Realignment has changed the American Football Conference's Eastern Division for the better. The addition of the Baltimore Colts will certainly revitalize what in recent years had become a rather monotonous one-man show. The Namath Knee Hour, they called it. Now the club that Broadway Joe humiliated for the old AFL's first Super Bowl victory is right there—and with blood in its eye. What's more, a Colt family feud has also been added at another level: the Baltimore coach during its recent years of greatness, Don Shula, skipped during the winter to the Miami Dolphins and is bringing them rapidly to the verge of championship contention.
Last year the Colts were 8-5-1—compared to 13-1 the year before—but their record is not indicative of their true worth. Baltimore should give rookie Coach Don McCafferty, who for 20 years was the Colts' offensive backfield assistant, at least a division title. With luck, and the continuing good health of Quarterback John Unitas, maybe more.
Consider. Between them Unitas and his No. 2, Earl Morrall, are 73 years old, and age, class, is a factor of frangibility. Indeed, many of the Colts are aging, a fact of which McCafferty—who is 49 himself—is well aware. For example, not long ago, Lou Michaels, 33, the club's placekicker, was brooding about Jim O'Brien, a rookie kicker out of Cincinnati. "I've never had this feeling before," Michaels remarked, "but I get the idea they really want to keep this kid." They did, and put Michaels on waivers, but it helped that O'Brien could also play some wide receiver. Other promising rookies are Ron Gardin of Arizona, who could start at left cornerback; Jim Bailey, a defensive tackle from Kansas; Billy Newsome, a defensive end out of Grambling; and Michigan Safety Tom Curtis.
So deep are the Colts in fine young receivers that venerable figures like John Mackey, 28, Jimmy Orr, 34, and Willie Richardson, 30, showed up after the strike having to fight for their jobs. Richardson didn't make it—Ray Perkins beat him out and Willie was traded to Pittsburgh for Roy Jefferson. Nor did Orr. He was edged out by Eddie Hinton, 23.
In addition the Colts have a versatile offensive line, a young, aggressive line-backing corps, which has been stabilized after a midseason shake-up last year, the best safeties in the division in Rick Volk and Jerry Logan—and better morale than in 1969, when Unitas was overheard telling Shula: "Here, you take the ball and play quarterback."
Four for the Feather
However, the Colts are unsettled at cornerback and lack a running mate for Tom (Garbage Man) Matte, their premier rusher. Norm Bulaich of TCU, Baltimore's No. 1 draft pick, is the likeliest candidate now that his bum leg has come around.
"They'll all be out to get us," mused McCafferty recently. "Over the years we've represented the best in the NFL. All of the old AFL teams will want to do what the Jets did in the Super Bowl. It would be a feather in their caps."
Of course, no one wants that feather more than Joe Willie and the Jetties. Last year's failure can be traced to New York's defense, which broke down due to injuries to key people. This year it is again sound, with the exception of All-Pro End Gerry Philbin, who will miss half a dozen games following shoulder surgery. The secondary has got to be better. Jim Hudson is back full-time at strong safety; W. K. Hicks was obtained from Houston and will go at weak safety while Rookies Steve Tannen and Earlie Thomas, at cornerback, have the speed to stay with the new breed of wide receiver. John Dockery, of Harvard, who played corner last season, seems to have incurred Weeb Ewbank's wrath. "I just hope John doesn't become a silly Ivy League goofball thinker," he growled.
The Don Maynard-George Sauer Jr. pass-catching chorus is still zinging and is reinforced by Mutt and Jeff rookies Richard Caster (6'5") and Eddie Bell (5'9"). Running Backs Emerson Boozer and Matt Snell can still punch out the yardage and are ably backed up by Lee White and George Nock, who has been most impressive. But who stands behind Joe Namath and his arthritic knees? Al Woodall, a second-year man from Duke, of whom, like the Edsel, great things were expected. One plus is the schedule. The Jets have always lost the easy ones; this year they don't have any.