it a run for the league money. And both conferences—preseason records notwithstanding—are as rough, if not as deep, as their NFL rivals.
Consider the Jets. A fluke, among other things, is a part of the tail of a whale. Don't mention the word around Shea Stadium or you'll end up like Captain Ahab. New York's is a sound, deep team that responds to challenge, this year as last, with the elan of the good, quick winners and the turn-it-on, turn-it-off control that self-confidence breeds. A team of truly big men (the interior of the offensive line averages 261 pounds), the Jets are slow to warm up but have an almost mystical ability to win, often in the nick of time, big games. The players speak unabashedly about a "family" feeling among themselves, and they are as good as their word: perhaps no team in either league is more "together." In fact, Pete Rozelle may have done the Jets a priceless favor with his Bachelors III edict. The thought of no more Namath annealed the Jets more effectively than any victory.
Don't doubt it: the Jets are stronger this year than last. Namath is throwing often and accurately to a splendid array of wide receivers, most notably George Sauer Jr. and Don Maynard. According to Larry Wilson, St. Louis' very tough free safety, no one hits harder than Matt Snell, and only Gale Sayers runs better. Wilson should know. In an exhibition game he planted himself to tackle the rambling Snell. Snell dipped a shoulder and bowled Wilson over, and you can count the times that's happened. Snell's running mate, Emerson Boozer, hasn't been picking up the yardage he did before his knee injury in 1967, but he's doing some staunch, if unheralded, blocking for Snell and White Shoes. The Jets' rushers also include Bill Mathis, who retired briefly before coming back more as a talisman than a threat, and young, 6'4", 240-pound Lee White, nicely healed from knee surgery and plowing just as nicely up the middle.
The offensive line lost the third guard, Bob Talamini (a 1968 inspirational acquisition), but the guard situation is O.K. if Dave Herman isn't needed to supplant Sam Walton at tackle, where Herman started in the Super Bowl. Since Coach Weeb Ewbank would prefer switching Herman back to guard, his first draft choice was Offensive Tackle Dave Foley of Ohio State, but Ewbank will have to go with Walton as Foley suffered torn knee ligaments against Buffalo and will be out for the year.
No More Yuks
Ewbank's biggest problem is at corner-back. Johnny Sample was cut (along with his loud mouth, which spoke both for the players during the Namath Crisis and too often on the playing field) to be replaced by quick-study Cornell Gordon. Randy Beverly, who intercepted two passes in the Super Bowl, has continued to shine in the exhibition season, but after Gordon and Beverly—help! Safety Jim Hudson stands firm. He's the guy who covered Baltimore's John Mackey "like a cheap suit," as one Jet gleefully recalls it. Ewbank may have lowered morale on the specialty teams by letting popular Punter Curley Johnson go, but as Ewbank said, "I can't lead with my heart." Johnson has been replaced by rookie Steve O'Neal of Texas A&M, whose 22 punts in the exhibition season were returned for less than 32 yards. However, another well-regarded kicker, a guy named Jim Turner, is still around. Ewbank made no mistake in letting Kick Returner Earl Christy go in favor of No. 12 draft choice Mike Battle, one tough, flaky, glass-eating kid out of USC. But the linebacking is shaky with Ralph Baker out for a month and Al Atkinson nursing a sprained knee.
Better and Betterer
If the Jets look better this year than last, the Houston Oilers look relatively betterer. Most of the ills that football flesh is heir to beset the Oilers last season, ranging from Quarterback Pete Beathard's appendicitis to Wide Receiver Rich Stebbins' service call-up. This year both are back and vital. Beathard, in his sixth season, has the stuff of a big year in him, as Bobby Layne remarked during a training camp stint. "Pete has the potential," said Layne, who has learned a word or two since leaving Pittsburgh. In case Pete doesn't become actual, Coach Wally Lemm can call on Bob Davis of Virginia, a third-year man, and Don Trull, an on/off Oiler reacquired last year after having been cut by Boston—yes, Boston.
If Beathard survives, he has a bevy of receivers to keep him in business. Stebbins (who ran second to Bob Hayes on his world-record 100-yard-dash day) is complemented by Tight End Alvin Reed (46 catches last year, one short of a league record for the position), second-year men Mac Haik and Jim Beirne and a couple of impressive rookies. SMU's runty (5'10") Jerry Levias and Grambling's Charlie Joiner are both quick and grabby, and Levias has already established himself as the team's premier punt returner. Another valuable rookie is Kicker Roy Gerela, a soccer-style Canadian who also punts. His accuracy is a boon, since the Oilers hit on only 12 of 29 field goals last year. And his specialty is boom! In his last year at New Mexico State only 18 of his 47 kickoffs were returned.