Los Angeles Raiders
The Raiders' bodies are in Los Angeles, but where are their minds? What's happening to the kids in school back in Hayward and Alameda? How about the nice little house in Marin County that's now up for sale? Or the prices of real estate in Southern California? You say Allied Van Lines wants how much to move us? Hey, don't bother me with that stuff; I've got a game to get ready for.
Don't forget, there are still two slender threads that bind the Raiders to Oakland—the city's eminent domain suit and a possible act of Congress that would yank them back north, if not this year, then next.
Nobody has figured out how the won-lost ratio is influenced by mental stress off the field. One clue: Three years ago, when the Raiders experienced a rare fall from playoff contention, the party line was that they lost their concentration because their boss, Al Davis, wasn't available on a regular basis to give them their daily ration of inspiration. This year Al monitored them closely in their Santa Rosa training camp—when he wasn't flying off to L.A. to check on the ticket situation. And the Raiders are coming off their first losing season since 1964.
The quarterback once again is Jim Plunkett, who lost his job to young Marc Wilson after the three-shutout debacle early in '81. Davis prefers Plunkett's get-it-done-quickly, attacking style to that of Wilson, who's still feeling his way. Plunkett's failings of '81 are now attributed to groin pull and thumb troubles he didn't tell anyone about. He also has shed the banquet poundage that resulted from the Super Bowl season of' 80.
The Raiders' No. 1 draft of USC Tailback Marcus Allen was viewed by the cynical as a ticket push, but Davis says just wait, the kid will open eyes. Running backs Billy Taylor and Greg Pruitt join Davis' 1982 list of imports, along with Lyle Alzado, who's expected to fill Cedrick Hardman's spot as designated rightside sacker.
Flanker Bob Chandler suffered a preseason knee injury. He should be O.K., but he's 33, and durability is imperative in his all-important role of possession receiver—to keep the hounds off deep threat Cliff Branch.
The Raiders' swarming defense got consistent All-Pro-level play from outside linebackers Ted Hendricks and Rod Martin but still slipped to 24th against the pass in '81. Why? Left Cornerback Lester Hayes played at 220 or thereabouts. Strong Safety Mike Davis broke his leg—and the whole operation came unglued. Hayes is now trim and mean again, and Davis is back. The Raiders' 1981 record of 7-9 could have been worse. They won three games by six points, total.
San Diego Chargers
Here's the thing I can't understand about the Chargers. Why stiffen your back and pound the table when loyal and proven veterans such as John Jefferson and Fred Dean want more money, and then open the vault to bring in older talent from around the league? The Chargers wrecked their defense and weakened their offense (yeah, we know, they got Wes Chandler from New Orleans, but there's only one Jefferson) by letting Dean and J.J. go, and instead of a draft this year they got veterans, none of whom is in the minimum salary range—linebackers Dewey Selmon and David Lewis and Tailback Ricky Bell from Tampa Bay; Safety Tim Fox and Wide Receiver Harold Jackson from New England; and Safety Bruce Laird from Baltimore.
Granted, these guys might help—especially Lewis, who had a couple of devastating years with the Bucs—but the basic defect in the Charger defense that gave up the most passing yards in NFL history was a lack of speed. They just couldn't catch anybody. Unless they strap rockets to their players' shoes, that won't change.
What they have done, however, is change the concept. Gone is Jack Pardee and his 4-3. Newly arrived is Tampa Bay's Tom Bass and his 3-4, which had never even been heard of in San Diego. Defensive Tackle Louie Kelcher decided to retire when the needle wouldn't stop at 300 pounds, but he came back. The Chargers say they'll combine 3-4 and 4-3 concepts. Whatever that means.
San Diego should play the highest scoring games in the NFL, and its TV ratings will be way up there. Don Coryell's superstar offense will see to that—Dan Fouts throwing to the most prolific tight end in history, Kellen Winslow (202 catches in his first three seasons) or to Chandler or Jackson or the ageless Charlie Joiner or Chuck Muncie or little Jimmy Brooks, all of them popping out of an endless array of formations. Muncie, who's coming off an extensive drug rehab program, rushed for 19 touchdowns last year, tying an NFL record, and if his head isn't messed up, the sky's the limit.
Doomsayers point to the fact that three of Fouts's staunchest protectors, guards Doug Wilkerson and Ed White and Right Tackle Russ Washington, have all passed their 35th birthdays, but Coryell says that's no problem. They can still block with the best of them. Too bad they can't play defense, too.
Craig Morton arrived with the class of '65, which included Joe Namath, Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers. He was there while pro football changed from a passing game to a running game and back to a passing game. He saw, from the inside, the highs and lows of the Dallas organization. He went down with the sinking ship that was the Giants. He made it to one of the lifeboats and was hauled ashore in Denver, vowing that things would get better. Two weeks before his 35th birthday he quarterbacked the Broncos in Super Bowl XII, only to go under in a mass of interceptions. Poor old Craig. Had a great career. Too bad. Put a rose on his coffin.
Then Craig made a pact with the Devil. "Take life from my legs," he said, "and put it in my arm, and we've got a bargain." The results were amazing. The arm has never died. Year after year in training camp Morton has thrown the ball through walls. The Bronco coaches, Red Miller and now Dan Reeves, scratched their heads. Yep, he's our quarterback, all right. Where else are you going to find an arm like that?
Oops, the sacks. Morton was tackled 92 times from 1978 to 1980. In '81 he went down 54 times, the most in the NFL. The Broncos needed only a final victory over Chicago to win the AFC West last year, but the Bears blitzed their uncles, cousins and in-laws at Craig, and he went down five times and threw three interceptions. The title, the playoffs and everything were gone.
Now it's '82. The Broncos are talking playoffs. They've got a Pro Bowl wide receiver in Steve Watson, who came from nowhere (actually from Wilmington, Del.); a nifty little first-round draft choice, Halfback Gerald Willhite, who can scoot; and a line that's on the verge of a nervous breakdown ("Hey. Craig, how long do we have to hold our blocks?"). And there are no challengers to the 39-year-old Morton. Not Steve DeBerg, who isn't good enough. Not Mark Herrmann, who isn't experienced enough.
Denver has a defense with all the parts in place, but it will suffer greatly if there are any injuries. The defense led the league during the first half of '81, but it sagged badly when Left Cornerback Louis Wright was hurt at midseason. Linebackers Randy Gradishar, Tommy Jackson and Bob Swenson (an extended contract holdout in camp) are proud names, and the Broncos say that last year's No. 1 draft pick, Dennis Smith, will dazzle people as a strong safety this season. But the offensive line will see more blitzes than General Patton ever dreamed up. Reeves is hoping that come December, Craig Morton will still be vertical.
Kansas City Chiefs
The two most famous detached retinas of the year belonged to Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Delaney. Sugar Ray hasn't come back yet, but Joe D. has, and Kansas City has a running game again. But for how long?
Delaney is 5'10", 184 pounds. A running back of Delaney's size used to be thrown back into the computer...to reemerge as a wide receiver or safety. But this is the era of speed, of artificial carpets, of indoor football, of running to arc light. Last year little Joe rushed for 1,121 yards and carried the ball 21 times or more in four separate games, and the Chiefs were able to improve their ground game by 760 yards and end up with a winning record for the first time since 1973.
The problem is, they ran Delaney inside and out, they swung him out of the backfield on screens, and they asked him to dart between the tackles. His listed injuries included knee, ankle and back—and finally the detached retina. It's a risky way to travel.
Ted McKnight and Delaney shared the load through five games last year, until McKnight came up with a knee injury. The Chiefs hope McKnight will be back sometime this year, but if not, Delaney's running mates will be James Hadnot, Billy Jackson and last season's late addition, Clark Gaines, all big guys but none an Earl Campbell.
Coach Marv Levy is of the old run, run and run school, but he finally admitted that his offense must be aired out this year. So he upgraded his drafting position in the first round to land Tennessee Wide Receiver Anthony Hancock. It was a nice try. Until Hancock gets the hang of the pro style, the best he can hope for is a role as the third receiver. The quarterback situation remains a toss-up between the runner, Steve Fuller, and the thrower, Bill Kenney.
The Chiefs' defense was a reflection of their offense—sturdy against the run (it usually happens with teams that face a high-powered running game every day in practice) but only so-so against the pass, despite having one of the NFL's best deep fours in Gary Green, Eric Harris, Gary Barbaro and Lloyd Burruss. The Chiefs have the raw material to mount a pass rush—ends Art Still and Mike Bell—but their sack total was anemic in '81. Point the finger of guilt at the linebackers. Since last season the Chiefs have waived or traded four linebackers who were regulars at one time or another in 1981. Only Gary Spani was immune from an onslaught of rookies. If ever a team's personnel seemed to dictate a switch back to the good old 4-3, it's K.C.'s.
Did you know that Seattle has won four more games than Tampa Bay since they both came into the league in 1976? Did you know that for the past five years the Seahawks have devoted their first pick in the draft to defense and that last year they gave up more yards than ever before? Did you know that the Seahawks have a new man in charge?
No one else does, either. The new man is Elmer Nordstrom, whose family owns most of the club. He isn't described as dynamic, astute or inspired in the Seahawks' press guide. He isn't described as anything. He isn't in it at all, except on one line, among the cast of characters. He's a modest chap, but he isn't happy.
"We're not content with a losing team, and if we don't win we're going to make changes," he says.
An expensive proposition. After the Hawks' 4-12 finish in 1980, Coach Jack Patera got a new five-year contract. When the '81 season ended at 6-10, Nordstrom came charging out of his department store, swept Herman Sarkowsky aside as managing general partner and vowed eternal vigilance.
Unless the defense does a complete volte-face from the last six years, the offense will have to carry it again. Usually the offense shows a banged-up running corps, a creaky line and a frantic, throw-on-the-run passing game. Now the runners are fairly healthy, but the line is still searching for deliverance, and Quarterback Jim Zorn will be doing his scrambling on a left ankle containing a metal plate and six screws and encased in a white high-top shoe. A broken ankle in Game No. 13 created that.
The party line is that the defense will be "vastly improved" in 1982, but we've heard that before. The Seahawks insist that No. 1 draft choice Jeff Bryant, out of Clemson, wasn't as silly a pick as everyone thought, that he's the starting defensive right end and will remain so for many a season. Even Patera, whose permanent legacy will be that sideline image—massive forearms folded across a swelling chest, eyes blazing, jaw clenched in anger—seems to be softening.
For the first time players can wear beards (neat and well trimmed, please). They got a day off after an intrasquad scrimmage, and Patera allowed drinking water on the practice field—always a no-no in the past. Then the whole thing went kapoof when Patera imposed a half-a-game-check fine for Seattle's pregame handshake demonstrations before the opening exhibition. That tariff was voided by the NFL management council, but the players will remember.
L.A. Raiders 10-6
San Diego 10-6
Kansas City 9-7