As an example of how well balanced the AFL has become, consider the situation facing the San Diego Chargers. In six years the Chargers have won five Western Division championships, including the last three in a row. The Chargers led the league in every major statistic on both offense and defense in 1965. (They also brought the top price ever paid for a pro franchise when Barron Hilton sold the club to a syndicate for $10 million last month.) Their offense may be even better this season with the addition of rookie Flanker Gary Garrison and Tight End Willie Frazier, picked up in a trade with Houston. And yet the Chargers are far from being a cinch to get into the championship game again. They could quite easily finish second or third. That is not only because of the strength of Kansas City and Oakland but because of the Chargers' loss of one man—Defensive Tackle Ernie Ladd.
The absence of the 315-pound Ladd will put pressure on San Diego's offense as well as on its defense. The offense will be required to sustain its drives more often than in the past because the Charger defense will not be able to take the ball away from opponents as regularly as it has done. The defense will miss Ladd in a number of ways. With Ladd, the Chargers could get as much from a four-man pass rush as most teams get from a blitz. Thus the Chargers could afford to play a more conservative defense. With Ladd to force opposing offenses to stay out of certain formations and to forget about an inside attack, the San Diego linebackers were relieved of much responsibility and the secondary could play quite a bit of zone defense. With Ladd gone, the middle will open up more for running and for passing (Ladd's hands waving nine feet in the air frequently discouraged a quarterback looking for a receiver over the middle). The lessened effectiveness of the pass rush should make the Chargers more vulnerable to the home run ball.
To counter the loss of Ladd, the Chargers will play what Coach Sid Gillman calls a "more active" defense. Gillman is no fan of the blitz, although he will have to resort to it more often than in the past few years. Steve DeLong, a 250-pound tackle who was a No. 1 draft choice, will move into Ladd's position but frequently will step back to become a fourth linebacker. The other defensive tackle, George Gross, is a steady performer. The ends are in ample supply, with Bob Petrich and Bob Mitinger on one side and Howard Kindig and Earl Faison on the other. The linebacking will be good, with veteran Chuck Allen in the middle and Frank Buncom and Rick Redman on either wing.
The secondary was hurt by the AFL expansion draft which cost the Chargers two corner backs, Dick Westmoreland and Jim Warren (as well as Offensive Guard Ernie Park and Tight End Dave Kocourek). But Miller Farr, who was cut by Denver last year, came to camp this season as one of 24 defensive backs and won the job at left corner with an impressive performance. Speedy Duncan, a fine kick returner, is the right corner back, and veterans Bud Whitehead and Kenny Graham are at safety.
The offense must make up for whatever defensive weaknesses Ladd's loss reveals, and it may be able to. Quarterback John Hadl, the AFL's No. 1 passer last season, still has an army of critics but is getting a reputation as a winner. He is a Bobby Layne type of quarterback who does not throw a picture pass but moves the team. Hadl is smart and has worked hard to develop from a college roll-out quarterback to a pro drop-back passer. Behind him is Steve Tensi, a second-year man who put in months of study under Gillman during the off season.
The running backs may be, as a pair, the league's best. Paul Lowe gained 1,121 yards last season. Keith Lincoln was injured nearly half the season but managed to run for three touchdowns, catch four touchdown passes and throw a pass for another. With Lincoln healthy again, Lowe becomes that much more effective. Waiting on the bench is Gene Foster, who, as a rookie, gained 469 yards while Lincoln was hurt.
The Chargers can match pass receivers with anybody. The chief is, of course, Lance Alworth, who San Diego fans claim is the finest ever. Despite defenses loaded against him, Alworth caught 69 passes for an average of 23.2 yards per catch and 14 touchdowns last year. Flanked to the other side is Don Norton, who has very tricky moves, good hands and enough speed. Behind Norton is Garrison, a No. 1 future choice in 1964, Garrison runs with the ball after the catch as well as Alworth, if not better. The tight ends are Frazier, who is amazingly fast for a big man, and Jacque MacKinnon.
Ernie Park was a starting guard before he went to Miami in the draft. But Pat Shea, John Farris and 280-pound Ed Mitchell are trying to prove he will not be missed. The right guard, Walt Sweeney, may be the AFL's most underrated lineman. Tackles Ron Mix and Ernie Wright are veterans, and both are excellent. With Center Sam Gruneisen, the Chargers will have a line that ranks among the most solid in the league.
But Buffalo proved in the last championship game that the Charger offense can be stopped on occasion. Three or four of those occasions could drop the Chargers back with the herd. Considering the quality of the herd this year, that is no disgrace.