The Oakland Raiders have more of all those things dearest to a coach's heart than any other AFC team—the Kansas City Chiefs excepted. Since Oakland and KC play in the same division, this can be counted a misfortune for both but great fun for the fans. It will be less fun for San Diego and Denver, the division's other members.
Oakland is an established club that has felt little need to change, KC an established club—and winner of the division in 1971—that had to change just a little. The difference may be vital. Defensive End Jerry Mays left a year ago and Safety Johnny Robinson this season, and with their loss KC's defense may have surrendered some strength.
Still, the Chiefs' defense is sturdy, and their Len Dawson-led offense may be even more respectable than in years gone by. At 37, Quarterback Dawson has survived creaky knees and a sore arm, and behind him he has Mike Livingston, the husky five-year veteran who has taken up the slack nicely in the past and can be expected to do so again.
The offensive line is mostly vintage 1961—old, strong and cagey. There are powerful running backs in versatile Ed Podolak, who throws the option pass well, and Wendell Hayes and Nebraska rookie Jeff Kinney, a first-round draft choice who can spell either. Wide Receivers Elmo Wright and Otis Taylor and potential superstar Morris Stroud, a 6'10" tight end, give Dawson very good targets.
For all their marvelous talent, the Chiefs probably rate a shade behind the Raiders, who have two young, very capable quarterbacks in Daryle Lamonica and Kenny Stabler. Called "The Snake" because of his running style and build. Stabler has finally matured. Neither quarterback is exactly throwing into a vacuum. There are the exceptional running backs, Pete Banaszak and Marv Hubbard, who last year gained 1,430 yards between them, and Wide Receiver Fred Biletnikoff, who led the NFL with 61 receptions for 929 yards and nine touchdowns. With Raymond Chester at tight end, the Raiders could have the top passing game in pro football. Chester has been named to the Pro Bowl in both his seasons and has never been shut out in a league game.
Even if Biletnikoff and Chester do not play up to their old form, the Raiders have more than adequate consolation in two fine rookie receivers—their No. 1 draft choice from Villanova, Mike Siani, and their No. 4 from Colorado, Cliff Branch. Siani is 6'2", 195 and he had an impressive college career, scoring 33 touchdowns and gaining 2,776 yards receiving. Branch is smaller (5'11", 170) but faster (9.2 one hundred). He catches the ball almost as well and set an NCAA record with eight kick returns for touchdowns. He also runs back kicks for the Raiders and it looks like the switch to the pros won't crimp his style a bit.
The offensive line is strong on rushing plays and pass blocking; the defensive line—Tom Keating, Art Thoms, Carleton Oats and, after midseason, Ben Davidson—is equally effective.
At linebacker, the Raiders are no longer long in the tooth, and the defensive backs may be strong enough to take some of the load off the youngsters, which could be a significant help.
And, of course, if everything else fails, the Raiders can call on George Blanda, who at 45 can fire from his hip or shoulder or foot to win games. Blanda hit 15 out of 22 field goals last year from various ranges and he still seems to have eternal spring in his legs, as though winter will never come.
If there is to be a serious challenge to the rule of the Raiders and the Chiefs, it will come from San Diego, which has nested uncomfortably in third place in the AFC West for six years. The Chargers, to put it mildly, are not the same. Harland (Swede) Svare is slimmer, more alert, wiser and more agile as head coach of the Chargers than he was when he held the same position with the Los Angeles Rams. He credits experience and a severe vegetarian diet for what he hopes will be a more successful tenure at San Diego. If nothing else, the vegetables seem to have whetted his appetite for meat on the hoof—he surpassed the performance of alltime All-Pro swapper George Allen in revising his club for a new season. In the headiest of his trading years, Allen worked out 19 transactions for 33 players. Svare, younger and not as sold on old men as Allen, made 20, and he lost only one No. 2 future draft in the process.
On paper, anyway, the trades have put the Chargers into contention. Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder said that he had moved them from 5-9 to 8-6 in his future book, but never trust a Greek bearing guesses. The Chargers may even be 9-5.
Svare is basically a defensive coach, as befits a graduate linebacker of the New York Giant days in Yankee Stadium when the chant "Dee-fense!" referred to the Giants, not the baseball Yankees. The somewhat vulnerable line he inherited at San Diego is being rebuilt on large, dense bodies. Svare landed Deacon Jones from the Rams, Lionel Aldridge from the Packers and Dave Costa from the Broncos. Then he got fiery Tim Rossovich from Philadelphia to round out his linebackers but a knee injury will sideline him for a good part of the season. His defensive backs have always been good, albeit harried by the inefficiency of those up ahead. If the new people fit in rapidly, the Chargers will have remedied their biggest fault of a year ago—a lamentable tendency to give up easy points on long gainers and hard points on long marches.
The Chargers may be able to score, although this has not been Svare's forte as a coach. When he took his team to the Rams' camp one day for a preseason scrimmage, he left the offensive platoon behind because some of them were ailing and some of them—notably Duane Thomas—were missing. A Los Angeles sportswriter, remembering Svare's career as head coach of the Rams, sighed. "A typical Svare team," he said. "All defense, no offense."
Not quite no offense. The Chargers have a pro quarterback in John Hadl, who has been in the league 10 years and at last seems capable of reading defenses. Always possessed of a strong arm, he is also accurate. For targets he has fast and evasive Wide Receivers Jerry LeVias, 5'10", Gary Garrison and Dave Williams. They will be hard to overlook, even behind the charge of a big defensive line.
The offensive line is as good as any and, should Thomas deign to play for the Chargers, it will be clearing the way for some excellent ballcarriers. Cid Edwards, acquired in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals, gives the Chargers power at fullback for the first time in years, and he teams with Mike Garrett, as good a small running back as lives. Then, of course, there is Thomas, another Jim Brown, some say. Or is there?
Last—and least—are the Denver Broncos, a club that has clumped along for 12 seasons never winning more games than it lost. The Broncos have a completely new coaching staff, beginning with John Ralston, who produced Rose Bowl winners at Sanford University. Ralston is a proponent of positive thinking and, in an unguarded moment during the summer, figured out how the Broncos could, conceivably, win the division with a 10-4 record. A more likely prognosis is 4-10.
The Broncos do have a good defensive unit, even without Costa, who led the team in pouncing on quarterbacks. Denver, in fact, led the league by zapping opposing throwers 44 times before they could get the ball off. The linebackers and defensive backs, understandably, performed nobly behind so savage a rush.
Even with Floyd Little, the Broncos do not have the offensive thrust to take advantage of their defensive might. When a Denver writer asked who would play quarterback in an exhibition game, he was told, "Oh, either or."
Either is Don Horn, who once showed flashes with Green Bay but who hasn't shown much since; or is Steve Ramsey, who came by trade from New Orleans in 1971. And just in case neither is, Ralston has acquired "perhaps" in the person of Charley Johnson, an itinerant quarterback who last sprayed passes for the Houston Oilers. Ralston announced that he would put in an unpredictable offense for the Broncos, featuring lots of passes, especially on first down. Oh, well.
The Oakland Raiders should win the division, barring a barrage of injuries or an early onset of senility for Blanda. They have depth, striking power, defense, a good kicking game and a tradition of winning. If they should falter, it will be the Kansas City Chiefs again, with almost similar equipment, but minus Blanda.