The difference between the Chargers and the Raiders? The schedules. They're the same except for three games. San Diego gets three tough opponents, Cleveland, Miami and Arizona, while Oakland plays Cincinnati, Washington and the Jets. That could be the difference.
He was valedictorian of the class of '83, the first of six quarterbacks chosen in the first round, the first player taken in the entire draft. The Baltimore Colts picked John Elway and traded him right away to the Denver Broncos when he threatened to go play the outfield for the New York Yankees. Now, three of Elway's classmates, Tony Eason, Ken O'Brien and Todd Blackledge, are gone. Dan Marino limps as he sets up to throw those zingers, and Jim Kelly's shoulder and knees don't feel very good. How about Elway?
He heard the off-season rumors about his deteriorating left knee and the loss of speed on his fastball, and then he came out and did his, thing in the preseason. Zzzip! Ball's there. You check for signs of age and maybe you see it most clearly when he has to scramble. The bounding colt look has been replaced by the slightly awkward Ichabod Crane look of a guy of older vintage. Elway is 35, and last year he was sacked 46 times, the most in pro football. We know that part of it was his fault because he likes to wait for his receivers, but he wasn't getting good protection, either. This season the line is healthy, and the veteran unit had a good camp. The Broncos also will have a sound running game if sixth-round sleeper Terrell Davis turns out to be as good as he looked in the preseason, if tiny Glyn Milburn (page 72) doesn't wear down, and if Rod Bernstine, who's always hurt, can put together one healthy season.
Elway has close friends around him—new coach Mike Shanahan, quarterback coach Gary Kubiak—and you get the feeling that the big push is on this year, before Elway gets too much more mileage on him. The defense, last in the NFL last season, has gotten the kind of help the offense got in 1994. It will be loaded with free-agent imports like tackle Michael Dean Perry, cornerback Lionel Washington and linebacker Dante Jones.
I'm picking the Kansas City Chiefs to go 8-8, but I'm getting a case of the 10's. The Chiefs won a total of 20 games in 1993 and '94, the Joe Montana years. They won 20 the two years before Montana arrived, too. That's 40 in Marty Schottenheimer's last four years as coach, and 40 is what he had in his last four years with Cleveland. From this you could surmise that Schottenheimer, whose Chiefs are the only team to have reached the playoffs every season in the 1990s, is a 10-wins-per-year coach and that this is a 10-wins team. So why bother to play the season?
I don't think Kansas City will win 10 games this year because I don't think quarterback Steve Bono, who has started 11 games in 10 NFL seasons, is the equal of his predecessors—Montana, Dave Krieg before him, and Steve DeBerg before that. Mechanically Bono is O.K., but I don't detect that certain oomph in him that this team needs to make a serious playoff run.
The Chiefs are trying to help Bono, though. From the Jets comes Jeff Criswell, who will man the right tackle spot but could play on the other side if John Alt has more back trouble. The line gave up only 19 sacks last year, 14 of them coming in games in which Alt was injured. The defense also gets an infusion of Jets, James Hasty and Brian Washington. Those two, along with returning veteran Dale Carter, are creating all sorts of action in the secondary, with starting assignments still to be determined.
There is something else that we should touch on—the story that simply won't die involves rumblings of a feud between Schottenheimer and general manager Carl Peterson. If it's serious and disruptive, then it's time for owner Lamar Hunt to decide who goes and who stays. Schottenheimer has put a respectable team on the field; Peterson can point to the NFLs top attendance mark last year, and this season he has 60,000 season tickets locked up before the first ball is kicked.
Dennis Erickson, the new coach of the Seattle Seahawks, is in an alcohol rehab program. Brian Blades, the star wideout, is out on bail on a charge of manslaughter in the shooting of his cousin. Chris Warren, the Pro Bowl running back, is facing fourth-degree assault charges for allegedly slapping a woman outside a bar, and his backup Lamar Smith, who had a sensational training camp, is awaiting trial for an auto accident (in which Warren was a passenger) that left a teammate, defensive end Mike Frier, paralyzed. If they can manage to shut all that away in a different part of their brains, the Seahawks could have a decent season.
Erickson and his young quarterback, Rick Mirer, are a perfect fit because this is a coach who can really develop signal callers. Just look at his roster of college quarterbacks: at Idaho, John Friesz, Seattle's current backup; at Washington State, Timm Rosenbach, a first-rounder; at Miami, Craig Erickson, the starter for the Colts, and Heisman winner Gino Torretta. Now he has Mirer, who will work out of a quick-pass system that may even include a one-step drop, and a terrific speed burner in rookie wideout Joey Galloway. Erickson also inherits a running game that was second in the NFL last year.