He may be, but he will have to earn his way into the starting lineup. Ram Coach Chuck Knox will alternate Namath and Haden throughout the preseason games and not decide upon his starter until the week of the regular-season opener with Atlanta Sept. 18. Whoever finishes ahead will remain in office until injury or abject failure dislodges him, for Knox has no wish to perpetuate the Rams' sorry history of quarterback rivalry that began a generation ago with Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin and reached a nadir last season when Haden, James Harris and Ron Jaworski scrambled for the top spot.
Haden eventually won the competition and he is still officially first string, but he got there only after Knox and L.A. owner Carroll Rosenbloom were vilified as racists. Harris, one of the few black quarterbacks in the professional game, has been dealt to San Diego, and Jaworski is now in Philadelphia, but the controversy still lingers in some circles. Harris, a kind of black hope at a position dominated by whites, was never given a real chance, his supporters insist, before Knox turned to the blond and blue-eyed Haden. Racism is no longer the issue, but Knox does not want an unsettled situation this year. "A repeat of last year's quarterback thing," says Dryer, "is something this team cannot endure."
Certainly Haden has had his fill of it, even though in Namath he has a formidable rival who is his nearly exact opposite in most respects. Namath is hobbled, while Haden is nimble enough to scramble. Namath is 10 pounds lighter than usual; Haden, at a still-bantam 182, is 10 pounds heavier. Namath, the media darling, remains above the battle; Haden is among the most accessible of athletes. Namath has the Latin-lover look; Haden is the reincarnation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Princeton hero, Hobey Baker, who in another time, among persons of different taste, would be the all-American boy. Joe Namath is the pluperfect bachelor; Haden is married.
Namath has a reputation as a braggadocio, as reflected in the title of an early autobiography, I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow 'Cause I Gel Better Looking Every Day. Haden, in collaboration with author Robert Blair Kaiser, also has a book on the shelves, My Rookie Season with the Los Angeles Rams
. But Haden was so embarrassed by the amount of work Kaiser devoted to the project he suggested that Kaiser should receive most of the profits. Kaiser, who has collaborated with such towering egos as lawyer Melvin Belli, was flabbergasted by Haden's humility. He also refused to change their 50-50 agreement.
It is reasonable to assume that Namath will spend his off-hours in Beverly Hills' Polo Lounge or some such film colony watering hole; Haden may be found in a library. A graduate in English literature from USC, he will complete his Rhodes scholarship studies next June at Oxford, working in a field that involves philosophy, economics and politics.
The dual life of athlete-scholar favors Haden with rare perception. "Here in L.A. it's show business," he says. "At Oxford it is all intellectual. One part of my life is physically and emotionally stimulating. The other is mentally exciting. Winning the Rhodes was the best thing that's happened to me. I know now there are lots of things to experience, lots of people to see. I want to do it all. Oxford is not like an ordinary university. It's very different from going to USC, where there were serious students, of course, but where a lot of people were there just to have fun or, yes, to play football. At Oxford everyone is very serious about getting an education."
For all of his own seriousness about getting an education, Haden, who is 10 years Namath's junior, is equally intent upon being the Rams' starting quarterback. He was enjoying himself playing on the Oxford croquet team when he learned Namath had been signed. "Before I left for England I was told that anybody they brought in would have to beat me out," he says. "I thought to myself that I'd rather have Joe Namath here than a lot of other people. I knew I could learn from him, and I also knew that he wouldn't be playing forever. All I can do this year is prepare myself, pick up my rifle, so to speak, and keep marching. I know I'm a better quarterback than I was last year, so I'm just going to play like hell. So will he. If he beats me out fair and square, I'm not going to groan and complain.
"I've got a lot of football ahead of me. It's not as if I had led the Rams to five Super Bowls or anything. I had a very average season last year, nothing spectacular. But playing quarterback on this team is comparatively easy. You don't have to score 35 points a game with our defense. And we can run the ball. Football is not that tough a game. I don't subscribe to the theory that it takes five years to make a quarterback in the NFL. The hardest thing is handling the pressure, and I've had some of that."
Namath may have one considerable advantage over his young rival in that he is an acknowledged field tactician—and Knox has announced that he will experiment with having his quarterbacks call their own plays this year. At least during the preseason. Since John Hadl departed three years ago, all Ram plays have been sent in from the sidelines, either by messenger or by wigwag, systems that have proved successful enough—four straight division titles and a 44-11-1 record—but that have also been a bit dispiriting for the signal-callers and even some of the other players.
"I think maybe what's been missing on this team," says Dryer, "is the spontaneity, the freedom of the quarterback to make his own mistakes. When he calls a play and it's successful, the whole team is picked up. This is what Joe Namath has been famous for—literally drawing plays in the dirt. Enough has been done to depersonalize football; this is still a sandlot game at heart."