The Seattle Seahawks rose up with such fury at the end of '86 that everyone is picking them to go to the Super Bowl, even though they didn't even make last season's playoffs. I pick 'em, too. Like everyone else, I've been seduced by their finish. Just look at what the Seahawks did. In October they beat the Super Bowl-bound Giants, but that was just a warmup. They ended the year with five straight wins, including a 17-pointer over the Cowboys in Dallas and a 37-0 whipping of the Raiders, when L.A. was pushing for a playoff berth. Denver coach Dan Reeves promised to send his Seattle counterpart, Chuck Knox, a case of Scotch for the victory over the Raiders. Knox thanked Reeves by knocking off the Broncos 41-16 on the last weekend of the season.
So where had they been, these monsters who turned the league's juggernauts into palookas? A stretch of four straight losses sank the Seahawks. At one point during that streak Knox benched his quarterback, Dave Krieg. Seems that Knox is always threatening to bench Krieg or to replace him or do something bad to him when things go wrong. He benched him against the Jets ("We couldn't believe our good luck," one Jets coach said), who gave the Seahawks a 38-7 drubbing, their worst loss in five years, and against the Chiefs, who beat Seattle 27-7, before unbenching him.
I keep trying to figure out why people are down on Krieg, whose 91.0 rating was third in the NFL. "Strictly a dome passer," says a friend of mine who likes to wager. "Get him on the road and he can't play." Hmmm, that's interesting. I did a breakdown on Krieg. His home rating was a dazzling 96.45, and on the road it was 85.08, not as good (all quarterbacks have slightly higher home numbers), but respectable. In fact, Krieg's road rating would have placed him seventh in the league. I see nothing but high productivity in the Seahawk offense—Krieg, wideouts Steve Largent and Daryl Turner, running back Curt Warner and a monstrous line.
The team's big problem, the Seattle coaches decided way before Brian Bosworth declared his intentions, was sub-par linebacker play. So they drafted linebackers in the first two rounds—first Tony Woods and then Dave Wyman. The Seahawks also picked up a sleeper named M.L. Johnson in the ninth round, and they love all three. Then they got the Boz. The act was complete. Bosworth will play the weakside inside linebacker, and he'll stay on the field with the nickel team, along with one other linebacker. Teams will no longer get rich by running against Seattle's one-linebacker nickel setup. The Seahawks will overwhelm the opposition with waves of linebackers, Giants style.
The special teams should improve as well. "Rusty Tillman's just licking his chops, waiting to get some of these guys on his kick team," says G.M. Mike McCormack. The formula is right. Super Bowl prediction: Giants 24, Seattle 17.
When discussing big games, people always seem to pick the wrong play as the turning point. Take Super Bowl XXI. Everyone says the crucial moment was the Giants' goal-line stand in the second quarter. That supposedly broke the backs of the Denver Broncos. Oh yeah? Well, look what happened after that. After giving up a safety, the Broncos got the ball on their own 37 with 1:05 left in the half and took it all the way down to the New York 16, where...don't ask. O.K., they missed the field goal. But the point is, at that juncture Denver was hardly a demoralized team. The Broncos had come right back. That's what quarterback John Elway is capable of doing.
In truth, the Giants won the game in the third quarter, when they wore down the Broncos. Denver was a small team on both sides of the ball. Bigger, more physical clubs had worn them down before, and the Broncos' performance, particularly on defense, sagged noticeably toward the end of the season. Denver allowed 155 points in its last five regular-season games, the same number it yielded in its first 10.
More beef, cried the chef, more meat in the stew. The Broncos are trying. They're shifting players around on defense to bulk up the muscle positions. Freddie Gilbert, a 275-pounder, goes to the power, or left, end, and 260-pound Rulon Jones replaces Gilbert on the right side. Andre Townsend, who's 265, replaces 245-pound Greg Kragen at noseguard. Simon Fletcher, a 240-pound former end, is pushing 218-pound Jim Ryan at the strongside outside linebacker. Things could break down, though, if cornerback Mark Haynes doesn't come through in the spot left vacant by Louis Wright's retirement. The heralded Haynes broke the Broncos' hearts last year with a meager performance.
The only notable addition to the Denver offense will be No. 1 draft choice Ricky Nattiel, a wideout who can fly. So can incumbent receivers Vance Johnson and Mark Jackson. Elway ended the year as the NFL's best catch-up quarterback. Denver will be fun to watch, particularly against Seattle.
During minicamp, I watched Kansas City Chiefs coach Frank (Crash) Gansz call together his players. "Men," he said, and with some teams this would be a signal for the giggles to begin, "when things get critical, when you're at the razor's edge, when you battle to that edge, when you line up in the NFL, there's nothing like it. You're pumping adrenaline down to your toenails. It's like flying four-ship formation."
The former fighter pilot had them. No chuckles, no one-liners, no tee-hees behind the hand. They ate it up. "Veterans, guys from offense and defense, everybody packed in for Frank's meetings when he was special-teams coach," says former Chiefs guard Tom Condon.
Gansz was named head coach on Jan. 10, replacing John Mackovic, who last year led the Chiefs to their first playoff game since 1971. Mackovic was fired a week after he had been offered a two-year extension on his contract. While he was thinking over the offer, the Chiefs withdrew it. Owner Lamar Hunt decided that the club's "chemistry" wasn't right under Mackovic.
Gansz inherits a defense that should be terrific. The secondary is the league's best, and it operates behind an improved pass rush. The Chiefs use the 4-3 now, thanks to the resurgence of sack artist Mike Bell at end.
The offense, however, ranked dead last in '86. The Chiefs hope their first two draft picks, running backs Paul Palmer and Christian Okoye, can revive it. The 253-pound Okoye looked impressive in the early exhibitions, even if he didn't always hit the right holes. Palmer didn't do much. Quarterback Bill Kenney, who took over for Todd Blackledge in midseason, seems to have slipped. Defense, special teams and fire in the eye once again appear to be the key ingredients for the Chiefs.
In the '60s they were the Eleven Angry Men. Then they were the team of Pride and Poise. Next was Commitment to Excellence. Now the Los Angeles Raiders are Bo's Hobby. That's what Kansas City Royals outfielder Bo Jackson said football would be for him when he announced he wanted to spend the baseball off-season running and blocking for the Raiders. Some say Bo will make the transition as smoothly as a centerfielder hitting the cutoff man. Others smile and note that Bo will get a rude awakening when he runs into some of those hobbyhorses in the NFL. However Jackson fares, the Raider operation is built on a hope and a prayer.
The offensive line, which allowed a club-record 64 sacks in '86, is in for a reshuffling. Mostly same faces as last year, some improved, some disproved, some just hanging on, some switching positions. There could be four new starters, the one possible newcomer being No. 1 draft choice John Clay. Only Pro Bowler Don Mosebar is secure at center.
There is a lot of head-scratching over quarterback. Rusty Hilger is a hopeful dream. Marc Wilson is shell-shocked and battered. A year ago he was trade bait. Doug Williams still hopes rumors that Washington will trade him to the Raiders have substance. Hovering over everything, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, is 39-year-old Jim Plunkett.
Canada and the Packers supplied the Raiders with wideouts (Swervin') Mervyn Fernandez and James Lofton, respectively. Coach Tom Flores hopes the two imports will give him the classic receiving package of possession on one side and speed on the other. Last year, with Marcus Allen hobbling, tight end Todd Christensen was L.A.'s only reliable possession guy. Granted, Todd was terrific, but the package wasn't sound.
Even with Howie Long and Mike Haynes playing hurt, the defense was formidable in '86. But guys from all over the roster were being pulled out of hospital beds and told to get out there and play. Some players were so banged up they even hoped the team wouldn't make the playoffs.
San Diego Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts is 36. His bad back is a lot older. The club doubts that Fouts can make it through the season. But there's no real quality behind him. The rest of the operation is a house of cards that could collapse at any time.
The defense is improved, thanks to the arrival of All-Pro outside linebacker Chip Banks from Cleveland. Not that the defense was so bad last season. The Chargers were seventh in the NFL against the run. They also were second (behind the Raiders) in sacks with 62, because of a brilliant rookie, Leslie O'Neal—who's out this season with a knee injury—and the emergence of linebacker Billy Ray Smith as a first-rate rusher. With Banks blitzing from the right—or Lawrence Taylor—side, a switch that fills Banks with joy, San Diego will again make life unpleasant for quarterbacks. Rookie Louis Brock, a nifty little bump-and-run cornerback, should make the secondary better, too.
Former Raider executive Steve Ortmayer has brought stability and competence to San Diego as director of football operations. The draft, which supplied last year's best collegiate tight end, Rod Bernstine, to team with Kellen Winslow and the usual cast of thousands of other receivers, was productive. But the Chargers have relied on Fouts's magic for a long time. Without him, or a trade for a Fouts facsimile, the motor just won't have the necessary spark.
HOW THEY'LL FINISH
3. KANSAS CITY
4. L.A. RAIDERS
5. SAN DIEGO