By beating Detroit and Minnesota in exhibition games last month, the Denver Broncos indicated what is happening in the Western Division of the American Football League. For years it was automatic to refer to Denver as the worst team in professional football. That is quite obviously no longer true. Now Denver is merely the worst team in the Western Division of the AFL and that is not exactly shameful. With the exception of Buffalo, the best teams in the league are in the West, a division that is getting stronger every year.
The best team of all is Kansas City. Although Oakland has an edge on the Chiefs in defense and San Diego is coming back after a year of floundering, Kansas City will defeat Buffalo again for the AFL championship and another trip to the Super Bowl.
The power in the West is not as clearly stratified as it is in the East, where there is only one really solid team. But of the Chiefs' first seven games this season, two are with Houston, two with Miami and one with Denver. By the time the schedule is half finished, Kansas City should be too far ahead to be caught.
The Chiefs have the finest offense in the AFL. Last year they led the league in rushing, in total offense and in touchdowns passing. Not content with that, Coach Hank Stram has added a trick that he believes will make his team more efficient. The Chiefs are using an unusual I formation in which the tight end lines up directly behind the quarterback. Before the ball is snapped, the end moves to one side of the line or other, thus establishing the strong side of the formation so quickly that the defense has no chance to adjust. The Chicago Bears found this out in their disastrous 66-24 loss to Kansas City.
A tight end is commonly covered by a strong-side safety who is big enough to grapple him for the ball. The weak-side safety is often smaller and faster, more of a rover, who will pick up a man coming out of the backfield. Until the Kansas City shift is accomplished, the defense has no way of knowing where the end will go and cannot flip-flop its safeties to counter the Chiefs' strength.
"What we want to do most of all," says Stram, "is to create indecision on the part of the other team. When we reduce the defenders' reading and reacting time, we feel we've got an advantage. We also feel we will force them to play a normal defense. They can't overshift, because they don't know what our formation will be. They can't locate the tight end. In effect, we freeze them.
"We can't get away with things in this league as we once could. Every team now has quality defensive personnel—and experience. Once we didn't have to create formations. The other teams didn't recognize them when you threw them at them straight. But now it's different. We're trying to be more sophisticated and present new problems. The nicest thing about this formation is that it's simple. The end either lines up in a familiar position or he stays in the I and blocks with the equivalent of a downfield block."
Coincidentally, the Baltimore Colts' coach, Don Shula, has installed the same type of I formation with his tight end, John Mackey. After the Chiefs' opening exhibition game in Houston, someone asked Stram why he was using the "Shula I." Stram erupted. "This is my formation," he said. "In fact, we started to put it in for the Super Bowl game last January." Perhaps he should have. One thing the new I formation has seemed to do is make Mike Garrett even better, in Stram's language: "Mike is such a cavity runner that the I provides him with free expression. He is able to bleed yardage from it."
As a rookie Garrett finished second in the league in rushing and had an average of 5.5 yards per carry. His early play this season has been at least as good. "He's the best runner in traffic or in trouble that I've ever seen," says Stram. Many observers thought Garrett was too small ever to become a top professional running back, but he did it. At 5'9" and 195 pounds, he is a tough, quick, waterbug sort of runner and a very good blocker who hits low. His competition, Bert Coan, is tall, moody and frequently injured. A slashing type of runner, Coan often has trouble with his legs. He missed several exhibition games because of a mysterious leg ailment. Last year Coan had a 5.4 rushing average, scored nine touchdowns and caught 18 passes while sharing the running job with Garrett.
The Kansas City fullback, Curtis McClinton, is an excellent blocker. As an experiment, Stram moved Defensive End Aaron Brown, the Chiefs' No. 1 draft choice in 1965, to fullback. Despite his size, Brown is one of the fastest men on the Kansas City roster. The swing back, Eugene Thomas, has speed and power and can play either of the running-back positions. Stram insists upon balance in his offense, slightly favoring the running game. With the best set of backs in the Western division, Kansas City will be the strongest running team in the AFL again.
Quarterback Len Dawson has thrown 132 touchdown passes in the past five seasons, more than anybody else in either league. He is very accurate either as a drop-back passer or rolling out and throwing from Stram's "moving pocket," and he is a good enough runner to be able to scramble for long yardage. Dawson's backup man, Pete Beathard, is one of the team's better runners and has an exceptionally powerful arm. In Dawson and Beathard, the Chiefs have the finest pair of quarterbacks in the league, with the possible exception of Jack Kemp and Tom Flores at Buffalo. Their targets—Flanker Otis Taylor, Split End Chris Burford and Tight End Fred Arbanas—have proved themselves to be of championship quality. Taylor is a particularly dangerous receiver. In 1966 he caught 58 passes for an average gain per reception of a fantastic 22.4 yards, nearly three yards more than the average of Bob Hayes of Dallas.
The offensive line is about the same as last year's. Center Jon Gilliam has returned after an injury to challenge Wayne Frazier at that position. Left Tackle Jim Tyrer and Left Guard Ed Budde are standouts. Curt Merz and Al Reynolds are competing at right guard; so are Dave Hill and Tony Di Midio at right tackle. Stram's main concern is on defense—in line depth, at corner back and at linebacker. Left Defensive Tackle Ed Lothamer missed the final seven games of last season, as well as the championship and Super Bowl games, because of an injured shoulder. The shoulder has been operated on and seems all right now, but Lothamer has come up with a bad ankle. His replacement, Andy Rice, is not in Lothamer's class as a pass rusher. End Jerry Mays and Tackle Buck Buchanan are all-AFL performers. Right End Chuck Hurston was ill and played in the Super Bowl more than 20 pounds underweight, but he has recovered.
Left Linebacker Bobby Bell, one of the quickest in the league, is as good as ever. However, Middle Linebacker Sherrill Headrick, a nine-year veteran, may have slowed up a bit, and Right Linebacker E. J. Holub, victim of chronic knee trouble, does not get around as well as he once did. Two of Stram's best rookies—245-pound Willie Lanier from Morgan State and 235-pound Jim Lynch, Maxwell Trophy winner from Notre Dame—are pressing Headrick. Corner Backs Fred Williamson and Willie Mitchell were somewhat less than brilliant against Green Bay receivers in the Super Bowl. Mitchell got most of the criticism, which Stram says he does not deserve. "There were a number of factors involved," says Stram, "including Bart Starr. Nobody stops Bart Starr from completing passes." Williamson won't stop anybody for a while; he is out with a broken arm and will miss several regular-season games. Fletcher Smith and Emmitt Thomas could wind up as the Kansas City corner backs. Fortunately for Stram, there is no worry at safety, where Johnny Robinson and Bobby Hunt handle the patrolling.
Nor is there a problem with kicking. Last season when Tommy Brooker faltered, the Chiefs were lucky enough to get Mike Mercer from Buffalo on a lend-lease deal. Mercer kicked 21 of 30 field goals and was reclaimed by Buffalo after the Super Bowl. Now the Chiefs have a rookie named Jan Stenerud, a Norwegian who went to Montana State on a skiing scholarship. A baseball coach saw Stenerud bashing a football around the campus. After he was persuaded to join the football team, Stenerud kicked a 59-yard field goal in a game. He consistently drives his kickoffs into the end zone. "That takes a lot of pressure off our defense," says Stram. "If the circumstances call for it, I wouldn't hesitate to have him kick any time we have the ball from the 50-yard line on in." That means Strain would let Stenerud try a field goal from his own 43-yard line, but he has the leg for it. The punter is Jerrel Wilson, with an average of 44.2, highest in the AFL.
Stram says last year his team's theme was "maturity and leadership." This year it is "poise, confidence and attitude." That the Chiefs' attitude is spirited was proved in the exhibition opener in Houston when Kansas City and the Oilers engaged in one of the wildest on-field brawls in football history. Houston Tackle Willie Parker jumped offside and hit Beathard. Garrett promptly slugged Parker. Both benches emptied and the two teams collided in what looked like an infantry charge. There were fights all over the field, but there were also spots of humor. "I pulled at the shoulder pads of a guy in a blue jersey," said Jon Gilliam, "and then I looked up and saw it was Ernie Ladd. So I said, 'What do you say we go break this up, Ernie?' " That is a nice example of poise. If the Chiefs keep it, they should be able to stand off the charge of Oakland.
The Raiders are a club with everything but a quarterback. They traded their regular, Tom Flores, to Buffalo along with their best receiver, Art Powell, who was unhappy in Oakland. In return, they got Receiver Glenn Bass and Buffalo's backup quarterback, Daryle Lamonica, whose duties in relief of Jack Kemp had become less and less demanding. But Coach John Rauch, who faces the prospect of winning the title or getting fired, was not satisfied with Lamonica. Rauch brought in enough quarterbacks to fill an extra bus. When the early scrimmaging was over, Lamonica was the starter, despite having to learn an offensive system that is drastically different from the one he knew at Buffalo. But, lo, out of the mob appeared elderly George Blanda, who had been released by Houston and signed by Oakland as a field-goal kicker. Blanda played a bit in exhibition games and some are predicting he will be the Oakland quarterback before the season is over. Cotton Davidson, another venerable fellow, who has some very hot days, is still around and is the only quarterback thoroughly familiar with the way the quiet man, Rauch, does things, which is about the same way former Coach Al Davis, now an owner, did things. It is conceivable that Davis could become the Oakland coach again in midseason if the team is not doing well.
The Raiders have a fine young offensive line held together by that fine old center, Jim Otto. In the Oakland style, a great number of passes are aimed at the tight end, and Oakland has good ones, best known of whom is former Running Back Billy Cannon. Lionel Taylor, traded by Denver, will probably play split end ahead of Pervis Atkins. Rauch's lone concern at flanker is which ones to keep. At one period he had Bill Miller, Fred Biletnikoff, Glenn Bass and Rod Sherman all in the same position. Clem Daniels, a perennial holdout, has signed his contract and will be the running back ahead of the very talented Larry Todd.
Defense, though, is the Oakland specialty. The line—featuring the huge, mustached end, Ben Davidson—is tough to run on and has a thundering pass rush. The linebackers are young and mobile. The defensive backs are the best in the AFL, particularly Corner Backs Dave Grayson and Kent McCloughan. Several Kansas City survivors of the Super Bowl admitted they were, of course, quite impressed with Green Bay. "But I would have to say," Beathard says, "that the Oakland corner backs are every bit as good as Green Bay's and maybe better."
The lack of a quarterback experienced in the Oakland system is the only thing that will keep the Raiders out of the AFL championship. That fault should be corrected within a year or two.
The San Diego Chargers, meanwhile, have been busy correcting faults of their own, primarily on defense. When Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison departed the Chargers after the 1965 season, the talk in San Diego was that the team would have a smaller, quicker, more fluid defense. It was so fluid that people waded right through the Chargers. For this season, Sid Gillman traded for Scott Appleton, Tom Day and Johnny Baker—all experienced, all defensive hands—and is counting on several rookies, including his No. 1 draft choice from Wyoming, Defensive End Ron Billingsly, 6'8" and 265 pounds. "This will be our best defensive team in years," Gillman says. That could be a significant statement since Gillman once won championships with his defense. The linebackers, Rick Redman, Chuck Allen, Frank Buncom and the injury-jinxed Baker, are excellent and all thoroughly tested. The defensive backs are good, but there are not enough of them, as the Chargers found out in their terrible rout by the Rams. Kenny Graham and Speedy Duncan are first-rate, but the Chargers will miss Miller Farr, who went to Houston for Appleton and Baker.
The offensive line is experienced although lacking in depth. Center Sam Gruneisen, Tackles Ron Mix and Ernie Wright, Guard Walt Sweeney and Tight Ends Jacques MacKinnon and Willie Frazier can recall the days when the Chargers could count on championship checks to spend, although Frazier was in Houston at the time. One guard position is undecided, with Gary Kirner and Ed Mitchell struggling for the job.
Gillman finally made up his mind about Quarterback Steve Tensi. He traded him to Denver. Tensi spent last season as understudy to John Hadl, who has had a strange career in San Diego. Hadl, a hard worker, has been tutored intensively by Gillman, has had some fine years and has won championships, but nearly every season his position has been in question. With Tensi gone, it is in question no further. The backup man is Kay Stephenson, who was one of Steve Spurrier's substitutes at Florida. Gillman will shop around for more help. A Hadl injury would ruin the offense.
As long as Hadl is well, he has the Western Division's best group of receivers to catch his passes. Frazier has superior speed for a tight end. The split end, Gary Garrison, has been called another Lance Alworth, which is supreme praise. The flanker is Alworth himself, a remarkable athlete. The runners are superb, too, with Gene Foster at fullback and Paul Lowe, 30 years old but apparently in the best condition of his career, at halfback. In the off-season Gillman traded Fullback Keith Lincoln to Buffalo for Defensive End Tom Day. Some of the players privately applauded that move, saying jealousy between Lincoln and Lowe was not doing the team much good.
It is no secret that jealousies and cliques have caused considerable friction among the Chargers in the past, just as such frailties have bothered other teams. One of the things Gillman is trying in order to keep his athletes happy is an investment counseling plan. Three San Diego businessmen—Attorney Norman Seltzer, City Councilman Ivor de Kirby and Insurance Broker Paul Carter—have formed a committee to advise the Chargers what to do with their money.
"I'm a specialist in football," says Gillman, "and I need professional help in advising the ballplayers about their investments. We invite the athletes to come in with their ideas. The committee will analyze them. If the investment idea is good, we'll back them to the hilt."
Charger ownership has helped Alworth obtain financing for an apartment project in Little Rock, Lowe buy a liquor store, Mix invest in mutual funds and Wright get co-signers on a land deal. "I suppose it's perfectly natural that some young people don't think much about security," Gillman says. "But pro football players have special problems. They must think in terms of retiring at 35, not 65. Starting a new career at 35 can be a shock." A unique feature of the program is that Gene Klein and Sam Schulman, the Chargers' managing owners, guarantee the investments against loss. If there is a loss, it is absorbed by Klein and Schulman, who are executives of a theater chain.
Gillman feels the Chargers are definitely on their way back. "This could be our best club in years," he says. "This is a sounder and deeper team than it was last year. If we play to our potential and avoid injury we could win it all."
That idea has not entered the head of Lou Saban, the new general manager and head coach at Denver. At least, not for this year. But Saban hopes to win it eventually, and he has plenty of time to try—his contract is for 10 years at a reported $50,000 per year. Saban quit suddenly at Buffalo after winning the AFL championship in 1965, explaining that there was nothing left up there for him to conquer. After one year as a college coach at Maryland, he went to Denver, where there is plenty to conquer. Saban immediately tore down the entire organization, which certainly needed it, and began building it up again. "Your main goal is to instill the winning habit as soon as possible," he said. "Bronco fans have been patient, but patience is a bad word."
Saban moved the club's office outside the city limits of Denver, built a new practice field and a field house and began overhauling his squad. Corner Back Willie Brown and Quarterback Mickey Slaughter were traded to Oakland, Defensive Tackle Ray Jacobs was shipped to Miami, Offensive Tackle Eldon Danenhauer and Offensive Guard Bob McCullough retired. Running Back Abner Haynes, Linebacker Jerry Hopkins and Defensive End Danny LaRose were traded to Miami for Cookie Gilchrist and Guard Ernie Park. Safety Goose Gonsoulin was put on waivers the first day of training, Lionel Taylor was traded to Oakland along with Guard Jerry Sturm.
And so it went. Saban changed the team's uniforms. He guided Denver to the best draft in its history and then signed 18 of the 19 draftees (the only one who didn't sign chose medical school instead of pro football). Five Bronco rookies were on the College All-Star team. Name college players like Floyd Little, Pete Duranko, Tom Beer, George Goeddeke and Neal Sweeney found themselves in Denver's new orange jerseys. Veteran Tight End Al Denson was moved to flanker. Tensi came in for a try at quarterback and with only four days to learn Denver plays led the team to its win over the Vikings. Suddenly there was competition at every position. Even Cookie Gilchrist may get replaced at fullback by Wendell Hayes. Gilchrist, incidentally, had signed a contract at Miami that would expire midway in the current season. "I told him if he wanted to play for Denver, he'd have to sign a new one for the entire season. He did it," says Saban.
Saban and Gilchrist became intimately acquainted in Buffalo, where Cookie once refused to enter a game late in the second quarter and found himself suspended from the squad. After a few days of sulking, Gilchrist apologized to his teammates and was allowed to return. The next season Saban traded Gilchrist to Denver. Cookie then was swapped to Miami. Despite previous disagreements, Saban decided Gilchrist's pass blocking and power running would be a great help in transforming the young Broncos into a successful team.
The result of all this showed up early when the Broncos outplayed and soundly defeated the Detroit Lions, who had figured they would win the game by 40 points. Detroit Tackle Alex Karras, thoroughly frustrated, was thrown off the field for kicking Gilchrist. Denver fans, sitting in an expanded stadium which is also part of the Saban renovation, were as stunned as the Lions by the defensive ability the Broncos showed. Two weeks later the Vikings arrived in Denver after shutting out Philadelphia 34-0. Against the Broncos, Minnesota could not score a touchdown. But Gilchrist and Little both did.
"Our strong points," says Saban, "are our defensive line, receivers and youth. On the minus side, we see some weaknesses in the offensive line and the lack of experience. Our rookies will have to grow up quickly. Men like Little, who has the potential of a Garrett or a Gale Sayers, and Duranko will have to step in and help us right away. We need a big man at quarterback to carry us. Maybe Tensi is the one. But this is a very stimulating challenge, and we're going to have a winner."
That will take Saban a while longer to accomplish in the Western Division, where most of the AFL power lies. As Gillman said, "If we lose, it means the others have improved more than we have." Improvement is precisely what is happening in the West.
RATING THE WEST