A couple of other factors make protecting Namath all the more a strain. "He has so much nerve. He stays in that pocket," says Caster, "and you know those knees of his are like a light bulb, ready to crack any minute."
And Boozer, a 5'11", 195-pound halfback, who has to devote much of his energies to picking up 230-pound blitzing linebackers, adds: "Joe has a quick release, right, but Joe holds the ball a long time before he finally releases it, so you have a long time to hold your block. A lot of quarterbacks, they throw the ball too soon, but Joe never does. He always waits until the last second—or split second—until the rush is only this far away." Boozer held up his hand six inches in front of his face. "And then he throws. And then he gets hit in the mouth. But he throws without ever thinking about possibly getting hit in the mouth."
Above all, perhaps, Namath's asset as a quarterback is his extraordinary faculty for lifting a team all by himself. Only a very few—John Unitas and Norm Van Brocklin come first to mind—have ever been capable, as Namath, of making a team play up to and sometimes even beyond its potential. "He's so cool, so much in control," Boozer explains. "Sometimes it frightens me. You know, like maybe he should blow up or fall apart. But he doesn't. He does his homework and he comes into the game sure of what we can do and he makes us do it."
Ewbank seldom bothers to send plays in to Namath, but when he does it is understood that Joe has the option to ignore the suggestion. "So often he's setting something up on his own," the coach said, watching Namath work out the day before the Houston game. Throwing, Namath grimaced, but only in disgust because he overthrew Maynard; he says his knees feel better than they have in a long time. He threw the same pass again, and this time it was perfect.
"If he misses a receiver by three or four feet, it's because he's throwing the ball away," a Houston lineman said at the Oiler practice the day before the game. "Most quarterbacks throw it into the stands then, but Joe is an artist even when he's throwing a ball away."
Namath has that kind of debilitating psychological effect on the team against which he is playing, and Houston, off to a discouraging 0-2 start, looked forward to the Jets with no relish at all. Although the Oilers had been peculiarly vulnerable to the run, most of them anticipated faring at least as poorly against the Jets' passing.
"Joe and his receivers work so well together," said one of the Oiler defensive backs, "the receivers never look back. Their passing is so well coordinated that the receiver runs his pattern, finally looks around and there's the ball."
Because of his knees, Namath does offer some hope for defensive lineman. The Jets do not even have any roll-out plays for him in the offense. "I know he thinks he's the best," Pat Holmes, a Houston defensive end, said before the game, "but I don't necessarily go with that because he can't move around as well as some of the others. That means you can get to him now and then, and if we can get in his face some, we'll do all right."
Holmes was dead right. Though the Oilers never dumped Namath before he could throw, they harassed him steadily. Altogether, last week's was hardly a scintillating performance by any part of the Jet offense: Namath, his line or his receivers. Ewbank can dismiss that as an off day, though; his ongoing problem remains the defense.
When Ewbank was coaching the Colts, one of his wide receivers was Jimmy Orr, a Georgian who had an enormous respect for Ewbank's fabled ability to judge players. "You could have 15 guys jump over a Ping-Pong table with Weeb watching," Orr once said, "and when they got through, he could tell you each one's best position and which ones should start."