AFC WEST

September 01, 1996

The cards have been dealt, and the Kansas City Chiefs are
standing pat with their straight. Elsewhere around the table
teams are drawing to flushes and full houses. But can you knock
Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer for resisting change with a
squad that ran up an NFL-best 13-3 regular-season record in 1995?

At the close of training camp the Chiefs listed 42 players back
from last year's 53-man roster, a remarkable number in this era
of free agency. We're happy with what we've got, management was
saying. We just have to figure out how to win in January.

The only change anyone suggested, albeit quietly, was at
quarterback. Steve Bono received little criticism during the
regular season, when he threw for 3,121 yards and 21 touchdowns,
but he saved his worst game for the postseason, a 10-7 loss to
the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional playoffs. He threw
three interceptions. He was 11 of 25. Granted, lots of things
went wrong that day. And who knows how much Bono was bothered by
lingering injuries to his passing hand (strained ligaments in
his right ring finger and a bruised right thumb suffered in an
early December game)? But the whispers persist: Is Bono the man
to take the Chiefs all the way?

Last season he was master of the dink. Only Boomer Esiason of
the New York Jets had a lower yards-per-completion average than
Bono's 10.65, and Esiason was playing on a team with no
downfield speed. Bono was, too. His leading receivers were
fullback Kimble Anders and tight end Keith Cash. Lake Dawson,
the primary wideout, caught 40 balls, which ranked him 53rd
among NFL wideouts. This year Tamarick Vanover, the flashy kick
and punt returner, will join Dawson as a starter at wide
receiver. Plus the playbook will be reduced. "I've always
believed that more is not always better," Schottenheimer says.

Kansas City found all sorts of weird ways to win last year. In
September it won consecutive overtime games, one week rallying
against the New York Giants with an offense that consisted of
swinging the ball to Anders, the following week edging the
Oakland Raiders--but only after Oakland wideout Tim Brown
collided with the umpire, allowing Chiefs cornerback James Hasty
to intercept a pass and return it 64 yards for a TD. Later in
the year K.C. toppled the San Diego Chargers on Vanover's
86-yard overtime punt return, did in the Houston Oilers on
defensive back Mark Collins's last-minute 34-yard fumble return
and sealed a victory over the Denver Broncos on defensive end
Vaughn Booker's 14-yard fumble return for a score.

Why quibble? Wins are wins, and the Chiefs, in making a
concerted effort to sign their own veterans in the off-season,
particularly their fine young offensive linemen, held to a
steady course. Schottenheimer wouldn't trade his offensive line
of, from left tackle to right tackle, John Alt, Dave Szott, Tim
Grunhard, Will Shields and Ricky Siglar for any other in the
game, and that includes the Dallas Cowboys' unit. Kansas City
led the league in rushing with a 36-year-old tailback, Marcus
Allen, and allowed only 21 sacks of a slow-footed quarterback.

The Chiefs also led the NFL in fewest points allowed and were
second in total defense in 1995. In the biggest change on the
defensive side of the ball, Derrick Thomas has moved to
strongside linebacker, and Anthony Davis, a skilled cover man,
has taken over Thomas's weakside position.

On paper K.C. is chalk to make the Super Bowl, but I don't see
the Chiefs going there with this quarterback.

Ten games into the 1995 season, the Oakland Raiders looked as if
they would make a Super Bowl run. Then quarterback Jeff
Hostetler aggravated a shoulder injury against the Cowboys, and
an 8-2 start gave way to an 0-6 finish. It was bad enough that
the Raiders packed it in, but it was worse when a lot a players
admitted as much. "We need people with character," said
cornerback Albert Lewis after the season. Added guard Kevin
Gogan, "We've got guys who just don't care."

Coach Mike White accepted a lot of blame. "The coaches didn't
prepare the backup quarterbacks well enough," he said. "Poor
conditioning. We never recovered from the Dallas loss. Our game
plans focused too much on the opponent." I'm not sure what that
last sentence means, but certainly there's enough blame to go
around.

Fast-forward to July. The Raiders were in Austin, where they had
just finished scrimmaging Dallas. It was one of those typical
Raiders-Cowboys affairs, with fists flying in all directions.
Only this one was a little rougher than usual, what with three
fights in five plays. Steve Wisniewski, Oakland's Pro Bowl
guard, expressed a grudging admiration for the guys with whom he
had traded punches. "It's a team that was basically taken over
by the players," he said. "They've said the hell with the
coaches, and that's what we've got to do. It's what the old
Raiders teams did. There's just too much talent to let it slide
away. The other day I counted up something like 18 former
first-round choices on our squad."

Oakland's most significant additions this season are defensive
tackle Russell Maryland and cornerback Larry Brown, both free
agents from Dallas, and backup quarterback David Klingler from
the Cincinnati Bengals. The top draft pick was tight end Rickey
Dudley, a remarkable physical specimen out of Ohio State who in
camp was not the sure-handed receiver he was in college.

A fifth-place schedule will help. The Raiders are ready to
explode--in one direction or another.

Rarely does a rookie linebacker burst on the scene as John
Mobley of the Denver Broncos did during an exhibition game
against the San Francisco 49ers. First there was his quick
strike at the point of attack. He showed remarkable coverage
instincts, twice breaking on a slant pass to a wideout and
nearly making an interception. He finished with 12 tackles, two
pass deflections and one quarterback knockout (Gino Torretta),
which cost him $10,000, courtesy of the league office. Broncos
tight end Shannon Sharpe compared Mobley, who went to Kutztown
(Pa.) University, to Junior Seau. Defensive tackle Michael Dean
Perry mentioned Lawrence Taylor. To me he looked like Tom
Jackson, the best outside linebacker in Broncos history.

Last year Denver got some free-agent help on offense, and the
result was a team record for most yards in a season and a
reduction in sacks allowed, from 55 in 1994 to 26. Now the
defense gets a boost in the form of Mobley and a trio of
free-agent acquisitions: strongside linebacker Bill Romanowski,
pass-rushing end Alfred Williams and tackle Jumpy Geathers,
whose forklift move is impossible to block, according to the
Broncos' offensive linemen. Perry grinned widely the first time
he watched Geathers practice. "Now who are they going to
double-team?" he said.

The Denver front office is not shy about rewarding veterans.
Quarterback John Elway, who has lost little off his fastball,
signed a five-year, $29.5 million package in the off-season.
Terrell Davis, a sixth-round pick who blossomed as a 1,117-yard
rookie runner, got the final two years of his $164,000-a-year
contract torn up and a raise that put his average annual salary
at $1.36 million over the next five years. Jason Elam, who hit 5
of 7 field goals beyond 50 yards last season, received a
six-year, $4.8 million deal.

There's one negative. Denver's road record in the 1990s is
16-32. Straighten that out and the Broncos can expect their
first invitation to the playoffs since 1993.

Perhaps the San Diego Chargers got a little too comfortable as a
playoff regular. Following on the heels of their first Super
Bowl appearance, last season's first-round playoff loss was
enough to make Bobby Ross wonder what kind of team he was
coaching. "We weren't a Dallas or a San Francisco, the kind of
team that's used to being there," Ross said during camp. "I was
concerned about whether we were handling it right. Our
off-season workouts weren't as well attended. Players were
promising me they were going to make the Pro Bowl. I'd say,
'What about the Super Bowl again?' and it was, 'Oh, yeah, that
too.'"

Ross and general manager Bobby Beathard say that the 1996 roster
is filled with "character people." Which by implication means
that the noncharacters were unloaded. Running backs Natrone
Means and Ronnie Harmon are gone. Means, who was released, had
fallen into disfavor last year when he sought a new contract,
then reported to camp overweight and pulled a groin muscle
during the season. Harmon's incessant demands were getting on
Beathard's nerves, and he wasn't offered a contract for '96. The
replacements are Aaron Hayden and Terrell Fletcher, willing
workers but, until proven otherwise, not possessing the same
talent.

In the pass-rush department, the free-agent dance sent Leslie
O'Neal to the St. Louis Rams and brought in Marco Coleman from
the Miami Dolphins. "Leslie's an edge rusher," Ross says.
"Marco's a squeeze-the-pocket bull rusher. Plus he's six years
younger."

The free-agent pickup that has the Chargers ecstatic is middle
linebacker Kurt Gouveia, one of coach Ray Rhodes's overachieving
wackos in Philadelphia last year. The Eagles desperately wanted
to keep Gouveia, but you've got to pay the price these days (in
Gouveia's case, $4.3 million over three years). Philly didn't.

Quarterback Stan Humphries will be throwing to favorite wideout
Tony Martin and whoever wins the Smurf derby on the other side.
Third-round pick Brian Roche gives San Diego its first tight end
who can get downfield since Kellen Winslow retired in 1987.

Ross sees a new commitment, based on healthy attendance at
off-season workouts. These Chargers might not be as talented as
the '94 edition, but at least they don't have post-Super Bowl
syndrome.

The fans of the Pacific Northwest are in a funk of their own.
They loved their Seattle Seahawks in the Jim Zorn-Steve Largent
early expansion years and in the 1980s, when the Seahawks went
to the playoffs four times, but after a 2-14 record in 1992 and
a 6-10 mark in '93, enough was enough. Twice in each of the last
two years attendance dipped below 40,000 at a home game, the
first time that had happened in a nonstrike year. This season
30,284 showed up for an exhibition game against the Atlanta
Falcons, the smallest nonstrike crowd in the 21-year history of
the franchise.

The biggest factor is that Seattle hasn't had a winning season
in five years. Another is owner Ken Behring, who announced last
season that he had to move the Seahawks to Los Angeles because
the Kingdome wasn't safe from earthquakes. Then in April a new
player entered the game. Paul Allen, a Seattle native and the
multibillionaire cofounder of Microsoft, has a 14-month option
to buy the Seahawks and promises to keep them where they belong.
However, the box office reports that a record-low 36,500 season
tickets had been sold as of mid August, with many of the former
faithful refusing to re-up until Behring is gone.

The only constant last year was Chris Warren and the running
game, which finished third in the NFL. Quarterback Rick Mirer,
who struggled to learn rookie coach Dennis Erickson's new
system, threw an AFC-high 20 interceptions. The defense finished
25th in the league. Despite these failings Seattle won six of
its last eight and finished 8-8. In the last five years the
other four teams in the division have been moving away from the
Seahawks. During that stretch Seattle's record against AFC West
opponents is 9-31. Only when the Seahawks learn to beat these
people consistently will it be time to take them seriously.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Players like Danan Hughes (83) make special plays for the Chiefs' special teams. COLOR PHOTO: TIM DE FRISCO The Broncos gave Elway a five-year, $29.5 million deal for his passing, not his running. [John Elway] COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Among AFC backs, Warren has been front and center over the past four seasons. [Chris Warren]

Prediction

Chiefs
10-6

Raiders
9-7

Broncos
9-7

Chargers
8-8

Seahawks
6-10

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)