It had begun by looking like a repeat of the astonishing, legendary Super Bowl year of four seasons ago. Joe Namath (see cover) and the New York Jets appeared to be back in their glory, ready again to stand the world on its ear. When New York opened on the road with riotous, high-scoring wins over Buffalo and Baltimore, only the most discourteous observers were so impolite as to suggest that the Jets were getting by with only half a team.
The better half was the Jet offensive, Namath at the controls, and it was explosive enough to carry an understaffed, uncoordinated defense—at least until the Jets faced winless Houston. There in the Astrodome, Namath was progressively stymied by an Oiler defense that swarmed around his butterfingered receivers like bird-sized Texas mosquitoes on a humid night. The final was 26-20, an upset which meant that there was only one NFL team left unbeaten after just three weeks of play. That was of problematic consolation to the Jets, however, since the unbeaten team just happened to be Miami, which New York faces this week in its home opener.
Really, though, the Jets are not so bad as they appeared against Houston. Minor injuries have worn away at a club that is surprisingly thin, so that when they cost Namath his first-string running backs and Ed Bell, the tiny wide receiver who has been one of his best targets, he was not left with enough tools to cope with an unexpectedly keyed-up young Houston team.
Anyway, what beat New York, even more than its manifold failings on defense, was Dan Pastorini, the second-year quarterback from Santa Clara, who outpassed Namath for the day—and out-kneed him as well. Pastorini was carried off late in the first half, showing excruciating pain from a hyperextended left knee, but he came back early in the second half and wound up completing 14 of 26 passes—with one touchdown and no interceptions. Namath was 18 for 38—with two touchdowns and two interceptions at crucial moments. Also, in contrast with Namath, Pastorini demonstrated that he could break out of the pocket and run with the ball.
When Weeb Ewbank, the New York coach, begins setting up for the Miami game, he must start restructuring the Jet defense. The secondary, afflicted by injuries, has not played together long enough to react instinctively. That can come only with time, but against Houston the Jet deep men were too often shifting uncertainly as Pastorini sought out his receivers. Of course, they got no great help from their defensive line, especially after Tackle John Elliott left the game with a pulled hamstring.
To be fair, the Jet scoring apparatus was short of some vital cogs in Houston; when Namath has all his people together, New York is a solid contender against Miami and Baltimore in the AFC East. Against the Oilers, though, he could not make use of a hobbled Emerson Boozer, and John Riggins, the big running back from Kansas who leads the conference in rushing, was also put out for a while. So without a sound rushing threat, the fold-back, seven-man Houston zone could concentrate more on shutting off Namath's passing game.
"We've been looking at pictures of him," said Bill Peterson, the new coach of the Oilers, a couple of days before the game. He got out of his chair to demonstrate. Peterson is a short, thick-chested man who looks not at all like Namath, but his act was convincing.
"He's got this," he said, snapping his arm down and across his body quickly, looking like a chunky baseball pitcher. "Gets rid of the ball so fast you can't rush him. And follows through all the way, like any quarterback who ever played for Bear Bryant."
Eddie Bell sees Joe Willie's white shoes from another angle. As a small target, he needs an accurate gunner. "He throws a quick ball but a soft ball," Bell says. "It doesn't knock you down. The players play for him because they have so much confidence in him. Even after they beat Los Angeles and Minnesota two years ago with Al Woodall they didn't have the confidence in him that they do in Joe. It shouldn't be that way. President Kennedy was a great man. I cried when he died. But they replaced him in two minutes. That's how important most people are. Joe gives the team confidence, but the team gave Al confidence. When Joe came back last year against San Francisco to bring us within three points, it was like the coming of the Messiah."
At first glance, Namath appears more subdued these days. It has been some time now since he was involved in any sort of first-rate controversy, and he often disappears altogether from the public view. Even when he speaks out now, the brashness of old appears to have given way to humility and homily. But, for the players, it's still the same old messiah.