During his lively career, Al Davis, the managing general partner of the Oakland Raiders, has been called many names, most of them pejorative. One of his fellow general partners often refers to him, scathingly, as The Genius.
When you consider the Raiders' record over the last 10 years, in which they won a higher percentage of their games than any other NFL team, and when you consider the wealth of talent on hand for 1973, you have to agree with the disgruntled associate, who spoke wisely in anger.
Perhaps the most accurate measure of the Raiders' prowess is the fact that their first draft choice, Ray Guy of Southern Mississippi, is a punter and placekicker. Punting is one of the few spots at which Oakland needs help.
Oakland Coach John Madden explained the importance of a punter not long ago. "We are a gambling team," he said. "We need a punter who can get us out of a hole if necessary. We like to throw long and if we have a punter who can't bail us out, we're in trouble. For instance, say we're running the ball from our own 20. Without a good punter you have to spend three plays trying to pick up the first down. If you have someone like Guy you can gamble on those downs, knowing he'll put the ball well into their territory if you fail."
The Raiders made one controversial trade, sending All-AFC Tight End Ray Chester to the Baltimore Colts for All-Pro Defensive End Bubba Smith. Smith was out of action with an injury last year and, on the surface, the trade did not seem to make much sense, since Chester is younger and healthier.
The Genius has a rationale. "I went over the teams that have played in the Super Bowl," he said recently. "You know something. Not one of them had a super tight end. You know something else. They all had a great pass rush. We needed someone to help our pass rush and I think we got him in Bubba."
With the punting and pass rush upgraded, Oakland presents an unblemished front on both offense and defense. Since the departure of Wide Receiver Warren Wells and the emergence of Running Back Marv Hubbard, who last year gained 1,100 yards on the ground, the Raiders have become a remarkably balanced team offensively. Last year they gained 2,376 yards rushing and 2,369 passing. They have strong-armed quarterbacks in Daryle Lamonica and Ken (The Snake) Stabler and should they misfire there's always 46-year-old George Blanda.
If you want to pick a nit, the Raiders may be a bit short of linebackers. Elsewhere—in defensive linemen, defensive backs, offensive linemen, receivers, running backs, and acumen, they are overstocked. It is said that scouts from the rest of the league camped in a coffee shop near the Raiders' Santa Rosa training camp to snatch late rejects. "We can't slip anyone by on waivers anymore," Davis said sadly, referring to an old ploy of his. "They're all waiting for us."
One of the few teams that do not have to depend on Raider rejects is the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs have almost as much talent as Oakland. Their problem is that they are beginning to grow a bit long in the tooth. Len Dawson is still a very good quarterback, but he is in his 17th pro season and is 38 years old. Indeed, the Chiefs may have more players in their fourth decade than any other team except the Washington Redskins. Linebacker Bobby Bell is 33, Defensive Tackle Buck Buchanan 33, Offensive Guard Ed Budde 32, Tight End Willie Frazier 31, Running Back Wendell Hayes 33, Safety Jim Kearney 30, Defensive Tackle George Seals 30, Wide Receiver Otis Taylor 31, Cornerback Emmitt Thomas 30 and Offensive Tackle Jim Tyrer 34. The offensive line has begun to leak and the Chiefs need a good pass rush from the outside. The addition of Willie Ellison from the Rams, the return to health of Ed Podolak, who has bulked up from 190 pounds to 205, and the added experience of Jeff Kinney could do much to refurbish a lackluster running game. The Chiefs' kicking is super. Jan Stenerud has hit more than 20 field goals in six straight seasons and tops the NFL in career percentage, while Jerrel Wilson led the league in punting last year with a booming 44.8 average.
If there was any truth in the Santa Rosa coffee shop bit, one of the most avid scavengers had to be the representative of Harland Svare, the coach of the San Diego Chargers. Svare seems to be taking a leaf from George Allen's Win Now and Damn the Consequences book. He has stocked the Chargers with an assortment of players of advanced experience and ruffled pasts, and if John Unitas can squeeze another good season or two out of an arthritic knee and a tired arm, Svare could come up with a second-place team. But that is a very large "if."
In Irvine, Calif., where the Chargers trained, even Unitas was doubtful. "My knee has bothered me," he said while watching an old black-and-white Western on TV, which was fitting—most of his greatest feats were telecast in black and white. "It got sore when I was doing agility drills. I haven't done agility drills in 10 years. That's for defensive linemen. Finally, I said to hell with it and quit. Now the knee feels pretty good, but the main problem with it is that it's 40 years old. People told me that things change after you're 40, but I didn't know they changed so much. The first two weeks of camp made a believer out of me. Little things I used to shake off are big things now. I'm going to give it a try but if I don't think I can cut it, I'll hang 'em up. It wouldn't be fair to the club or the good young quarterbacks if I tried to hang on."
It seems likely that Johnny U will cut it, at least for this season, especially in view of the strength of the Charger line, which allowed only 23 sacks last year. Unitas will have fine running backs to hand off to, most notably Mike Garrett, who could have his second straight 1,000-yard-plus season.
One possible source of friction is that Unitas' approach to the game does not coincide with the Chargers'. "They believe in ball control," he said. "Someone is going to have to change. I like more freedom. And I've been around too long to change."
If Unitas gets his freedom, he'll be heaving to two flyers in Jerry LeVias, who missed almost all of 1972 with a knee injury, and Dave Williams. His most reliable target, however, is Gary Garrison, the only receiver in NFL history to catch 40 or more passes for seven straight seasons. And if the Chargers get close enough they'll score. Dennis Partee has not missed a field-goal try from inside the 30 in two years.
The Charger defense depends upon an elderly, much-traveled but rugged line. Deacon Jones and Coy Bacon are disaffected Rams, Ron East came from Dallas, Dave Costa left the Denver Broncos in a huff, and Lionel Aldridge is a former Packer. Behind the front four the defense is questionable, the linebackers being particularly bewildered covering backs against the pass. A solid year at middle linebacker from Tim Rossovich, who missed nine games last season with knee surgery, would help.
The Denver Broncos have not plugged enough holes to challenge Oakland or Kansas City this season but in the next few years they may supplant Kansas City as the team Al Davis drafts and trades to beat. Denver Coach John Ralston certainly thinks so, but then he's an accredited Dale Carnegie Institute instructor.
Charley Johnson, healthy for the first time in years, gives them an old head and a soft arm at quarterback. A young, strong and improving offensive line will probably afford him more than enough time to hit his receivers, who are top-notch. Riley Odoms, a tight end who was a No. 1 draft pick last year, shows signs of becoming preeminent and the wide receivers—Gene Washington, who was obtained from Minnesota in exchange for Rod Sherman, and Haven Moses—have hands and speed. The running backs, led by All-Pro Floyd Little, are deep and dangerous.
The Bronco defensive line is one of the top young fours in the league, but Coach Ralston needs to shore up a skimpy set of linebackers and he could use another good back to help with increased zone coverage. The Bronco secondary gets unusual help from the line, which dumped opposing quarterbacks 41 times in 1972.
So it looks like the Raiders again. Under Madden and Davis they are one of the few innovative and daring teams left in pro football and one of the two or three strong, favorites for the Super Bowl, the others being Miami and possibly Pittsburgh.
"I'm worried," Davis said recently. "Denver is a really strong young club and Kansas City had a lot of injuries last season and you can't expect them to have the same bad luck this year. We'll be lucky if we win our division. Real lucky."
Not lucky, Al. Good. Real good.