Don Coryell is Woody Hayes in reverse. Three things make the SAN DIEGO coach nervous: the sight of his quarterback handing the ball off; the sight of a running back carrying the ball; and...we can't think of the third, but it has to do with the running game. Coryell tested his passing attack to the limit last year and found out, yes, you have to run the ball to win, if only a teeny-weeny bit. "We work on our running game 10 minutes in practice," said a Charger offensive lineman, "and even that's an exaggeration." Coryell's pass, pass, pass philosophy—in a league whose clubs ran more than they passed, San Diego's pass-to-run ratio was 541 plays to 481—carried the Chargers magnificently to a 12-4 regular season and the division championship in 1979 and brought Dan Fouts the most passing yards of any NFL quarterback ever—4,138. However, the magic went pffft in the playoffs when Houston picked Fouts clean and there was no running game to fall back on.
Coryell acquired Fullback John Cappelletti from L.A. in a trade, but Cappelletti may help the passing more than the running; his big pluses are as a receiver and a blitz-collector. Three offensive linemen—Ed White, Doug Wilkerson and Russ Washington—are getting along in years. Tight End Kellen Winslow is fit after a broken right leg and has the job to himself. Running Back LaRue Harrington (No. 6) could be the steal of the draft if his post-op left knee holds up. Healthy, Harrington would have been a No. 1 or No. 2, and in the preseason he played that way.
The San Diego defense has many quality people. Tackle Louie Kelcher, back from a knee operation that kept him out all but three minutes of last season, lines up next to Wilbur Young, who moves to the outside after a great fill-in job for Kelcher; this gives the Chargers 580 pounds of thrust on the left side. But their fine pass-rushing right end, Fred Dean, was another contract no-show in camp.
The big question: Has Coryell changed his philosophy? Will the Chargers discover the run? Well, they've reduced the number of running plays in their playbook and put in a Pittsburgh-style trap-block system. But who knows what will happen once the action starts?
Last Dec. 23 DENVER played Houston in the AFC wildcard playoff game. The Broncos were down 13-7, and the clock was running out on them. For more than 45 minutes of the game they had been unable to put a single point on the board. As the final seconds ticked away, there was action on the sidelines at the Denver bench: a heated three-way exchange among Coach Red Miller and quarterbacks Craig Morton and Norris Weese. They almost came to blows, or at least shoves. The essence of the debate was this: Why wasn't Morton able to control the ball more and dump it off and move the club? To which Morton replied, Well, Coach, you put the offense in, not me.
The game, and the argument, became a burr in Miller's saddle, and in the off-season he did two interesting things. He hired Stanford Coach Rod Dowhower to concoct a new offense, one that would feature a ball-control passing game—a dump-off game—and he acquired Matt Robinson from the Jets to throw those passes.
So, the Broncos supposedly are ready to attack the jungles of the West with a new quarterback and a new offense, but let's look at this thing sensibly. The idea of the new offense is to throw the ball more to the backs. However, in the last two games of 1979, when the Broncos could score only two TDs, the backs caught 19 of the 27 completions against San Diego and eight of the 14 against Houston.
Denver's defense wore itself out trying to carry the whole load in 1979. The sack total fell from 35 in 1977 to just 19, lowest in the NFL. Gone was Lyle Alzado, the leader of the Orange Crush. Rubin Carter was no longer a hit man at middle guard; in fact, Carter has now been moved to right end, to save his legs, and has been replaced by a new boomer, Don Latimer. Miller hopes the offense will control a bigger piece of the ball so the defense won't have to be on the field all game. On the whole, the Denver defense is still a big league unit, with such stars as Randy Gradishar, Bob Swenson, Bill Thompson and Louie' Wright, and the book still says that good defenses produce playoff teams.
Which brings us to KANSAS CITY, the emerging team in the AFC, thanks to a defense that's on the rise. There was a lot of heat in town during the off-season. Coach Marv Levy's conservative offense drew some of it. Hey, let's throw the ball a little and get some points on the board (K.C. was last in passing in 1979). Then there were the big contracts awarded to the Canadian imports, Cornerback Eric Harris and Quarterback Tom Clements. How about spreading it around a little? How about the guys who fought and bled for ol' K.C. all those years?
In answer, Levy, who buried his unproductive wing T for good midway through last season, promised a rollout passing game tailored to the talents of young Quarterback Steve Fuller. He also found a flyer in the draft, Carlos Carson from LSU, who can burn deep. And after a brief contract walkout by vets Tony Reed and Whitney Paul, which got verbal support from the older Chiefs, management promised that contracts would be examined and adjusted at season's end on the basis of performance. Harris, now rumored to be unhappy with life in Kansas City, missed the preseason with a bad leg, and people wondered when they actually were going to get a look at him. But if he gets straightened out, the defense could have the best in the NFL at two areas—cornerback, where Harris teams with Gary Green, and defensive end, which is manned by Art Still (the second-best in pro football, behind Lee Roy Selmon) and the vastly improved Mike Bell.
Not that the Chiefs are home free. Fuller was impressive last season as a rookie but is still unproved. The offensive line, though anchored by one of the NFL's best centers, Jack Rudnay, is a patchwork unit; No. 1 draft choice Brad Budde is not yet ready to assume command at offensive guard. And the Chiefs' receivers are only so-so. But at least K.C. seems to be moving in the right direction.
Check SEATTLE out. Each year the Seahawks draft for defense, and each year their offense gets better and the defense gets worse. All right, that's a slight exaggeration, but very slight. Nothing could be more ineffectual than Seattle's original expansion-year defense, but opposing passers completed 62.4% against the Seahawks last year, an alltime NFL worst. Youth, they say in Seattle, was the problem. Ah, to have such problems. Management calmly reasoned that a year would work wonders. So there were no panic trades, no wholesale deportations. As always, Seattle went for defense in the draft, and if a single lightning-quick pass rusher will make a difference, then No. 1 pick Jacob Green—6'3", 247 pounds—is the man. The Seahawks paid Green a lot of money (a $1,085 million package over six years), immediately installed him in Carl Eller's old left end spot, and marveled at the way he shot across the line before the offense was set. Trouble was, Green then had to go to the backstroke to get back onside. It seems he has an urge to get going before the ball is snapped.
All this will mean a lot more fun for Kingdome fans, who have had the pleasure of watching the most entertaining team in football. I mean, how many times do you see a kicker (Efren Herrera) recover his own onside kick, and catch a pass, and line up as a wide receiver? What's better than watching Jim Zorn and Steve Largent and the rest of a pass-catch group that can, and will, strike swiftly from any area of the field? Last season Seattle scored an average of 23.6 points per game, fourth-best in the NFL. One negative note: Seattle plays the NFL's toughest schedule, and in one 11-day stretch faces Oakland, Denver and Dallas.
The Raiders are stuck in OAKLAND for at least one more year. Their move to L.A. was blocked in the courts, and they report that the latest legal scorecard shows that eight suits have come and gone and two are still pending. The Raiders have sold 40,000 season tickets (down from last year's 50,000), and the fans for whom they'll be performing will be a curious mix—loyalists, loyalists-turned-bitter, zonk-outs, you name it. There should be some good fights in the stands.
On the field the team that held a pat hand for so many years is now a scrambler. A lot of if bets must come through before Oakland can challenge anybody: healthy knees on the offensive line; run power from Houston import Kenny King to take the heat off a ground game that shrank to fifth-worst in the NFL last year; a healthy Raymond Chester; a happy Dave Casper. The biggest if, of course, is Quarterback Dan Pastorini, who came from Houston even-up for Ken Stabler, the star of the Oakland highlight films for almost a decade. Wide Receiver Cliff Branch, who didn't get along with The Snake, loves the strength of Pastorini's arm. Pastorini also will stand up to a rush better than Stabler did, and he won't give everyone gray hair with the mysterious inconsistency that seemed to come over The Snake in some games, but he won't be as good as Stabler in the last two minutes.
Little is said about Oakland's defense, which was always conveniently hidden by the offense, but last year it was 21st in the NFL, and that must improve.
SAN DIEGO 11-5
KANSAS CITY 9-7