As Joe Namath prepares to leave, so Bert Jones (see Key Player) arrives. In Baltimore they are already comparing Jones, the snuff-dipper from the bayous, to the legendary Johnny U. At 6'3" and 215 pounds, Jones is bigger and stronger than Unitas. He also likes to run the ball (47 carries for 321 yards in 1975), which Unitas never did. And his passes travel with Jim Palmer velocity and accuracy, whereas Unitas was more of an early-day Randy Jones.
Miami's Bob Griese lacks Jones' outgoing personality, and he does not dip snuff, but he is healthy again after missing the last four 1975 games with torn tendons in his right foot, and a healthy Griese has long established himself as a winning quarterback. What Buffalo would like to start is someone named Joe Marangi—or Gary Ferguson. Joe Ferguson throws better than Gary Marangi, but Marangi is a more charismatic leader, a better improviser and a stronger scrambler. Without O.J. to give the ball to, though, quarterbacking in Buffalo will be a thankless job. Jim Plunkett has left New England, and Steve Grogan will try to replace him. Plunkett bristled when Coach Chuck Fairbanks sent in plays, but Grogan has no such objections. "I think I've called the plays in only one game in my life," he says.
The only thing certain in New York is that an Alabama quarterback will operate the Jets: Joe Namath or Richard Todd (see Newcomer), take your pick. Namath was the worst $400,000 quarterback in pro football in 1975; he threw an NFL-high 28 interceptions and completed less than 50% of his passes. Namath's major task may be to supervise the transition of power from J. W. Namath to Richard Todd.
Buffalo had the best attack in the NFL last year but it has packed up and left town. O. J. Simpson took his 1,817 yards and rushed to Hollywood, free-agent Wide Receiver Ahmad Rashad signed with Seattle, and Wide Receiver J.D. Hill was traded to Detroit. In all, the Bills lost 2,900 yards of their offense—more than 50%—and without Simpson, in particular, the holdovers will not be so productive. Coach Lou Saban will work Roland Hooks and rookie Darnell Powell in Simpson's old position. The departure of Rashad and Hill leaves Bob Chandler as the only dependable receiver, but Chandler is not a deep threat. Without O.J., the Bills will be more deliberate on offense. Still, Fullback Jim Braxton (823 yards up the middle) works behind a solid line, featuring Guards Reggie McKenzie and Joe DeLamielleure, although McKenzie may lose interest without his sidekick O.J.
Miami, which missed the playoffs in 1975 for the first time in six years, is so deep in running backs that just one year after losing Butch and Sundance, Coach Don Shula traded the second leading rusher in Dolphin history, Mercury Morris (875 yards last year), to San Diego. Bulldog Don Nottingham and a healthy-for-a-change Norm Bulaich combined to produce 1,027 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns from Larry Csonka's old position. High-stepper Benny Malone replaces Morris; however, he has a history of being sidelined by pulled muscles. Placekicker Garo Yepremian returns, but Shula was not happy with his three missed field goals in the two critical Baltimore defeats.
Baltimore still lacks an established heavy-duty, Csonka-style inside man to complement Lydell Mitchell. Although at 5'11" and 190 pounds Mitchell hardly seems big enough to invade the middle, he slugged through the trenches for 1,193 yards in 1975, caught 60 passes for 544 yards and scored 15 touchdowns.
Sam (Bam) Cunningham has a three-year, $600,000 contract in his pocket, and New England will make him earn it. Healthy again after breaking his right leg in 1974 and suffering a series of nagging injuries in 1975, Cunningham may get the ball 30 times a game as Grogan tries to find his way around the league. Three regulars were seriously injured last week; Receivers Randy Vataha and Steve Burks are lost for at least part of the season, and Guard Steve Corbett for all of it. One mistake the Patriots must eliminate is their critical turnovers: last season they had 50, and threw a staggering 17 interceptions inside their own 20.
John Riggins (1,005 yards) left New York in a huff, claiming the Jets did not give him the Namath-style treatment or salary, and Carl Garrett (566 yards), a regular no-show at practices, was sent to Oakland, but the Jets have added free agent Ed Marinaro from Minnesota. There's always next year for new Coach Lou Holtz.