When Joe Walton was the Redskins' offensive coordinator under Jack Pardee, he was one of the most controversial men in Washington. Now he is head coach of the New York Jets, whose fans expect a place in the Super Bowl this season--or the year will be a failure. Some pressure for a new coach.

"But I've been in the center of the storm for years," says Walton, who succeeds Walt Michaels. He's tough enough to stand up if the Jets (8-4) have problems. But that probably won't happen, not with a marvelous defensive line (the Sack Exchange), a fine offensive line, quarterback Richard Todd and halfback Freeman McNeil. The special teams aren't as good as Walton would like and the last draft won't help immediately. Still, this is a solid, veteran club, the most likely to challenge San Diego in the AFC.

The Jets are good enough to beat Miami, something they couldn't do in the AFC title game last season. Losing linebacker Larry Gordon (who died while jogging) and cornerback Don McNeal (Achilles' tear) could cripple the free-wheeling defense, which has trouble against power offenses. The Redskins showed in the Super Bowl that David Woodley remains an average quarterback; perhaps rookie Dan Marino will become a starter before the year is over. Yet as long as Don Shula remains as coach, the Dolphins (10-3) will remain highly competitive.

With Chuck Knox moving to Seattle, Buffalo (4-5) is in transition. New Coach Kay Stephenson will tinker with the offense, his strength, but whether he can cope with front office interference is another question. This is not a happy club, mostly because of contract squabbles: halfback Joe Cribbs already has signed a future agreement with the USFL. Maybe Stephenson can pull off a surprise. He certainly has talent: receiver Jerry Butler, one of the league's best offensive lines, quarterback Joe Ferguson and an occasionally adequate defense. It could be worse.

New England (5-5) is on the move, although reluctantly, under Coach Ron Meyer, who has brought order to the Patriots' chaos. This is a running team because Meyer believes in power football. It also takes pressure off a defense that isn't ready for lots of on-field time. If quarterback Steve Grogan gains consistency, if halfback Tony Collins holds up and if that defense can improve, the Patriots won't be pushovers.

Finally, there is Baltimore. What can be said about a team that botches a chance to get fair value for John Elway or couldn't sign No. 3 pick George Achica? Some way to go about improving from an 0-8-1 season. If owner Robert Irsay would allow Coach Frank Kush and General Manager Ernie Accorsi to rebuild without interference, Baltimore fans might see a little hope. As it stands now, a five-victory season would be a fine accomplishment.