If it is credible to say that a team which won 13 of its 14 games last season had any very serious weakness—other than an inability to beat Green Bay in the Super Bowl—then let it be said that the only thing Oakland really lacked was an outside pass receiver with exceptional speed. A few years ago a sprinter at either flanker or split end in professional football was something of a freak, a fellow regarded as a desperate measure or as a luxury item. They came and went, usually without having caught a pass or touched a linebacker on a crackback block. But now a truly fast outside receiver is a necessity for opening opposing defenses. A good team can hardly get by without one, although the Raiders managed to do so by establishing a sound running game, completing 59 passes to the fullback and playing defense in a style that caused that unit to be called The Eleven Angry Men.
This year the Raiders may have cured themselves. In fact, they may have become fairly wealthy in outside receivers with speed, even though one of the two candidates has been around for several seasons without ever having quite made it and the other would rather not be an outside receiver at all. Warren Wells signed with Detroit in 1964, did two years in the military, was released by Detroit and picked up by Kansas City in 1967, was quickly sold by the Chiefs to the speed-hungry Raiders after last season's exhibition game. He played little for Oakland, catching only 13 passes. But when he did get his hands on the ball he was a marvel. Of his 13 catches, six went for touchdowns. The average distance per reception was 23.2 yards, a remarkable figure. Oakland Coach John Rauch had a close look at Wells in preseason games this year, and Wells has had some brilliant performances. If he can keep it up, the Raider offense will be greatly improved.
However much Ranch might be counting on Wells, there is at least an equal dependence on a rookie who was Oakland's No. 1 draft choice. Eldridge Dickey was a quarterback at Tennessee State, and many scouts believed he might become the first black quarterback to play as a regular in professional football. Dickey also believed it, and he still does. In college he passed for 6,628 yards and 74 touchdowns while his team was winning 34, losing five and tying one. At 6'2" and 198 pounds, Dickey is a superior athlete. Rauch already has three quarterbacks—with veterans Cotton Davidson and George Blanda backing up the young Lamonica—and has used Dickey as a flanker. "I realize it takes a long time to become a good pro quarterback," says Dickey. "I'm willing to play flanker if I can help the club, but I want a tryout at quarterback, too."
Oakland's lack of speed should not be interpreted to mean its passing game is helpless. Far from it. Fullback Hewritt Dixon was fifth in the league in total catches, showing his background as a former tight end. Running Back Clem Daniels, out for much of the year with an injured ankle, is another good receiver. And Billy Cannon, the Heisman Trophy halfback of 1959, has become a spectacular tight end. Last year he caught 32 passes for 629 yards, and he scored 10 touchdowns to lead the club.
Oakland's most effective veteran outside receiver is Fred Biletnikoff, whose speed is somewhat underrated. Biletnikoff relies on deception and on the ability to hold the ball once it reaches him, but he must be moving faster than he seems to be. Last season his 40 catches produced 876 yards for a 21.9 average, which is a lot of ground to cover for a man who is thought of as having mediocre speed. The other veteran outside receiver, Bill Miller, had been cut twice by Oakland after having played for the Texans and the Bills. But last year he finally became a starter, caught 38 passes and was the Raiders' most productive receiver in the Super Bowl.
Ironically, the Oakland passing game did not really become versatile until Davis traded Art Powell, who had been the Raiders' finest receiver and one of the best in the league, to Buffalo for Lamonica. Rather than having Powell to depend on, Lamonica was forced to vary his targets. After four seasons as Jack Kemp's understudy at Buffalo, Lamonica was ready to become a star. He topped the AFL in touchdown passes with 30 and had the lowest percentage of interceptions while finishing as the league's leading passer. Lamonica has the size—6'3" and 215 pounds—that coaches like in quarterbacks, and he is certainly not short on assurance. "We'll be trying new things this season, things I couldn't experiment with last season because I had a tough enough time just learning the basic offense," says Lamonica. "Now we've gone through our first full season together. We'll know each other's moves. Our plays should be sharper. We'll be more flexible. With Clem Daniels able to run again, he'll give us that extra speed. I'm more excited now than I was about the club last year. We know we can win again. Every guy on the team feels it."
If Daniels can indeed run again with his old style—good enough to make him the alltime AFL rushing leader, the Raiders will add further dimension to their offense. But Daniels was limping in the early work and may be less than 90% of himself. That is still superior to most. When he was hurt last season he had already gained 575 yards rushing. To take his place, the Raiders had tough Pete Banaszak, a better blocker than Daniels, but slower. The other running back last year was Larry Todd, who broke in as a rookie in 1965 by gaining 149 yards in 20 carries against Houston but never again came close to that sort of performance. However, all three veteran running backs could be supplanted by Charlie Smith of Utah. Smith, who weighs 200 pounds, has run the 100-yard dash in 9.6. "He is easily the best runner we have ever had in camp as a rookie," says Al Davis. "He could be an outstanding back."
Oakland's offensive line is still improving despite the fact that Center Jim Otto and Guard Wayne Hawkins are in their ninth seasons. Tackles Harry Schuh and Bob Svihus are entering their fourth seasons, and Left Guard Gene Upshaw, who is remarkably fast for his 255 pounds, had a fantastic year for a newcomer. Defensively, Oakland missed the goal set by Rauch but still led the AFL in 19 categories. If Tackle Tom Keating, out of exhibition games with a torn Achilles' tendon, returns to form, the defense should be as stubborn as ever. "We told our defense if we could be the team with the least number of points scored against us, we would be in contention," Rauch said. "Actually, Houston was the least scored upon. But it is also important how you keep your poise after giving up a touchdown. A quick score can crack open a game. We didn't allow any easy touchdowns. Every opponent had to work hard for its points." In contrast, the defense, sparked by Middle Linebacker Dan Connors, repeatedly came up with fumble recoveries and pass interceptions. The front four of Keating, Dan Birdwell, Ike Lassiter and Ben Davidson threw opposing passers 67 times for 666 yards in losses. Cornerbacks Kent McCloughan and Willie Brown are as good as any pair in the AFL, and there is depth in the secondary, especially with the addition of rookie George Atkinson, a seventh draft choice who looks like a winner. The Raiders have developed into the AFL's best team, with good depth. Still developing, they may be a couple of years away from their full potential. "It's a young team, and I think we are capable of being a better one than last season," Rauch says. "We know we have improved our personnel."
With one Super Bowl already behind them, the Raiders are preparing for another. And, they feel, another and another and another.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Oakland's road to Miami may not be as smooth this season as it was last. The Kansas City Chiefs—the AFL's first Super Bowl representatives—are capable of making it back again if a number of questionable spots are filled and there is no repetition of the injuries that struck in 1967.
Kansas City has the nucleus of a strong club, beginning with Quarterback Len Dawson, 33, who is consistently near the top of the league in accuracy and in touchdown passes. Dawson needs time to throw the ball and often gets it by operating from a moving pocket. One of his favorite targets is Flanker Otis Taylor, who has fine speed and is a dangerous runner. Gloster Richardson and Frank Pitts, working the opposite side from Taylor after the retirement of Chris Burford, who refused to go to Cincinnati in the expansion draft, are very fast. Tight End Fred Arbanas is an excellent blocker and a good receiver.
The Chiefs have been looking for depth in their running game, which Stram prefers to keep in nearly equal proportion to the passing. The runners available are good if they can stay well. Mike Garrett can break open a game in one thrust, and Curtis McClinton, when he recovers from a broken cheekbone, is a reliable blocker. Wendell Hayes has looked good filling in for McClinton.
The offensive line, wrecked by injuries and hampered by a lack of mobility, has been a main weak point at Kansas City. The Chiefs used their first draft choice to select Maurice Moorman and spent a first-round bonus choice—gained from Houston—to nab George Daney, both of whom will be tried at guard behind Curt Merz, who has recovered from a back injury. Veteran Center Jon Gilliam has retired because of a bad knee, and former all-league Linebacker E.J. Holub, also a victim of injured knees, has moved into that spot ahead of Wayne Frazier and Mike Hudock. Jim Tyrer and Dave Hill at tackles and Ed Budde at left guard have discouraged draftees from winning their jobs for the past five years.
Another problem at Kansas City is the defensive backfield. Left Cornerback Fred Williamson, a Super Bowl starter, was released. Safety Bobby Hunt was picked by Cincinnati. Stram has installed a free-safety defense and has assigned the ball-chasing job to veteran Johnny Robinson. Emmitt Thomas and Goldie Sellers, two speedsters, are competing at left corner, and Willie Mitchell is at the right. But the secondary remains uncertain. Bobby Bell, slowed last year by ailing ankles, is a fixture at left linebacker. The other two linebackers are in doubt. Jim Lynch and Willie Lanier are struggling for the middle position held by Sherrill Headrick until he was summoned to Cincinnati. Chuck Hurston has moved from defensive end, where his 240 pounds were not enough, and is battling Bud Abell for the right linebacker job occupied for years by Holub.
The defensive line is three-fourths set. All-league Jerry Mays is at left end, and the tackles are two huge ones—Buck Buchanan and Ernie Ladd. For a while, Ladd had threatened to retire and continue his wrestling career, but he showed up in camp and, according to Stram, worked hard. "Ernie is a misunderstood person," says Stram. "He has been hustling like a rookie." At right end the job is between the team's top choice in the first combined draft, Eugene Trosch, and former bonus player Aaron Brown, who was tried last season as a fullback. Field-goal Kicker Jan Stenerud, Punter Jerrell Wilson and Kick Returner Noland Smith give the Chiefs added strength.
"This team has always been lacking something in the past," says Tyrer, one of four Kansas City captains. "I have never been able to put my finger on it. Maybe this year we can centralize the team into one body, get everything working together and answer a lot of questions. There has always been talk about our great talent and why we haven't done much with it. We'd like to win and put the monkey on somebody else's back."
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
One other club has a chance at the Western Division championship, but it is likely that by the end of the season the San Diego Chargers will be spoilers rather than serious contenders. Last year the Chargers had an 8-1-1 beginning before the defense fell apart. Defense is the trouble again. Defensive coordinator Tom Bass resigned on the evening of the final game last year and has since joined Paul Brown's staff at Cincinnati. The new defensive coach at San Diego is Chuck Weber, who had been directing the wild, here-I-come-ready-or-not defenses at Boston. Weber has installed a free-safety system not favored by Bass. "I just can't believe our pass defenders are as bad as they looked last year," says Charger Coach Sid Gillman. Both of San Diego's first draft choices went to the defensive unit—Tackle Russ Washington and Cornerback Jim Hill.
Pass defense begins with a good rush, and Gillman is hoping for an improvement after switching Steve DeLong from left end to right. DeLong is a lefthander and uses a lefthander's stance. From the right he can take on an opponent with his left arm and push off quicker toward the quarterback. Houston Ridge, tall and extremely strong, was a tackle last season but has been transferred to left defensive end. "He can be a great, great defensive end," says Defensive Line Coach O.A. Phillips. Ridge is by far the fastest of the linemen and is faster than some of the backs. One tackle is Ron Billingsley. The other could be Scott Appleton, though he is being pressed hard by Washington, who checked into the Charger camp weighing 323.
Bobby Howard will play at left corner if Hill does not beat him out. Speedy Duncan, a fine kick returner, is at right corner, and Kenny Graham is set at strong safety. A 16th draft choice, Dick Farley, may be the free safety. In San Diego's second scrimmage this year with New Orleans—a series that turned into a brawl that floored Gillman, literally—Farley intercepted three passes against the Saints' rookies. Last year Joe Beau-champ led the Chargers in interceptions with three, which tied him for 30th in the AFL. The linebacking is thin, with Frank Buncom gone to Cincinnati and John Baker retired. Rick Redman has moved to the right side, Chuck Allen has returned to the middle and Jeff Staggs is at the left. However, Allen has a history of injuries and weighs only 215. If he is hurt again and Redman goes back to the middle, there is no one of proved quality to play on the right.
But if the Chargers see gloom looming in their defense, the offense changes them rapidly to smiles. Gillman predicts Quarterback John Hadl will have his finest year, and that is saying quite a lot. Last season Hadl passed for 3,365 yards and 24 touchdowns, both San Diego records. Since becoming a starter midway through the 1964 season, he has thrown for 85 touchdowns. He was free this year of the sore arm that handicapped him early last season, and Gillman held him out of some exhibition-game duty. Should Hadl be injured, the Chargers would be in deep trouble, since they have only inexperienced Jon Brittenum to back him up.
For receivers, Hadl has three of the best. Tight End Willie Frazier, big and fast, established an AFL record for his position last year by catching 57 passes and led the Chargers in touchdowns with 10. "He can be as good as he wants to be," says Gillman. Jacque MacKinnon stands ready when Frazier isn't. Split End Gary Garrison caught 44 passes, has speed and excellent moves. And then there is Lance Alworth. For the last five seasons Alworth has gained more than 6,000 yards and has caught 60 touchdown passes. Whenever there is an argument over the identity of the best receiver in either league, his name is either at or near the top. Recently, Commissioner Pete Rozelle, in what may have been a slip of the tongue, referred to New Orleans End Dave Parks as the best receiver in pro football, next to Lance Alworth. Alworth is very fast, has astonishing jumping ability and superb hands. His only flaw is a tendency toward leg injuries. Last year Alworth missed three games and was partially disabled for three others but still caught 52 passes for 1,010 yards. When Alworth is healthy, the Chargers have the ability to score on any play. Two rookies—Ken Dyer and Lane Fenner—also show promise as outside receivers. The 6'5" Fenner has been compared by Gillman to Boyd Dowler of the Packers.
San Diego has six veteran running backs in Brad Hubbert, Dick Post, Jim Allison, Paul Lowe, Gene Foster and Russ Smith. Hubbert, who served three years in the Marines, came to camp last season as a 26-year-old free agent and was a starter by the third game. He is fast enough to have run 54 and 80 yards on successive carries in the final game against the Jets, and he breaks tackles with tremendous power. Teaming with Hubbert as running back is little Dick Post, another surprising discovery. Post, 5'9" and 190 pounds, was a reserve flanker until Paul Lowe was hurt. Given an opportunity to run with the ball, Post astounded the league.
"At Houston (in college) I was an inside runner," he says. "As a pro I had to learn to go outside. The whole year was a dream. If you think of everything you ever wanted and then had it all come true, that's what happened to me." Post led the Chargers in rushing with 663 yards. He hurt his knee but kept playing. He had knee surgery in early January, was put into a cast for six weeks and then began a conditioning program of running and weight lifting. By June he was running better than ever. It is claimed that Post ran the 100 in 9.6 before reporting to camp. If he came even close, he is fast enough to provide the Chargers with an outside threat.
The offensive line protected Hadl so well that he was thrown for losses only nine times all season. Left Tackle Ernie Wright, a good pass blocker, has gone to Cincinnati. His replacement is Terry Owens, who now weighs 270, up nearly 50 pounds since his 1966 rookie season. Owens is a strong in-line blocker. Gary Kirner is at left guard and Sam Gruneisen at center. The Chargers are a right-handed running club with Walt Sweeney at right guard and Ron Mix at right tackle. They could use more depth here.
Regular Placekicker Dick Van Raaphorst is gone, but the Chargers should not miss him. Rookie Dennis Partee was doing all the kicking in preseason games and was doing it well.
Last year, after a good beginning, the Broncos gave up 5,201 yards on defense while gaining only 2,947 on offense. That prompted Coach Lou Saban to continue his housecleaning and rebuilding, and it gave Steve Tensi, who was among the Denver quarterbacks thrown for losses 58 times, the idea of taking boxing lessons. "I was working out at the gym and got to watching this boxer and finally asked him if I could work with him," says Tensi. "We sparred for three weeks, and I think it helped my quickness." But in a preseason game against San Francisco, Tensi proved he is still not quick enough, getting snowed under by a 49er blitz and coming up with a broken collarbone. Tensi will be out for at least half the season, and with him will go any chance Denver may have had of making the Western Division a four-team contest. In Tensi's place the Broncos will use Jim LeClair, a second-year man who didn't even play in high school, and John McCormick, who is attempting a comeback after a year's retirement. The Denver quarterbacks will be throwing to Al Denson, a speedster who caught 11 touchdown passes last year. The other wide receiver is Eric Crabtree, who caught 46 passes in 1967. Backing them is Bob Scarpitto, who has led both leagues in punting for two seasons. Tight End Tom Beer has lost 10 pounds, down to 230, and should be more adept at getting away from linebackers.
At running back the Broncos have Floyd Little, the Syracuse All-America now entering his second season. The rest of the running-back picture is not in focus, just as it is difficult to get a clear idea of other areas of the Bronco organization. The offensive line, which was not good last year, has a nucleus of Tackles Sam Brunelli and Tom Cichowski, Guards George Goeddeke and Bob Young and Center Larry Kaminski. Several newcomers could wind up as starters, including No. 1 draft choice Curly Culp and No. 3 choice Bob Vaughn, both guards.
Since Saban took over, the Bronco training camp has looked like a bus terminal. At one point last season there were 22 rookies and 10 second-year men on the 40-player roster. Easily the youngest team in either league, Denver won three and lost 11, and Saban never quit dealing. Cornerbacks Goldie Sellers and Nemiah Wilson were traded to Kansas City and New York for draft choices, Halfback Charlie Mitchell went to Buffalo, Fullback Wendell Hayes was dispatched to Kansas City, Guard Ernie Park left for Oakland, Linebacker Gene Jeter went to Buffalo, starting Right Guard Pat Matson and Safety Lonnie Wright moved to Cincinnati. Saban then recruited more than 60 free agents and signed 15 draftees.
A year ago Saban went with three rookie linebackers—Frank Richter, Chip Myrtle and John Huard. All three have returned. The defensive line also is intact, although in a revised version. Pete Duranko, who was tried at linebacker, defensive tackle and defensive end his rookie season, has moved to right end and will stay there. Rich Jackson moves to the left side to use his strength against running plays. Dave Costa is a proven right tackle, and Jerry Inman is at left tackle. At safety the lone returnee is Jack Lentz. Bobby Ply, a veteran of Kansas City, is coming off an injury at safety. All the rest are rookies. With two rookie cornerbacks, the Broncos can hardly hope for decided improvement in their pass defense.
Saban admits he doesn't know exactly what to expect. "How far can we come since we really only have one year of experience as a team? How do you measure this club?" says Saban. "All I can say is I do feel, this year, that we can be competitive."
Paul Brown has been acknowledged as a coaching genius, and he will need every bit of wisdom he has ever possessed if his Cincinnati Bengals, newest team in the AFL, are to rise from the depths of the West this year. Cincinnati was not overly rewarded with talent in the expansion draft, but then, has there ever been an expansion team that was? "But I think we're ready to have a little fun," says Brown. "We may surprise a lot of people."
In putting the Bengals together, Brown looked around and found the quarterback he wanted in Miami. It cost two first-round draft choices to get John Stofa, but he had been a very effective passer in last year's preseason before he broke his leg in the opener and lost his job to Bob Griese. This year Stofa twisted his knee in an exhibition against Denver and was replaced by rookie Dewey Warren of Tennessee, who may turn out to be Brown's man of the future. For receivers, Stofa or Warren can look for a couple with promise—Warren McVea and Rod Sherman. McVea returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown in the Denver preseason game, putting on display the speed and niftiness for which he was famous in college. Monk Williams has also looked impressive on kick returns.
The Bengals have a problem at running back, with rookies Tom Smiley, Jess Phillips and Paul Robinson contesting for the starling backfield now that Bobby Burnett, who was AFL Rookie of the Year at Buffalo in 1966, has been cut. Bob Johnson, the Bengals' No. 1 draft choice, is flanked at guards by veteran Pat Matson and rookie Dave Middendorf. Ernie Wright, a longtime regular at San Diego, and rookie Howard Fest are the tackles, with either Bill Peterson, Bob Trumpy or Andre White at tight end.
The defensive unit is spotted with experience. Sherrill Headrick, a 10-year veteran, is a top middle linebacker. Frank Buncom handles one side and Al Beauchamp or Dan Brabham the other. The defensive backfield has Fletcher Smith and Bobby Hunt from Kansas City, White Graves from Boston and Charley King from Buffalo. Three rookie linemen—Bill Staley, Bill Kindricks and Harry Gunner—have been getting plenty of attention. In one early game Staley made eight unassisted tackles. For the many Cincinnati rookies, this will be a year of lessons, most of them painful.