This is probably the strongest division, top to bottom, in the American Conference, and it is likely to provide two of the four teams in the AFC playoffs. (The team with the best second-place record joins the three division champions in the postseason minitournament to select the conference winner.)
The Kansas City Chiefs, last year's Super Bowl champions, have won more games than any club in the 10-year history of the old AFL—including the games they played when they were the Dallas Texans; the Oakland Raiders, as most people have probably forgotten by now, actually won the Western Division championship last season, with the Chiefs second.
Since the Chiefs and the Raiders have lost hardly anyone, they probably will again finish one-two, and the order of finish is immaterial, as KC proved last year. The Chiefs should, however, end the Raiders' three-year hold on first place for a number of reasons.
First is the carry-over impact of winning the Super Bowl decisively against a good Minnesota team. The atmosphere in the Kansas City training camp was reminiscent of the feeling that used to pervade the Green Bay camp at the crest of the Packer power. Hank Stram, football's most inventive coach, summed it up at the half in an exhibition game with Detroit, when the Chiefs trailed 3-0. "This is what we're going to be up against all year as defending champs," he said. "We've had a week more practice and here's Detroit, after only four days' preparation, leading us. But champions always find a way to win." In this case the way was via three interceptions leading to touchdowns. "We never think of losing, no matter how far we get behind," a veteran said. "So we don't lose our cool. We stick with the game plan and wait for the other club to come back to us, and it always does."
The victory over Detroit was typical of the Chiefs' strength, which lies in the best defense in football. Stram has always maintained that he could win a championship with defense and a good kicking game, and he proved it last year when the club was crippled for much of the middle of the season by injuries to Len Dawson, its 35-year-old quarterback, and other key offensive personnel. The defense, by contrast, played as an 11-man unit for 18 straight games, from the last exhibition through the Super Bowl. It became stronger as the season progressed and Curley Culp, a new man at tackle, and Jim Marsalis, a rookie defensive back, grew into their jobs. The defense is still intact and Stram expects it to be better than ever. Since Kansas City led the league in virtually all of the meaningful defensive categories in 1969, its opponents in the coming season can expect to find the Chief defense as difficult as nine miles of bad road.
The offense is based on Stram's bewildering variety of formations, animated by the virtuoso generalship of Dawson, a 13-year veteran who is as familiar with the playbook as Stram himself, having played for Stram when the latter was an assistant coach at Purdue. The Chiefs led the league in rushing and although E. J. Holub, the center, had his ninth knee operation this year, and is 32, he's still in there, bulwarking the offensive line. Add to all this the best field-goal kicker in the business in Jan Stenerud, and it seems reasonable enough that Kansas City will supplant Oakland.
Improved with Age
It may seem foolhardy to make that prediction in the face of what the Raiders have done since 1967. In their last 42 regular-season games Oakland has lost only four and tied one, and no pro football team has ever done better. Since only Tight End Billy Cannon (released), Defensive Tackle Ike Lassiter (traded to Boston) and Cornerback Nemiah Wilson (cut) are absent from last year's starting units, and since the Raiders are a mature but not an old team, the sole obstacle that can prevent their enjoying as successful a season in 1970 is Kansas City.
The Raiders are just about as well-stocked as the Chiefs at every position, although they may not have as much depth. In Daryle Lamonica they have a quarterback who is as good as Dawson, six years younger and durable. Lamonica is a cocky man, a strong leader who sometimes offends his teammates with his vehemence, but he deserved his MVP award last year and probably will again this year. Behind him, though, the Raiders cannot match KC's young Mike Livingston, who started six games which the Chiefs won in midseason when Dawson was hurt. George Blanda is 43 and his arm hasn't improved with age. Kenny Stabler, the 1968 second draft choice, missed that season due to surgery and sat out the 1969 season, but he has returned and has strong potential. However, he has the double handicap of youth and of being a lefthander. In the title game against KC last year the Raiders came apart when Lamonica was sidelined with a broken thumb.
Like Kansas City, Oakland has a solid, veteran defense. Managing General Partner Al Davis—and now Coach John Madden—believes in big ends and quick tackles, on the rather sound theory that the ends can contain and the tackles turn a pocket inside out, giving the opposing quarterback no place to go. The Raiders had one of the best pass defenses in the AFL last season, allowing a measly 38.9% of opponents' passes to be completed, intercepting 26 and getting to the passer 47 times. The starting linebackers are exceptional but, since Dan Conners has a broken arm and Chip Oliver gave up the game to join a commune called the One World Family, there's a lack of depth. The secondary, which features All-Pro Willie Brown, is as good as any. The Raiders play bump-and-run on the corners, meaning that the cornerback bumps the wide receiver as he comes off the line, trying to knock him out of rhythm and pattern, then runs with him. This technique requires speed, which the Raider corners have. But wide receivers, more and more, tend to be world class sprinters and against this kind of speed the Raiders could be beaten now and then.
On offense Lamonica has a well-stocked arsenal. The Raider running backs have both size and agility; Hewritt Dixon, who was having an extraordinary season in 1969 until he was injured, should be at full speed again and Charlie Smith, a quick, durable young runner, led the club in rushing. The wide receivers—Fred Biletnikoff and Warren Wells—make up one of the two or three best pairs in either league. The offensive line, anchored by All-Pro Center Jim Otto, is probably one of the most efficient units around, with speed, size and the instinctive ability to work together that comes with experience.
If any team challenges the top two it will have to be San Diego. The Chargers are a cut below both KC and Oakland in almost every department with the exception of receivers. Since Lance Alworth decided to play ball, the Chargers have the same trio (the other receivers are Gary Garrison and Willie Frazier) they have had for four years, and they caught a total of 121 passes among them in 1969. Inasmuch as neither John Hadl nor Marty Domres ranks among the league's top marksmen, it was a remarkable achievement. The running attack is strong behind a good offensive line, the Chargers being second in total offense in 1969.
But San Diego, which has finished third four years in a row, won't improve despite having so many good linebackers that Coach Charlie Waller has been fiddling with the 3-4 Oklahoma defense. The Chargers' secondary has leaked and doesn't appear that much better. The defensive line is not as good as Oakland's or KC's, ditto the quarterbacking.
Bucking for Third
The odds are, then, that the Chargers will still be in third at the end of 1970 unless Denver relegates them to fourth. The best the Broncos have managed in 10 years was a 7-7 season in 1962, but they could improve on that this year. Judicious trades have given them veteran help in the secondary, at halfback and at tight end. They had one of the quickest pass rush lines in the division last year. Steve Tensi should be the quarterback; he was injured in 1969 and underwent an operation, but he has been working well and ought to be ready. For the first time in their history the Broncos started veterans at every spot on both offense and defense in their opening exhibition game. Bob Anderson, a big, strong running back who was their No. 1 draft choice, will take some of the pressure off Floyd Little, the Syracuse All-America, as will 230-pound Willis Crenshaw who came from St. Louis for a draft choice and who'll probably start ahead of Anderson. Little, out for six games with a knee injury in 1969, still gained 729 yards on 146 carries and was leading the league in rushing when he was hurt. With another back to divert the defenses, he could take off.
"We're ready to play anyone," Little said at training camp. "This is the best Denver team I have been on in professional football."
But, at best, only good enough for third.