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As for receivers, the Colts had hoped to prosper from the infighting between Tight Ends Tom Mitchell and John Mackey, both of whom were considered good but neither of whom caught a scoring pass last year. Mitchell was the team's leader with 33 receptions and continued to perform well in this summer's exhibition games. Informed that Mitchell would start, Mackey said, "Play me, trade me or I'll retire." Monday he retired. Eddie Hinton is hoping to return to happier days, but the Colts' receiving remains worrisome enough for Kicker Jim O'Brien to devote time to practicing curl patterns as well as field goals.
Most of the lads who compiled those impressive defensive statistics are ready to have at it again, although Bubba Smith, leader of the front four, is now gone. First, Bubba struck out against new General Manager Joe Thomas in an attempt to have his contract renegotiated and spent much of his training-camp time in brooding, seething anger. Then he broke an ankle against Pittsburgh and will miss the entire season. Baltimore's linebacking trio of Ted Hendricks, Mike Curtis and Ray May just may be the best in football and the secondary is similarly solid. "We've got a defense," McCafferty says, "and that's where football begins."
The Jets passed a prerequisite test when Phil Iselin and Weeb Ewbank got Joe Namath's signature on a contract—reputedly for $500,000 over the next two seasons. Since Joe Willie has missed 19 of the team's last 28 games—the knees, you know—that kind of money could be quite a gamble, but if he stays pinned together New York should be a factor in the race. "We've felt for the last three years that we had as good material as anyone," Ewbank says.
Should Namath endure, opposing defenses will discover again that the Jets' offensive line blocks with fanatic zeal for their friable field general. Targets for Namath's passes, however, may be a problem. Ewbank traded away Pete Lammons after switching 6'5" Rich Caster to tight end, which needed more speed and size, but then Caster got injured and missed the last five preseason games. Don Maynard, at 35, is back for his 14th season, but Shea Stadium's biggest cheers may go to Eddie Bell, the smallest Jet ever at 5'10" and 160 pounds. Bell comes with great hands and goes at 4.5 speed, a deep threat if he doesn't run into anyone bigger than Gloria Steinem. One who could make a difference is Jerome Barkum, the club's No. 1 draft choice who reported late but showed great potential in exhibitions.
The Jets' strength includes a running attack led by Emerson Boozer and John Riggins, who combined for 1,387 yards, and a defense that was the AFC's best two seasons ago before it was cut down by 20 different injuries. "If we can stay in one piece," says Larry Grantham, who has been with the team since its Titan days, "we can win it all."
That kind of confidence may soon spread to the Patriots, counting on better things in Jim Plunkett's second season and remembering that, in his first one, they beat every division foe at least once. The AFC Rookie of the Year threw 19 touchdown passes, played every offensive down and should be better for both experiences. The offensive line, however, will have to do more in the way of protection. Plunkett was sacked 36 times, a sorry tendency that continued through early exhibition games. Plunkett can be expected to connect regularly with Randy Vataha, his old Stanford buddy who caught 51 passes in his rookie year, Reggie Rucker, and Tom Reynolds, the Pats' top draftee.
General Manager Upton Bell, who has found numerous football players out of the dregs of the waiver wire, unloaded an oversized Jim Nance on the Eagles. His new running game—with Carl Garrett, Jack Maitland, Bob Gladieux or rookie Josh Ashton—should complement Plunkett.
The Patriot defense, though, was the fourth worst in the AFC and an obvious concern to Coach John Mazur, who also is worried about keeping his job. He will continue to worry.
As for the Buffalo Bills, who brought home one victory for their entire year's work, the word is, "Lou's back," and that may mean considerable improvement. Lou Saban guided the Bills to two championships in the mid-'60s before he went off to a frustrating existence in Denver, and one of the Bills happiest about his return is O. J. Simpson, who may now enjoy the workhorse rushing duty he has been pining for ever since he left USC. Saban also has the nucleus of an explosive passing attack in Quarterback Dennis Shaw, who completed 51% of his passes last season, and in such fine receivers as J. D. Hill, Haven Moses and Jan White.
Buffalo's first draft choice, and No. 1 in the NFL, was Walt Patulski, whom Saban hoped would help plug a porous defense, but the Notre Dame All-America was injured at the College All-Star camp which has slowed his progress. Defensive End Al Cowlings should enjoy a good season, though, and in Corner-back Robert James, Saban has one of the league's finest.