The Boston Patriots won a playoff game with Buffalo last year and as a reward got the Eastern title and the opportunity to be smashed by San Diego in the championship game. Such an embarrassment as the one in San Diego probably will be avoided by Boston this season, since the Patriots do not seem to have the weapons to repeat as Eastern champs.
A spinal disk operation that kept Halfback Ron Burton out of all 14 league games in 1963—although he did perform in the playoff and championship games—has left Burton a step slower and the Boston offense that much poorer. Without Burton, too much of a burden falls on Fullback Larry Garron and on Boston's defensive unit.
Quarterback Babe Parilli has been on the injured list almost as often as not, and sub Tom Yewcic receives a frightful booing from Boston fans. The receivers lack speed, although one of them, Gino Cappelletti (right), did much to put Boston into the championship game by kicking 22 field goals and leading the league in scoring.
Defense is what carries the Patriots. Nick Buoniconti is an excellent linebacker, and Larry Eisenhauer is a top defensive end. Boston Coach Mike Holovak thinks Don Webb, recovered from a knee operation, can be the best corner back in the league. But Holovak must find a young tackle to rest veterans Bob Dee and Jesse Richardson.
Offensive weaknesses may wear out a good Boston defense.
Buffalo Bills Owner Ralph Wilson has never kept a rubber band around his wallet when it comes to signing talent. As a result Buffalo has an offensive line that is the envy of the AFL. Stew Barber and Dick Hudson are the tackles, Billy Shaw and Dave Behrman are the guards, and Al Bemiller is the center, and there are some good rookies trying to break in. Injuries ripped the Bills last season, but with that offensive line in top physical condition to block for the remarkable fullback, Cookie Gilchrist, the Bills are very hard to stop.
Gilchrist also was slowed by various ailments last season. This year he is in such peak form that he has been asking to play on both offense and defense, as he did in Canada before moving on to the AFL. Wray Carlton, returned from an injury that kept him out last season, will be the other running back, although the swift Leroy Jackson could find steady employment at last as a sweep man. Ernie Warlick at tight end, Bill Miller at split end, and the dangerous deep threat, Elbert Dubenion, at flanker, give the Bills capable receiving. Rookie John Simmons, on the verge of being cut, suddenly blossomed during exhibition games.
Jack Kemp, who is sometimes very good and sometimes the opposite, will be the quarterback again. But Daryle Lamonica, a good deep thrower now in his second season, has the ability to step in when Kemp falters.
Defensive Tackle Tom Sestak is the AFL's best, and the other tackle, Jim Dunaway, is first-rate. Rookies Hatch Rosdahl and Tom Keating will join veterans Roland McDole and Tom Day to complete the up-front defense. Line-backing is fair. The main trouble is at corner back, where at least one rookie will start. The Bills are vulnerable to the bomb. But with Gilchrist operating behind that offensive line, Buffalo can control the ball.
Buffalo's first Eastern Division title is within reach.
By dealing Quarterback Jacky Lee to Denver, the Oiler management left Houston's fortune squarely in the hands of 37-year-old George Blanda, who needs only to twist a knee to turn the Oilers into the flops of the year. If Blanda can survive the vigorous blitzing that is a defense's best weapon against him, the Oilers will be a challenging team. With Blanda out of the lineup, the Oilers would have to rely on rookie Don Trull. Potentially Trull is a very good quarterback, but the Oilers cannot win a championship with a rookie.
The Oilers need a running back who can go wide to keep the defenses from jamming inside. Billy Cannon, who may either be moved to fullback or traded (most likely destination: New York), is not that man. Rookie Ode Burrell was a possibility but may be out for the season with a leg injury. Another rookie, Sid Blanks, looks promising.
Houston's pass-blocking broke down last season but should improve. The receiving is excellent, with Charley Hennigan, Willard Dewveall and Bobby Jancik, who was moved from defense, as the catchers.
Defensively the Oilers may suffer from a leg injury to Back Tony Banfield. Defensive Tackle Bud McFadin, who came from Denver in the Lee deal, has been outstanding but is too old now to play full time. But All-League Defensive End Don Floyd is back in good health after missing five games last season with a broken jaw, and prize rookie Scott Appleton ought to help.
Coach Sam Baugh must find some outside running and devise a way to get his rather slow guards out to the corners on sweeps. And he must keep Blanda on his feet or the Oilers will fall flat.
By one trade the Oilers went from probables to just barely possible.
NEW YORK JETS
At least the New York Jets now have a nice stadium to lose in. In the early days of the AFL New York was one of the league's three poor-boy franchises, did not bother to sign draft choices and had to play in the Polo Grounds. The new ownership is willing to spend money on players and promotion, has moved into Shea Stadium and reports a leap in season-ticket sales. But the Jets are still in dreary shape on the field. They need nearly everything, but they especially need a quarterback.
The Jets shocked the AFL in the last draft meeting by passing up Miami's George Mira, the obvious selection both as a gate-builder and as a quarterback. The other AFL clubs kept sitting and waiting for the Jets to pick Mira, but Coach Weeb Ewbank had other ideas and stood pat with 1963 future draft choices Mike Taliaferro and Pete Liske instead. Those two entered the job struggle with the fragile Dick Wood. Bake Turner and Don Maynard are good deep receivers when Wood has time to wind up and throw them the ball. But the Jets have no running game to balance their offense. Even if the Jets succeed in trading for Houston's Billy Cannon, there are too many weaknesses.
A wholesale trade with Denver brought in Tight End Gene Prebola, Linebacker Wahoo McDaniel and Safety Bob Zeman, among others. McDaniel, who wrestles under the name Chief Wahoo, was the key man as far as New York is concerned and will help Larry Grantham improve the defense somewhat.
New setting, same old show.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
In the Western Division the question that faces Coach Sid Gillman and his Chargers is: What can they do for an encore? The Chargers crushed Boston 51-10 in last year's championship game, and there is a sneaking fear San Diego may really be that much better than most of the other teams in the AFL. "Nonsense," says Gillman. "That score is not indicative of how we stand with the rest of the league. But we are a young team with good backs like Keith Lincoln [right], Paul Lowe and Lance Alworth, and ought to get better and better and better each year." If the Chargers improve very much, they are in the wrong league.
Gillman has three worries—health, incentive and Tobin Rote. Since the Chargers began on a strength program supervised by Alvin Roy, who put in the weights for Paul Dietzel at LSU, injuries have been at a minimum. Incentive may be more difficult. Several of the Chargers are notoriously temperamental and are coming off a very fat year, although the pace in training camp gave no indication of a loss in spirit. With Rote, though, there is genuine concern. Toward the end of last season the 36-year-old quarterback was sorely pained in the elbow of his throwing arm and kept the elbow in a cast for six weeks early this year. Rote's arm was bothering him again during exhibition season, and the quarterback job may go to John Hadl, who is throwing the ball farther and more accurately than ever before but still has to prove that he is accurate enough.
Other than at quarterback, the Chargers' offensive weapons are solid. In 212-pound Fullback Lincoln and 205-pound Halfback Lowe, San Diego has two runners with the speed and power to break up a game. Flanker Lance Alworth is exceptionally fast and sure-handed, although he has not yet learned the moves that could make him one of the best receivers in either league. Split End Don Norton is a fine one, and the offensive line—anchored by mighty Tackle Ron Mix—is of good quality, though perhaps a bit thin at guard.
Defensively the Chargers can be fierce when 299-pound Tackle Ernie Ladd and 262-pound End Earl Faison are in the mood to play up to potential. But the San Diego defense is not consistent.
"If we don't win the championship again it will have to be because of injuries, and the injuries will have to be to key people," said Lincoln. "The only way to play the Chargers is to gamble," said a rival AFL coach. "Nobody can oppose them strength vs. strength." Fortunately for the rest of the AFL, there is no rule that says you must run straight at the Chargers.
The best team in the league if Rote's arm holds up—but a big if.
The Oakland Raiders were the wonders of pro football last season. Manned mostly by players who had been waived or traded from other teams, the Raiders did not figure to be much better than the team that had lost 25 of its 28 games in 1961 and 1962. But under the direction of 35-year-old Coach-General Manager Al Davis the Raiders rose to a 10-4 record, second only to San Diego's 11-3. Oakland pulled an ambush that is not likely to be repeated.
Some AFL coaches complained loudly that Davis, who had first crack at NFL rejects, kept as many as 50 players at a time away from other teams that might have wanted them. However, what contributed most to Oakland's startling success was not Davis' stinginess with player lists, it was the phenomenal output by two players—Split End Art Powell and Running Back Clemon Daniels. Davis moved Powell back and forth from the flank to a slot-back position to confuse defenses, and Powell responded by catching 73 passes for 1,304 yards and 16 touchdowns. Daniels, a 220-pounder with the speed of a sprinter, rushed for 1,099 yards and a 5.1 average. Powell, who has a reputation for being difficult to handle, had played out his option with New York and had come close to signing a contract with Buffalo before he jumped to Oakland. Daniels had been released by the Kansas City Chiefs. Of such is Davis' roster made.
But the talent on the Raiders' roster drops sharply after Powell and Daniels. Quarterback Tom Flores, who missed the 1962 season because of a lung ailment, completed only 45% of his passes, although 20 went for touchdowns. The other quarterback, Cotton Davidson, has been an in-and-outer, but he was superb in two Raider victories over San Diego. The offensive line has been helped by trades and does have the redoubtable Jim Otto at center. The defense began to totter toward the end of the season—giving up 90 points in the final two games, both of which Oakland was fortunate enough to win. This defense has been shored up somewhat but is still far from solid. Rookie Running Back Tony Lorick seems to have been lost to Baltimore in a contract battle. Oakland will depend once more on Daniels and on Powell, who wants to jump again, this time to Buffalo, and reported late to camp to prove it. Both men are likely to run into loaded defenses.
Seldom have so many owed so much to so few.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
The Kansas City Chiefs are the second-best team in the league and are very close to being the best, although for much of the 1963 season they certainly did not play like it. The reasons for the Chiefs' collapse last year after winning the AFL championship in 1962 are several, but probably the most important was the shift of the franchise from Dallas to Kansas City. Several of the Chiefs" key players—most notably, Running Back Abner Haynes, Fullback Jack Spikes, Defensive Tackle Jerry Mays, Linebackers Sherrill Headrick and E.J. Holub, Flanker Frank Jackson, Safety Bobby Ply and Offensive Tackle Jerry Cornelison (who retired rather than move)—are native Texans who made no secret of their resentment over being transplanted. A year, however, has healed most of those wounds. The Chiefs are big and fast and in much better spirits and are the only team in the Western Division—perhaps the only team in the league—that can challenge the domination of San Diego.
For the Chiefs to be as good as they can be, the elusive Haynes will have to be as good as he can be. Haynes was three times All-League running back, but last season he was almost useless. The death of Haynes's friend, rookie Stone Johnson, after an exhibition game was partly to blame for Abner's doldrums as was his fretting over leaving his home town, Dallas. "But the thing that was primarily wrong with Abner was our blocking," said Chiefs' Coach Hank Strain. Haynes was switched to flanker in training camp this year. By the time the league season begins, Haynes will be a running back again and, Stram hopes, in his old form. With Haynes as the outside threat, and Spikes and 232-pound Curtis McClinton (right) running inside, the Chiefs are dangerous on the ground. Their offensive line is built around 260-pound Guard Ed Budde and 290-pound Tackle Jim Tyrer. The piqued veteran, Cornelison, has returned for another try. Split End Chris Burford and Tight End Fred Arbanas may be the league's best at their positions, although Burford had a knee operation during the exhibition season. Len Dawson is a good enough quarterback to have won a championship and will be pushed hard this year by Eddie Wilson and rookie Pete Beathard—the deepest quarterback situation in the AFL.
Defensively the Chiefs are strong. Stram likes them to stunt in and out of a three-man front anchored by 276-pound Tackle Buck Buchanan, All-League End Mel Branch, and last year's Co-Captain Mays, with Bobby Bell dropping off to become a fourth linebacker. The Chiefs can be driven out of that defense, but their more conservative formations are effective enough. The secondary, led by the underrated Johnny Robinson, is quick and gives good pass-coverage. The main trouble last year was morale. If morale is up, the only thing that can keep the Chiefs down is San Diego, and even the Chargers may not be able to.
The Chiefs could be headed toward another AFL championship.
The first thing Denver Coach Jack Faulkner had to do to keep the Broncos from being the worst team in the league again was to persuade General Manager Jack Faulkner to find a quarterback someplace. So the Broncos made offers to nearly everybody in the country who can throw a spiral and even appealed to AFL Commissioner Joe Foss to urge some of the richer teams to shake loose a good man. The result was that Denver got the very man Faulkner wanted—Jacky Lee from Houston—on a two-year lend-lease. Faulkner and several other AFL coaches think Lee has the best arm in the league. Before getting Lee, the Broncos would have been lucky to win a game. With Lee, Denver can present a creditable and troublesome offense that could pull the Broncos off the bottom.
Lee will have a superb target in Lionel Taylor, who has averaged 87 pass receptions per season in his four AFL years. Fullback Billy Joe, 248-pounder who was Rookie of the Year last season, has improved his pass-blocking, Halfback Charlie Mitchell has fine breakaway speed, and Gene Mingo is an excellent field-goal kicker. Defensively, Denver will suffer a bit from giving up Tackle Bud McFadin in the Lee deal, but Faulkner has made mass trades that should help—including getting Corner Back Willie West to assist Austin Gonsoulin in pass coverage. The Broncos, however, went two years without signing an important draft choice and are not a solid club.
Lee will save the Broncos from disaster, but success is far away.