The Denver Broncos have a tradition that was born in the mid-1970s, when an outstanding crop of defensive players came together. The showpiece players were linebacker Tom Jackson and end Lyle Alzado, who were wild, freewheeling types, and the rock was noseguard Rubin Carter. That defense set the tone for a decade.
Denver has come almost 180 degrees. The image of the team is now John El-way, brilliant and unpredictable—he runs, he passes, he punts, he catches passes, he leaps tall buildings. Trouble is, the Denver defense is now suspect.
People forget what the Broncos did during the season. The lingering memory is of the Redskins burying them under 602 yards in the Super Bowl. The Denver coaches put a heavy share of the blame for the Super Bowl defeat on inside linebacker Ricky Hunley, so he was shipped off to the Cardinals for a backup center. In 1984 the Broncos had traded a first-, third-and fifth-rounder to get Hunley. This year their first draft pick was Ted Gregory, a noseguard from Syracuse with a bad knee and a style based more on quickness than on muscle. Then the Broncos removed Pro Bowl end Rulon Jones from the base 3-4 defense, assigning him the role of situation pass rusher. And they put linebacker Karl Mecklenburg in Hunley's weak-side inside spot. Maybe this will stop the Redskins' countertrey, a play Denver will see plenty of this season.
Offensively, the Broncos gained one and lost three. Tony Dorsett brings his 34-year-old legs from Dallas. Denver hopes they have another 800 or so yards left in them. But last season's offensive coach, Mike Shanahan, has gone to Los Angeles to become head coach of the Raiders, and he took two assistants with him. Denver coach Dan Reeves has compensated with numbers. The Broncos have 16 assistants, an NFL high. With all their offensive talent, it will be a major surprise if the Broncos don't reach the playoffs. After that, things will get sticky.
The Boz watch has started. Eyes have turned toward the multimillion dollar, multiyear contract of SEATTLE SEA-HAWKS linebacker Brian Bosworth, and the green-eyed monster is raising its head. Boz's running mate at inside linebacker, Fredd Young, who's coming off a Pro Bowl season, is locked into a contract that would pay him $350,000 this year. He stayed out of camp. No love is lost between the two linebackers. Bosworth was often confused as a rookie in '87; the cost of education is going up.
Quarterback Kelly Stouffer, who sat out a year as a St. Louis draftee, was signed by Seattle last April for a $1 million bonus and a $3.1 million, four-year package. He has a live arm.
Mike McCormack is a very able general manager, and the Nordstrom family could give the world a lesson in what ownership of an NFL team is all about. The Seahawks will pay for those players they think will help. But let's face it, those big numbers on contracts are bound to cause some unease unless Bosworth and Stouffer produce.
The LOS ANGELES RAIDERS are mystifying. For 25 years the Raiders' trademarks have been deep pass routes, straight-ahead, nontrap power blocking and bump-and-run, man-to-man cornerbacks. That was Al Davis football. So along comes the youngest coach in the NFL, the 36-year-old Shanahan, and he tells the boss. We're going to change all that, and Al smiles and says. Go to it, kid.
One of Davis's great talents has been identifying a weakness on the team and immediately correcting it. But now, with a lingering problem at the most crucial position of all, quarterback, Al does nothing. So the Raiders are starting the season with Steve Beuerlein backed up by Vince Evans—unless Davis has a trade up his sleeve. But what's he got to trade with? He used this year's No. 1 for wideout Tim Brown and next year's to get wide receiver Willie Gault. Who will get them the ball?
Here's another puzzler. Bo Jackson lays down his baseball glove, puts on a helmet and—presto!—instant fireworks. But figure this: The Raiders were 2-1 in nonstrike games before Bo suited up, 2-7 after he joined them.
Their defense, led by the best pair of safeties in football—Vann McElroy and Stacey Toran—will be good enough to keep them in most games, assuming the offense can score.
After a disastrous '87 season the KANSAS CITY CHIEFS replaced both its offensive and defensive uncoordinators, and now the staff is laced with Super Bowl experience. Rod Rust, the new defensive guy, ran the Patriots' 1986 Super Bowl defense. He will get the Chiefs out of the 4-3 that finished 27th in the NFL last fall and into a 3-4. George Sefcik was the Bengals backfield coach in the '82 Super Bowl. He will coach the Kansas City offense.
Bill Kenney is now the No. 1 quarterback, with no one looking over his shoulder. Steve DeBerg, who arrived by way of a trade with Tampa Bay, replaces Todd Blackledge, who was dealt to the Steelers, as the backup. Tom Bettis, who coached the Chiefs' defensive backs to both their Super Bowls (was it really 19 and 22 seasons ago?), is back in the same capacity.
Knowledgeable Chiefs watchers say that the team has plenty of talent, most notably the superlative secondary of Deron Cherry, Albert Lewis, Lloyd Burruss and Kevin Ross. It's just that, offensively and defensively, everyone was on the wrong page. The draft has produced lots of people who will make the squad, which is what happens when you finish 4-11. The seventh-round pick, linebacker Troy Stedman, is an interesting sleeper, but for the draft to be termed a success, the No. 1 pick, Neil Smith, must come through.
The SAN DIEGO CHARGERS have a sorry quarterback situation: Mark Malone backed up by Babe Laufenberg, or maybe vice versa. But it is likely to last only one year. The Chargers should be in a position to draft the No. 1 collegian, UCLA's Troy Aikman. The team's best offensive lineman, tackle Jim Lachey, said he wanted to go home to the Midwest. So Owner Alex Spanos told his general manager, Steve Ortmayer. "You've got 48 hours to get him out of here." So Lachey was traded to that great heartland of America, Los Angeles; to the Raiders, same division, no less. In return, the Chargers got 320-pound John Clay, who immediately came down with a hip flexor injury.
Linebacker Chip Banks staged one of his usual training-camp holdouts. On Monday, Aug. 8, Spanos told him to report to camp by Thursday or Spanos would withdraw his contract offer. Thursday came and went. Banks was still a holdout. Stay tuned.
It's tough for anyone to operate effectively in such an atmosphere, and Ortmayer and Al Saunders know how to get things done. But sadly, the Chargers, who opened 8-1 last year and closed 0-6, have too many holes to fill now that Dan Fouts is gone. Defensive line, cornerback, offensive line—you name it.
HOW THEY'LL FINISH
3 LOS ANGELES
4 KANSAS CITY
5 SAN DIEGO