In the past the Jets have been nearly synonymous with Namath. Now, for the first time, it is becoming evident that they are a band of individuals, many of them superb ballplayers in their own right. Running Backs Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer are among the leading rushers in the league—on a team that is primarily renowned for its passing. The two seem handcrafted to their roles: Snell, powerful, fast-talking, confident, with the strong features of a Polynesian, is the classic fullback figure; Boozer, quiet, soft-spoken, with veiled eyes and subtle insights, is the archetypal broken-field runner. Both men have gone through the supreme test of knee surgery and both have emerged sound—in body as well as mind. And both talk convincingly of what it means to be a Jet.
"What it's all about, man, is being the complete ballplayer," says Snell, punctuating his words with Rooseveltian thrusts of the jaw. Boozer chimes in: "For me, that's blocking, catching the ball and running, in about that order. A good block is as satisfying to me as an 80- or 90-yard run. I mean, guys will compliment you today and tomorrow and next week if you keep the enemy away from Joe's knees." Where most blocking backs would cut down a blitzing linebacker at the knees, the Jet blockers take them close and high, to prevent the rusher from falling on Namath. As Boozer explains, "The only good excuse for letting a guy hit Joe is if he walks right up the front of you—clop, clop, clop, like a mountain climber—and then jumps off your hat and lands on Joe."
The Jets are motivated like no other team in football—and what motivates them is protectiveness. "The mother-hen complex," Kicker Jim Turner calls it. The Jets may practice like a band of mildly insane roughnecks, but when they play the game they play it with a maturity born of concentration. On Namath. Joe Willie turned them into winners and brought them lots of money.
The Jets are urged to do anything and everything to keep him healthy—and they are only too delighted to do so. Winston Hill, the 280-pound offensive tackle, equates Namath with his wife: "I love my wife and I protect her with my life from attackers. That's the way I'm protecting Joe, because then I'm protecting my money." In the second Boston game Namath sparked a fourth-quarter resurgence that led to a 23-17 win by running 16 yards. With his fragile knees—the right is held together by a tendon transplant, he has bursitis in the left—Joe shouldn't have to run. But when he does he fires up the team. Mike Battle, who was standing on the sidelines when Namath took off, recalls his emotions. "I wanted to go in there and throw a block for Joe," he says, "do anything to keep him from getting hit." And Battle is capable of almost anything. In his wilder moments he will eat a beer glass on a bet ("If you don't swallow the larger pieces, you're all right"), or push his head through a plaster wall to show his machismo. Battle's nickname is Razor, because he has sharp edges.
It is revealing, in fact just a bit poignant, that Namath has taken Battle under his wing. Mike's father suffered a heart attack last week, and the rookie was eager to get back to his Manhattan apartment to make a private phone call to find out how his dad was doing. Broadway, who isn't really the unreflective swinger many make him out to be, packed Battle into an E-type Jag and zipped him to phoneside. It brings to mind the somewhat misleading graffiti on the Jets' locker room door: "Donna loves Joe," "Monica loves Joe," " Joe Willie and Bernadette," "Joe is Love," "I love Joe. [signed] Joe." That's not how it is, sports fans.
The weirdest thing about the Jets lies buried in the player-coach relationship. The Mets may talk with awe of their "Mr. Hodges," whose cool, underplayed gestures can reverse even an umpire's decision, and over a matter as minor as shoe polish. But the Jets—forget about it. To them it's always "Weeb," never "Coach." Many Jet followers Still refer to the man as Eub Weebank. (Think about it and then try to say it straight.) Yet the short, kindly, indeed cuddly little coach has worked a personal miracle with the Jets. "I built something out of nothing," he says. "It's a bit like building a house." In his home in Bronxville, Ewbank mounts his trophies conspicuously. There are many of them, but none is closer to his heart than a game ball from the Super Bowl.
"If I had to isolate my greatest satisfaction as a coach," he muses, "it would have to be this: I gave the American Football League a Super Bowl winner for the first time, and it was over Baltimore." (The Colts fired Ewbank although he had led them to NFL championships in 1958 and 1959.) Then his friendly blue eyes flicker a bit behind his glasses, his hesitant but predominantly smiling little mouth curls into a moue, and the past comes rushing up. Earlier this year many Jet fans (and a few Jets) squawked when Ewbank cut some of his older players, men like Cornerback Johnny Sample and Curley Johnson. "You hate to do it but you can't lead from the heart," says Ewbank. He flashes back in time to Baltimore. "I hated to cut Artie Donovan and it was tough to tell Buddy Young he'd have to go. Perhaps I waited too long. The Lions when they were on top, the good Giant teams, even the Browns—all of them waited too long to cut the deadwood. That word may sound cruel—deadwood—but pruning is the kindest thing you can do to any growing thing."
And the Jets, believe it, are a growing thing. Both Ewbank and Namath are innovative thinkers on offense, and each week sees a couple of new wrinkles. The Jets are still primarily a passing team, but the key to defusing Namath's long bomb is already well known. As Clive Rush, the former Jet offensive coach who now heads the Patriots, has demonstrated, all you have to do to stop it is double-team Sauer and Maynard. But when you do that you're vulnerable to the run. It's significant that last year Sauer and Maynard were among the league leaders week after week in receiving, while Snell and Boozer hovered way down the list on rushing. Now they are third and fourth respectively, while Sauer and Maynard are no longer on top. As for Joe Willie, he seems to have learned a lesson about leadership. Though he still would prefer to go for the dynamite score, he realizes he has some equally effective weapons in his running backs, a line of thought which developed after the Super Bowl win, in which Snell's running played such a vital part.
"Hell, there's no play that's perfect," argues Ewbank. "Joe and I have this understanding about play-calling. Hindsight is always 20-20. I remember once when he came in from failing to convert a third down and said, 'I should have called the draw.' I told him, I said, 'Hindsight is always 20-20.' A few games later he came back in from failing to convert and I suggested that he should have tried a sneak. He looked at me kind of guileless and said, 'Gee, coach, hindsight is always 20-20.' As I said, we have this understanding."
The Jets' weakness is defense, particularly in the secondary. As Safety Bill Baird puts it: "When we went into the Super Bowl we had a total of 23 years experience in the defensive backfield. The other day I totted it up and we had only 13." Injuries have taken their toll, and Ewbank harps on it in practice. "Let's not hurt each other, boys." he pleads. But the Jets are hurting. Among others, Linebacker Ralph Baker went out in preseason with a bad knee; Defensive End Verlon Biggs was hurt as were Cornerbacks Randy Beverly and Cornell Gordon; Jim Hudson went out with an injured left knee, only to return and then be lost for the season with a ripped-up right knee. "You lose Hudson, it's like losing half the franchise," says one Jet. "He was the team pusher and the best strong safety in football."