To Al Davis, they are not really Roger Craig and Ronnie Lott, two aging superstars who came to the Los Angeles Raiders, along with their hefty salaries, via Plan B. No, they are Johnny Mize and Country Slaughter. They are all the famous names that the New York Yankees used to bring in to squeeze a little more greatness out of their careers. Plug a guy in here, another one there, and we'll still be on top. "I loved the old Yankees," says Davis, the Raider boss, "I loved their theory that when a great player was available you grabbed him, no matter what people said, no matter how much it cost."
So Lott and Craig, two former Super Bowl heroes, are now in silver and black. Lott will be the organizer of the secondary, the traffic cop and enforcer. And Craig? Well, he'll join a mob of running backs. Davis apparently subscribes to the theory that you can't have too many good people in high-risk positions.
"We'll open with Marcus Allen," Davis says. "Then we'll hit 'em with Craig, and when they're starting to tire a bit, when the edge is off, we'll sock it to 'em with the big rookie." Who is Nick Bell, the 6'2", 250-pound second-round draft pick from Iowa who was having an outstanding camp until he pulled a hamstring, an injury that will keep him on the sideline when the season starts. The x factor is Bo Jackson, whose injured hip might be well enough for him to play late in the season.
The concept, one the Giants exploited to the fullest last year, is a good one: Build your operation around a strong rushing attack. It will keep Jay Schroeder in comfortable passing situations. What's more, the Raiders have the offensive line needed for a strong ground game. But there's one thing to remember about playing a possession ground game: It only works if it's backed up by a dominating defense.
When we last saw the 1990 Raiders, Buffalo was annihilating them with 41 points in the first half of the AFC championship. "They were so unbelievably hot that no team in the world could have stopped them that day," says Raider defensive end Howie Long, who played the game with his right hand in a cast. He's well now and will anchor a defensive line that includes sack specialist Greg Town-send, tackle Bob Golic, nimble second-year pass rusher Anthony Smith and a big promising rookie, Nolan Harrison.
The Raiders' major difficulty will be getting through a division that has become one of the NFL's toughest. After that, the Bills will be waiting.
Once he was the answer to everyone's favorite sports trivia question: What quarterback started ahead of Joe Montana, John Elway, Steve Young and Vinny Testaverde? Then last season Steve DeBerg became an American hero. At 36, he led the Kansas City Chiefs to the playoffs, showing amazing courage as he struggled, wearing a plastic cast on his broken left pinky, facing up to the rush, keeping cool under fire. "Isn't it ironic," DeBerg was asked last year, "that at age 36 you're finally the undisputed starter on a playoff-caliber team?"
"Yeah," he said, "but why didn't it happen when I was good?"
Good? He threw four interceptions out of 444 passes last season. His teammates voted him their MVP. Now, if all goes well, he will be merely a caretaker for the Chiefs' strong running and excellent defense. (Sound familiar?) The latter features a terrific line, the league's top sacker in linebacker Derrick Thomas and its best cornerback in Albert Lewis. First-round draft choice Harvey Williams adds flash to a ground attack that last year relied on the brute surges of Christian Okoye and Barry Word. And if the Chiefs go airborne, they have wideout Tim Barnett, a speedy third-round pick, to go with the classic deep threat-possession pair of Stephone Paige and Robb Thomas.
There's only one jarring note: K.C.'s tendency to screw things up at the end, as they did in a last-second loss to the Broncos and in blowing big leads to the Colts and the Seahawks in two other defeats. Then Miami came from 13 points down in the final period to beat the Chiefs in the playoffs. Last year K.C. was learning how to win. Now it knows how.
Yes, you've read it here twice already, but you're going to read it once more, and then I'll get off it: ball control and defense. The San Diego Chargers were at their best in '90 when they were mushing the ball along with the big guys, backs Rod Bernstine and Marion Butts. The Chargers were shaky when they had to put the ball in the air.
It figures. San Diego has huge, drive-blocking linemen who don't have the niftiest of feet; a young quarterback, Billy Joe Tolliver, who's still learning the game; and only one high-quality receiver, Anthony Miller. In a preseason game against the Rams, the Chargers decided they were going to try to establish the passing attack. So Tolliver threw 33 times in the first half, and the results were disastrous. San Diego was down 17-3 at halftime, and its offense looked like a baby elephant learning to fly. Now second-year pro John Friesz is the quarterback, on the strength of a 17-for-19 passing performance in the last preseason game.
All that could be overcome if the Charger defense were solid, but it's a streaky operation. It shows flair at times, behind such top-notch players as pass rusher Leslie O'Neal and cornerback Gill Byrd, but then it dies, particularly in nickel situations. Safety Stanley Richard was San Diego's first draft pick, and he should help, but the team has other concerns.
Owner Alex Spanos is a bang-the-shoes-on-the-table type: "Just win now and I don't care how you do it!" Coach Dan Henning's job is on the line. Two key performers, Butts and defensive end Lee Williams, said there was no way they would play for San Diego this year. Williams was traded, Butts held out the entire preseason before reporting Monday.
The story of the Denver Broncos' off-season was that the coach and the quarterback weren't getting along. So this year Dan Reeves has given John Elway freedom to call his own plays. So far, there has been no noticeable difference in an offense that once was big league but now is ordinary. The preseason produced one touchdown in the Broncos' first three games. Maybe next year at this time we'll be reading something like this: "John Elway, freed of the play-calling responsibilities that bogged him down last year...."
One other thing. In the Broncos' preseason loss to the 49ers, Elway's receivers gave him absolutely no help. Four drops, no tough catches. The Amigos are a myth.
Last year, as the Broncos fell from the Super Bowl to 5-11, the defense crumbled. They point to injuries. This year Denver made linebacker Mike Croel of Nebraska the fourth pick in the draft, but he was a late signee. The exciting rookie has been another Cornhusker, eighth-rounder Kenny Walker—he's only the second deaf player to play in the NFL—an undersized 246-pound defensive end who can really get after the passer.
A Soviet sprint coach came up with the idea of attaching small parachutes to the athletes' backs to increase their speed by adding resistance while they run. The Broncos have tried the chutes. So far no world records.
People keep predicting the big slide for the Seattle Seahawks, but somehow they are always fighting for at least a wild-card spot in December. Quarterback Dave Krieg would seem to be replaceable, but last year he took every snap. Stories have appeared about how the Seahawks will have to do something about their aging defensive line, but last season the threesome of Jacob Green, Joe Nash and Jeff Bryant remained intact for the ninth straight year. Now it looks as if last year's first-round pick, Cortez Kennedy, is ready to make his mark. But Green, the elder statesman at 34, still had his most productive sack season since '85, with 12½.
You write the Seahawks off and they keep chugging along, stealing some games, blowing others. One note: Their first-round pick, 6'8", 243-pound Dan McGwire of San Diego State, was described as the unsackable quarterback. In Seattle's preseason opener, the Cardinals hit him. He went down.
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