This is a question-mark position for every team except Oakland. Coach John Madden fields the NFL's best former Alabama quarterback, 30-year-old Ken Stabler (see Key Player), although Stabler had trouble last year with interceptions; his total of 24 was second highest in the league to Joe Namath's 28.
At Denver, Steve Ramsey succeeds the retired Charley Johnson. A bespectacled six-year veteran with a semi-sidearm delivery, Ramsey has a quick release but his bland manner hardly inspires confidence, and he lacks Johnson's leadership and flair. San Diego acquired Clint Longley from Dallas after his bouts with Roger Staubach. He backs up Dan Fouts, who always seems to be hurt and who last year suffered seven different injuries. Neal Jeffrey is available, too. All three young quarterbacks will profit from the coaching of Bill Walsh, who tutored Ken Anderson at Cincinnati and has become the Chargers' offensive coordinator.
With Lenny Dawson definitely retired. Mike Livingston finally is No. 1 for Kansas City. "Livingston is not a finesse guy but a street fighter who gets the job done," says Coach Paul Wiggin. Livingston has started 31 games in eight years—and the Chiefs have won 18 of them. Tampa Bay's John McKay (see Newcomer) hopes he can coax Steve Spurrier, who is returning to Florida after nine years with the 49ers, into displaying his 1966 Heisman Trophy form. Spurrier's laconic style may unsettle McKay. Spurrier has always unsettled purists with his swanlike passes. Told that John Brodie had said Spurrier throws one out of three passes into the ground. McKay cracked: "That's O.K., we'll just get shorter receivers."
September 12, 1976
Oakland's line—from left tackle to right: Art Shell. Gene Upshaw, Dave Dalby, George Buehler and John Vella—may be the best in the game. Mark van Eeghen, 24, replaces fellow Colgate alum Marv Hubbard at one running spot. Hubbard recently had his third shoulder operation and may not see action until the playoffs, if then. Veterans Clarence Davis and Pete Banaszak work opposite van Eeghen. Banaszak scored 16 touchdowns a year ago but had a disastrous fumble in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh. Cliff Branch (51 receptions, nine touchdowns) is Stabler's long-distance threat, while Fred Biletnikoff (43 receptions) and Mike Siani work medium range. Dave Casper and ex-49er Ted Kwalick are the tight ends. Oakland has one glaring weakness: the lack of a game-breaking back (O.J., where are you?).
Oakland's most dramatic change saddens the shuffleboard set. Fred Steinfort, 23, will do the placekicking, not 48-year-old George Blanda, who was finally done in by time after 26 seasons. If Steinfort has troubles, Punter Ray Guy—the NFL's best—could double up.
Denver lost its offense in last year's fourth game when Otis Armstrong, who had led NFL rushers in 1974 with 1,407 yards, was lost for the season with a torn hamstring. "When I was hurt," Armstrong says, "my dreams of being No. 1 started to fade in my mind, and I don't like not being No. 1." Along with most of the 19 starters who missed at least one game in 1975, Armstrong has recovered. Fullback Jon Keyworth is healthy again, too; he bores through the middle and keeps defenses honest for Armstrong. The weak Bronco line has been weakened further by the expansion-draft loss of disgruntled Tackle Mike Current, who started in 105 straight games. Tackle Marv Montgomery broke a leg and wrecked a knee in recent seasons but seems in good shape. Bill Bain, a 1975 No. 2 draft pick by Green Bay, whom the Broncos acquired last week, could start if Montgomery falters; however, he did not play regularly for the line-poor Packers. Rookie Tom Glassic will start at guard. Jim Turner's placekicking is a Denver plus (he made two 53-yard field goals in 1975).
One of San Diego's best weapons, rookie Joe Washington from Oklahoma, had knee surgery during training camp and will miss at least half the schedule. However, Don Woods, the 1974 Rookie of the Year when he rushed for 1,162 yards, returns as a fullback after missing the final nine games of 1975 following knee surgery. Coach Tommy Prothro reacted to criticism of his stodgy offense by hiring Walsh from the Bengals and handing him the attack. Walsh brought Flanker Charlie Joiner (37 receptions) with him and has put plenty of camouflage and razzle-dazzle into the playbook, but Washington's absence may force the Chargers to revert to Dullsville.
MacArthur Lane and Woody Green run behind a young line in Kansas City as the Chiefs try to rebuild. Rookie Rod Walters, the No. 1 draft, starts at guard. Otis Taylor—the other half of Dawson-to-Taylor for the touchdown—was traded to Houston, and the remaining KC receivers are only average, with the exception of Tight End Walter White, the find of 1975 (23 receptions and three long TDs of 69, 60 and 48 yards). Jan Stenerud's placekicking could be the main weapon for the Chiefs. Besides McKay's wit, Tampa will depend on three Oakland expansion rejects—Tight End Bob Moore and Running Backs Harold Hart and Louis Carter—and on two former Florida backs, Jimmy DuBose and Vince Kendrick. And on Wide Receiver John McKay, the coach's son.
This is a weak position in the division. Oakland's Monte Johnson is still learning in his second season as a regular. However, he is flanked by Phil Villapiano and Ted Hendricks, and their proficiency makes his job easier. Randy Gradishar was one of the few Broncos who started all 14 games in 1975. He led the team in tackles, and intercepted three passes en route to the Pro Bowl. San Diego's Tom Graham, discarded by both Denver and Kansas City, remains a journeyman. Willie Lanier starts his 11th season with the Chiefs but bad knees have slowed him down; still, the savvy Lanier had a career-high five interceptions in 1975. Jimbo Elrod, a fifth-round draft choice from Oklahoma, may replace Lanier if Kansas City starts slowly. "I've never seen a player with such an obsession to be where the football is," Wiggin says of Elrod. Tampa's Steve Reese, acquired from the Jets, will get little rest.
Never exactly fearsome, Oakland's front four lost End Horace Jones, a five-year veteran who had played in 70 consecutive games, when he tore knee ligaments on his first play of preseason. In Jones' absence, Madden will deploy a three-man rush of Tony Cline, Otis Sistrunk and Dave Rowe or add either his top draft pick, 6'9", 270-pound Charles Philyaw, or Jeff Winans, recently acquired from Buffalo, and play the standard four-man front. Philyaw may be the biggest man in the NFL, but several scouts expect him to be the biggest bust. "He's the first player I rejected," says Tank Younger, San Diego's assistant general manager. "He can't play. No way." Indeed, for all his size (he wears a size 17 shoe) and an alleged speed of 4.7 for the 40, Philyaw's exhibition play was marked by recurring ankle injuries and a tendency to complain over lesser hurts. The Raiders have football's most aggressive ball hawkers in the secondary, with an NFL-high of 35 interceptions a year ago. Cornerback Alonzo Thomas picked off six, and so did rookie Safety Charles Phillips. Still, Phillips has been unable to crack the starting safety tandem of George Atkinson and Jack Tatum.
Stan Jones built one of the NFL's most effective rush lines when he coached at Denver from 1967 to 1971, and now he returns to the Broncos after four years with Buffalo. Jones has switched Paul Smith to right end and has installed more formations than the Broncos ever used before. Most important, he has moved tough Lyle Alzado to the point-man position in an unbalanced front. San Diego has added youth at linebacker, with rookies Woodrow Lowe of Alabama and Ray Preston of Syracuse battling for the weak-side job and Rick Middleton, secured from New Orleans, challenging Don Goode on the strong side.
Kansas City may start as many as four rookies, including Free Safety Gary Barbara and Tackle Keith Simons. One old Chief who will be missed is Buck Buchanan, the large tackle who anchored the Kansas City front for 13 seasons but has retired to join Hank Stram's coaching staff in New Orleans. Tampa's rush features Dave Pear ("the core of our defense") and the irrepressible Selmon brothers, Dewey and Leroy of Oklahoma fame. Almost accidentally, McKay went to a three-man line during the preseason, and when it worked well it was promptly labeled the "Double Bubble." Dewey Selmon and Pear alternate at the core, with Buffalo's Pat Toomay at one end and Leroy Selmon sharing time with Council Rudolph at the other. When the Double Bubble bursts, though, McKay will need some more old Sooners at linebacker and in the secondary.
Raider Owner Al Davis likes to keep his players in constant fear for their jobs, sometimes to the detriment of morale. Almost to a man, the Raiders deplored Davis' handling of George Blanda at camp. In Davis' defense, Blanda refused to retire gracefully and didn't want a glamorous press conference to announce his retirement from the game. John Ralston may be out as general manager and coach if the Broncos don't make the playoffs. They have never played a postseason game in their 16-year history. Ralston's failure in the trading market, specifically his inability to land Jim Plunkett, his former Stanford quarterback, has upset the Denver players. Another rap against Ralston is that he devotes more time to public speaking than to football. San Diego's season-ticket sales dropped from 40,341 in 1973 to 20,467 this year; the Chargers need a winner and don't need any more books written about them—or any more "drugs" incidents. Tampa Bay's assistant coaches all appear to be intimidated by John McKay, who seems a study in detachment at Buccaneer practices, just as he was at USC.
The Raiders, of course, for the ninth time in 10 years, followed by Denver, San Diego, Kansas City and—stop laughing. John—Tampa Bay.
Oakland's talent at other skilled positions would be wasted but for the coolness under a rush and the left-handed accuracy of Quarterback Ken (Snake) Stabler. "It's essential that we have a guy in that position who can deliver the ball," says Coach John Madden. "And that's what Kenny does better than anyone else. He moves the ball. Our offense all begins with Stabler." Hobbled by a bad knee last season. Stabler still completed 58.4% of his passes for 2,296 yards and 16 touchdowns. The NFL's best conductor of the two-minute drill. Stabler is the player Oakland can least afford to lose. "The difference between Stabler and his backup," says one coach, "is the difference between an ace and a deuce."
Since he is a football fundamentalist, John McKay will not devastate Tampa Bay's foes with esoteric plays, weird formations or other assorted razzle. Nor will he deliver any miracles. What he will do between quips and one-liners is get the Buccaneer franchise off to a solid start and, no doubt, spring an upset or two the way he regularly did against Woody Hayes. "If we're going to take our beatings," McKay says, "we'll take them. But we're not going to give the future up. I'm not going to base the season on how many games we win but on how we improve." McKay will try to make Tampa fans feel that the Bucs' 2-12 season was really 12-2. "We can win some games if we are aggressive, protect the passer and our prayers are answered," says McKay. No joke.