The Oakland Raiders, a most impressive team that has won four straight division championships, are more impressive than ever this year, which is bad news for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs are impressive enough in their own right, but they have stood pat since 1970, when they finished second to Oakland, while the Raiders, under what one might call the lively and imaginative leadership of Managing General Partner Al Davis, haven't.
Neither, for that matter, have the Denver Broncos, a club that has never been better than .500 in its 11 years despite an increasingly formidable defense. The fourth club in the division, the San Diego Chargers, has succumbed to the Southern California syndrome of "see changes"—let's change and see what happens, the philosophy of the Los Angeles Rams.
It is a bit difficult to justify a clear-cut choice between Oakland and Kansas City. But if there is an edge, it must go to Oakland; the Chiefs have had key losses since last year with no comparable replacements, while the Raiders have replaced the few soft spots in their lineup with players who should be an improvement. Since Oakland beat Kansas City in the division in 1970, there is no reasonable way to figure it won't do the same thing this year—and more decisively. Especially when you consider that Oakland plays a slightly easier schedule than Kansas City; the Raider opponents won about 41% of their games in 1970 while Kansas City's won 46%. Denver faces teams which won over 50%, likewise luckless San Diego.
Even without the benefit of the schedule, the Raiders have a heck of a shot at the Super Bowl. In Daryle Lamonica they have the best passer in the AFC and in George Blanda the best passer available when the best passer isn't. Lamonica is entering his prime (30), he is big (6'3", 215) and extraordinarily accurate; Blanda is in his prime (44), almost as big (6'2", 215) and extraordinarily durable, having played in 154 straight pro football games, some, admittedly, for only a few seconds. He also kicks good. Moreover, there is Kenny Stabler, who throws left-handed but does just about everything else right.
The major changes in the Raiders have come in the offensive line. In the off season, Davis acquired Bob Brown, the immense, mobile and sulky offensive tackle, from the Rams and lured Ron Mix, who until he retired was a perennial All-Pro at San Diego, away from a budding law practice. Brown, who goes 290, is, on his best days, the best, but has been, on his worst days, a difficult man for coaches to reason with. Nonetheless, he has been All-Pro five times.
"I'm not Prince Charming," Brown said upon reporting to the Raiders, "but I'm no better or worse than any of the other 1,000 guys playing pro football.... I want to cooperate." He showed his new attitude by breaking a goal post with his forearm while warming up for his first practice.
Mix has said he will play to exhaustion to make the club, and so far he has. "The first three weeks were pure torture," he says. "All that contact is foreign to the human body. I asked myself, 'What's a 33-year-old attorney doing here?' "
Behind guys like that, the quarterbacks are home free. They have able runners in Hewritt Dixon (who suffered a knee injury and may not be ready for the opening game), Charlie Smith and Clarence Davis, a rookie who is third to O. J. Simpson and Mike Garrett in overall rushing yardage at USC. There are experienced reserves, too, like Marv Hubbard—who usually puts on a one-man show against Kansas City—Pete Banaszak and Don Highsmith, and if the running does not go, there are a number of talented receivers.
Tight End Raymond Chester is the biggest target and one of the most consistent; he caught a pass in every game he played last year, made a rookie All-Pro team in one poll and was the Rookie of the Year in another. The wide receivers are now the superb Fred Biletnikoff and Rod Sherman, Warren Wells having been sentenced to 90 days of "diagnostic study" in prison, after being found guilty of repeatedly violating probation from a 1969 attempted rape conviction. The incarceration is a particular blow to Blanda, who in his last-second heroics in 1970 went to Wells often.
There isn't much new in the Raider defense, because why change a good thing. Dave Grayson, an All-Pro free safety, is gone, but the club's first draft choice was Jack Tatum, regarded by many scouts as college football's best defensive back last year.
With these riches, it is hard to see how the Raiders can miss a fifth straight division title. But if they do, Kansas City won't. The Chiefs have more troubles than the Raiders, which is simply relative since the Raiders have nearly none. Some of the Chiefs' old players—and it seems odd to realize that now, in 1971, the original AFL teams have old players—are gone. E. J. Holub, who started when the Chiefs were born as the Dallas Texans and who performed admirably as a linebacker and a center, has left after 10 years and 10 operations; Fred Arbanas, the tight end for nine years, quit after unsuccessful knee surgery, and Jerry Mays, who was first-string defensive end for 10 years and All-League for several, retired for business reasons.
Their loss may hurt the team spirit, since all of them were inspirational players, but it is unlikely to damage the physical capabilities of the club. Halfway through the 1970 season Holub lost his starting center job to Jack Rudnay, a strong rookie; Arbanas has been replaced by a young tight end named Morris Stroud, who is 6'10", 265, and was, memorably, stationed under the crossbar last year in an attempt to block Blanda's game-tieing field goal. Mays may not be so easy to supplant.
Solid running by Ed Podolak and Robert Holmes, who are bolstered by Wendell Hayes, Warren McVea and Jim Otis, who came from New Orleans in a trade, plus excellent receiving may pep up a rather lethargic Kansas City offense.
On defense, the Chiefs were strong in 1970 and should be stronger this year. A good draft of big defensive linemen helps. One example is Wilbur Young, 6'6", 290, who played at obscure William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa and was taken in the second round. When he was drafted, he demonstrated the kind of confidence a rookie needs. "Pro football will be tougher than the Iowa Conference," he said, "but I think I'll be able to handle myself all right." So far, he has.
If the defensive line falters, there is a premier corps of linebackers to fill the gap; Willie Lanier, Jim Lynch and Bobby Bell are probably the best trio in the AFC. The secondary is old enough and very good (and very irritating in the person of Jim Marsalis), and the punting, an overlooked factor on defense, is excellent.
Len Dawson is a championship quarterback and Mike Livingston, a big scrambler, has spelled him competently when he was hurt, which Dawson may be too often at 36, coming off two seasons of knee injuries (left in 1969, right in 1970).
But if the Chiefs get in trouble, they have almost as good a bail-out man as Blanda. Jan Stenerud hit 30 of 42 field goal attempts last year, five of his misses coming from 50 yards or more.
For the last couple of years the Broncos have had enough defense to win. In 1970 only two teams in the AFC allowed fewer touchdowns than Denver's 28 (Kansas City with 26, Baltimore with 25) and the agile, ferocious Bronco defensive line, led by All-Pro Richard Jackson dumped the opposing passer 50 times, nine more than Baltimore, the No. 2 team. However the defense will be weakened, as End Pete Duranko is out indefinitely after knee surgery.
The offense was deficient in 1970 because of the lack of a good quarterback. Head Coach Lou Saban, who couldn't help but see the signs at Mile High Stadium toward the end of last season—PUT LOU SABAN ON WAIVERS—traded for Green Bay's Don Horn, a young and promising passer. Saban got more offensive help in 13 other trades which netted him seven new attackers, two defenders and four draft choices.
Denver's good running attack should be even better with the acquisition of San Diego's small, mod and explosive Dickie Post, who will probably back up one of the best pairs of runners in the West—Floyd Little, who led the AFC in rushing with 901 yards in 209 attempts in 1970, and Bobby Anderson, a rookie who had a 4.4-yards-per-carry average.
In his trading flurry, Saban had to part with Al Denson, a proven wide receiver, and the Broncos need targets for Horn to aim at. In fact, the receiving corps is probably the weakest facet of the team, and any really weak spot will make it impossible for Saban to challenge Oakland and Kansas City. A more realistic goal is for him to move up a step, overtaking San Diego for third.
Sid Gillman, ex-coach of the Los Angeles Rams and the Chargers, reassumed the Charger job this season. Gillman is a brilliant coach with a fine record, but he has a thankless task in raising San Diego out of its third-place doldrums.
He has gone about it energetically, trading such stars as Lance Alworth and Post (for Tight End Pettis Norman, Defensive Tackle Ron East and Offensive Tackle Tony Liscio, who was traded to Miami, whereupon he announced his retirement), but he still needs a rush from a front four that did not scare anyone last year. He may have shored up an offensive line which allowed 57 sacks in 1970, and the installation of the I formation might inhibit the rush.
Gillman has a good cornerstone on which to build: John Hadl, his quarterback, was second in the AFC last year and is but 31. Oh, and Gillman has one other plus. When he wore two hats as head coach and general manager, he signed all the players, which did not tend toward forming a deep friendship between him and the team. Now he has hired Harland Svare, another former Ram head coach, as general manager and Svare will conduct salary negotiations. In view of the wage freeze, it should make a difference in morale.