AFC West

AFC West

September 06, 1981

There are two OAKLAND Raiders. There are those nasty customers who want to stiff the good people of Oakland and move their franchise south, and then there are the guys who stiffed the opposition on the field last year. Let's not lose sight of the latter. The Raiders' march to the Super Bowl was magnificent. They were the first wildcard team to go all the way. They had to win two playoffs on the road. They were led by a castoff quarterback. O.K., if the NFL people hadn't forgotten to cover the field in San Diego the night before the AFC championship and all those Charger receivers hadn't gone sliding around on the rain-soaked turf...if...if. But the Raiders did it, see; they did it with an attack that restored the bomb, a proud and sturdy offensive line, a running back, Mark van Eeghen, who doesn't fumble, and an imaginative defense that featured Linebacker Ted Hendricks and Cornerback Lester Hayes.

Most people picked Oakland to finish last in the division in 1980, and even now, when you mention the Raiders' chances, the experts shake their heads and say, "Well, with Jim Plunkett at quarterback...." But Plunkett has found the ideal home—a line that can protect him and a deep-pass philosophy. At the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio last month, Raider Managing General Partner Al Davis sat in the press box and watched Cleveland complete 13 of 25 passes on Atlanta in the first half. "What do you think, Al?" he was asked. He shrugged. "How many patterns were deeper than 15 yards?" he said. "Two," he was told. "You see," he said, smiling.

Basically the 1981 Raiders are a stand-pat team. The few draft choices who will make the squad represent down-the-line, not immediate, help—first choice Ted Watts, out of Texas Tech, may be the sixth defensive back in prevent situations; Washington's Curt Marsh, another first-rounder, could eventually replace 36-year-old Left Guard Gene Upshaw; and Villanova's Howard Long, a mean defensive tackle picked in the second round, adds depth up front.

It's like this with John Jefferson and the SAN DIEGO Chargers: In 1978 the Chargers drafted J.J. in the first round and signed him for seven years and an option year, with most of the money deferred way down the line. The Chargers congratulated themselves on a good piece of business, but it's a funny thing about those long-term deals. If the player gets to be a star, the contract can come back to bite the club. So last year, after two All-Pro seasons, Jefferson, having noted he would be making only about $100,000 for each of the next six years, expressed annoyance with his contract and it was "rearranged." The deferment terms were changed slightly, another year was added and incentives—lollipops, the players call them—were included, the kind you have to work like hell to get, such as $25,000 for leading the league in TD catches, $25,000 for 1,000 yards receiving, etc. Jefferson collected $82,500 in incentives last season, but realized this was very iffy money. He figured his base of $100,000 wasn't much for a guy who'd caught 199 passes for 36 touchdowns in three years. He asked for another rearrangement. Gene Klein, the owner, pointed out that the contract was rearranged last year. Jefferson got Howard Slusher to represent him, which meant he doesn't report to camp. And that's where the matter stands, although it could change at any moment.

To replace Jefferson, Coach Don Coryell is trying Ron Smith and some new imports—Billy Brooks (ex-Bengals) and Dwight Scales (Rams and Giants). How Coryell loves to collect players who can catch the ball. Last year he traded for New Orleans Running Back Chuck Muncie. In this year's draft he added a nifty little RB named James Brooks (first round) and a big tight end named Eric Sievers (fourth). There's nothing more dazzling than Air Coryell, which took dead aim on its own passing records last year and shattered them. And for those unbelievers who thought Air Coryell would be crippled without Jefferson in the lineup, in their second exhibition game the Chargers got a 27-for-34, 347-yard night from Quarterback Dan Fouts and his very capable backup, Ed Luther. Having gigantic Right Tackle Russ Washington (knee in '80) back in the lineup certainly didn't hurt.

But for all that offense, for all the sacks (60, most in the NFL) from the three defensive linemen—Fred Dean, Gary Johnson and Louie Kelcher—who started in the Pro Bowl, the Chargers have a soft spot. Once you get past the front four and Right Linebacker Woodrow Lowe, there's a lack of defensive speed. And there's also what one rival AFC coach calls "a lack of toughness. They like to do things the easy way. Stay close to them in the fourth quarter and they can be had." The Chargers' fourth-quarter record last year, not counting ties, was 4-7, and they were outscored 77-52. To cure that sickness, the Chargers signed ex-Washington Head Coach Jack Pardee to run their defense.

The DENVER Broncos' new management rolled up sleeves and took a look at the problems. The Broncos couldn't move the ball; only three teams in the NFL had less yardage and no team in the AFC threw fewer touchdown passes. Their quarterback, Craig Morton, was 38. They were coming off an 8-8 year, and their once proud Super Bowl defense—the Orange Crush—had sunk, statistically, to the lower half of the league for the first time in six years.

Where to begin? The money, naturally. Denver had the highest payroll in the league. They called in Middle Linebacker Randy Gradishar. How about renegotiating your contract, Randy—downward? Uh, no, sorry, fellas, it isn't in my plans. O.K., better get off that track. We'll trade away the high-priced players—Gradishar, Tackle Claudie Minor, Linebacker Bob Swenson, Tight End Riley Odoms. Oops, no takers. Well, what do we do now?

Edgar F. Kaiser Jr., the new owner, is a go-go guy who's impatient. Grady Alderman, the new G.M., is getting on-the-job training. Dan Reeves, the new coach, is an offensive whiz, but so far the Broncos haven't caught on to the multiple-set offense he perfected at Dallas. Morton, his old teammate on the Cowboys, will run the show. He has smarts, but at 38 he can't avoid the rush anymore. Reeves cut Matt Robinson, for whom Denver had traded a first-and second-round draft choice. Hey, he wasn't our mistake, he was the other guys'. Kaiser wouldn't mind seeing rookie Mark Herrmann get an early shot, but like we said, that new offense is complicated. The defense looks better. The payroll is still high. That will change, but the won-lost won't.

The KANSAS CITY Chiefs lost their first four games last season. Then they won the next four. Then they lost one, won one, lost one, won one for the rest of the year. And while everyone was getting airsick from this strange ride on the seesaw, grim rumblings of discontent were heard in the locker room. Some guys wanted to play all the time, some didn't. Coach Marv Levy ignored the rumbles. Owner Lamar Hunt wondered what ever happened to those mighty teams that used to crush everybody in the AFL? The Chiefs haven't had a winner in seven years.

Defense is no problem. If Mike Bell stays healthy, the Chiefs have a set of ends—Bell and Art Still—as good as any in the league. The secondary is terrific, and it should get even better as third-round draft choice Lloyd Burruss works his way in at strong safety. The offense was the worst in the NFL, statistically, last year. The line couldn't cut it, and there was a strong difference of opinion about the ability of the No. 1 draft, Guard Brad Budde. That conflict led to the eventual firing of very popular Line Coach Joe Spencer, who's now with the Saints. The quarterbacking is in young hands, Bill Kenney filling in for a month or so while Steve Fuller recovers from a knee injury. The draft produced instant offensive help, particularly two tight ends, South Carolina's Willie Scott and Southern Mississippi's Marvin Harvey, each of whom is better than what was there, plus a dashing little running back named Joe Delaney. The question is, how much does this club want it?

No attitude problems on the SEATTLE Seahawks. Johnny Kai won't allow it. Who's Johnny Kai? The new motivation coach, a former Green Beret instructor who has the players growling that they're tough. Seems that this system had a tryout in Vietnam.

Now if Kai could find the Seahawks some offensive linemen, they'd have it made. Last year the sack total jumped from 23 to 51, and QB Jim Zorn wore the haunted look of a man pursued by demons. When Halfback Sherman Smith went down with a knee, the offense went kaput. After a tentative start Smith seems to have regained his old form, but Guard Tom Lynch, one of the few big league linemen on the team, is a holdout, so darker days may lie ahead. As the offense was dying last year, though, the defense was coming on. And No. 1 draft Ken Easley, an instant starter at safety, should make that defense even better.

PHOTOVan Eeghen's got a grip on things in Oakland. PHOTOCapt. Fouts pilots Air Coryell for San Diego.

PREDICTED FINISH

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OAKLAND 12-4
SAN DIEGO 12-4
DENVER 8-8
KANSAS CITY 5-11
SEATTLE 3-13

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)