As the scoreboard in Oakland's Coliseum kept changing like an illuminated ticker on the wall of a broker's office, the San Diego Chargers, some 650 miles to the south, could not help but pause from their sport now and then to gaze at the relayed numbers and ponder their meaning. At the time, last Sunday afternoon, San Diego was involved in beating the Miami Dolphins, an achievement that hardly qualifies the Chargers for the Guinness Book of Records. The significant game, the Chargers knew, was the one going on under the oyster sky up in the Bay Area, the one that put numbers beside the names of the Oakland Raiders (38) and the Kansas City Chiefs (21). What those numbers meant was that the Western Division of the American Football League had become so scrambled that it will be surprising if a late December playoff is not required to unscramble it.
With six weeks remaining in the season, Kansas City leads the Western Division with a 7-2 record. Oakland and San Diego, each 6-2, are tied for second, one-half game behind. From here in, the schedule is kindest to Kansas City—primarily because the Chiefs have a bye to use for healing their lame and weary—and cruelest to San Diego, which must play New York, Kansas City and Oakland in three of the four final weeks.
One of the Chargers who was watching the Oakland-Kansas City score with concern was Tackle Ron Mix. The week before, San Diego had been matched against Kansas City and lost 27-20.
"I'll tell you how that game affected me," Mix said. "I didn't get rid of my headache until Friday. There comes a time when the body rebels. I'm sure that happened to a number of Kansas City bodies. That's the reason I was expecting Oakland to win."
In a period of three weeks the Chiefs met Oakland, San Diego and Oakland again. For the first Oakland game the Chiefs were disrupted by injuries to the extent that their coach, Hank Stram, took his club behind locked gates and produced an offense that was so old it looked new. With their outside receivers hurt, the Chiefs trotted out a T formation that they call a Full House, used two tight ends for blocking, threw only three passes (an AFL record) and rushed for 294 yards. The Raiders, gaping at this formation their fathers had told them about, were beaten 24-10.
The following week the Chiefs, somewhat healthier, returned to a more conventional offense and defeated their other major rival, San Diego. Last week facing Oakland again, Kansas City was in its top physical condition of the season. Naturally, Oakland Coach John Rauch was puzzled over which style of offense to expect from the Chiefs. "I know the Raiders were surprised to see our Full House," Stram said as he was working up his game plan for the second meeting. "They probably thought we would go to two tight ends with a single flanker. I'm sure they never dreamed we would do what we did. I don't blame them. I never would have dreamed it, either. But with our physical situation the way it was, we had to find some way to express ourselves. For this game they'll have to be prepared for us to use either style."
Stram intended to mix the styles, offering a glimpse of the Full House, a look at the various pro formations—of which Kansas City employs more than any other team in the league—and even a peek at what Stram calls the Cock I, where Quarterback Len Dawson, Fullback Robert Holmes and Running Back Mike Garrett line up one behind the other and the split end stations himself beside Garrett as another running back.
The Chiefs had won six games in a row when they flew to Oakland. "We're winning on good defense and great kicking," Stram said. "The injuries have been very serious, but I think we've got through the critical stage. Our people are starting to come back."
For whatever interest it may be to anyone looking ahead to the Super Bowl, Stram believes the Chiefs, this year, are a far better team than the one Kansas City sent to the first Super Bowl against Green Bay after the 1966 season. "There's really no comparison," Stram said. "We were not nearly as solid in 1966 as we are now."
John Rauch, whose Raiders last season carried a 13-1 record into the Super Bowl, has had problems of his own. Linebackers Bill Lasky and Duane Benson and Cornerback Kent McCloughan were out of the Kansas City game with ailments. Fullback Hewritt Dixon—the league's leading rusher—has a sore knee and Split End Warren Wells has a badly bruised leg. The Raiders have definitely missed Defensive Tackle Tom Keating, who has a torn hamstring. And then there is the case of Quarterback Daryle Lamonica, who was the AFL's Most Valuable Player in 1967 but went into the Kansas City game with a completion percentage of only 44.4%—though he was second in touchdowns (14), third in yardage (1,440) and second in lowest percentage interceptions.
Rauch professed not to be worried about Lamonica. He may have been a victim of too much success throwing deep to Wells in exhibition games. The Raiders don't believe in throwing many short patterns—flares and hitches—that boost passing averages; instead, they like to hit in the intermediate range, about 14 yards downfield. In a departure from the behavior of most pro teams, Oakland's offense will often go for the long pass against a blitz—with automatic rules for blocking against the various blitzes and with a complex system of audible plays Lamonica can call at the line if he senses a blitz coming. Lately Lamonica has quit aiming so frequently for easy touchdowns and has gone back to calling a game that utilizes more of Oakland's multiple talents.
Against the Chiefs, it was immediately evident that Lamonica had indeed returned to form and that his counterpart, Dawson, was in for an excruciating afternoon. In the first period Dawson threw a high, rather aimless pass that was intercepted. Lamonica, standing in strongly against the rush, hit Wells with a 29-yard touchdown pass. The Chiefs tied the score on a 29-yard pass from Dawson to Gloster Richardson, but the Raiders, with Lamonica throwing beautifully and connecting on third-down situations, began to pull away. One pass to Fred Biletnikoff covered 82 yards, though it led only to a field goal. By the half the Raiders had built a 31-7 lead and the Chiefs had to abandon any plans to confuse Oakland with a Full House.
Lamonica threw a touchdown pass to Billy Cannon early in the third quarter to make it 38-7. With 6:49 still to play in that period, Jim Lynch of Kansas City blitzed and tackled Lamonica low and hard. The Oakland quarterback rolled over and clutched his left knee. He had already passed for 352 yards and two touchdowns. Now he had to be supported as he left the field and George Blanda came on in relief. The Chiefs made the score more respectable with a 92-yard touchdown pass from Dawson to Richardson and a 61-yard pass from Jacky Lee to Frank Pitts, but the Raiders were clearly in control of the game.
Afterward, however, a bit of mystery was introduced. While Rauch was saying. "Without a doubt this is one of the finest games the Raiders ever played," a pair of crutches was smuggled in and Lamonica, who had been wearing an ice pack on his knee, disappeared. "We sneaked him out the back door," grinned Oakland General Manager Al Davis. Why did you do that, Al? "Aw, everybody would want to ask him about his knee," Davis said. By the way, what's wrong with his knee? "I'm no doctor," said Davis. The early diagnosis was that Lamonica's knee is badly bruised, which could be costly.
This week the Raiders play Denver and should be able to win without Lamonica, but they may need him the week after against the Jets. Meanwhile bot' Kansas City and San Diego have a couple of easy games coming up, so the Western Division standings figure to remain the same for a while longer, with room at the top in the end for the team that can put the largest number of healthy players on the field most often.