The Oakland Raiders are the coming team in the AFL. That does not mean the Raiders are going to start marching off with a succession of championships. There are too many good clubs in the league for that now. But the Raiders have improved vastly over the past three years and are still getting better. They are a young team with a nucleus of veterans. They can score and they have a tough defense. The only unknown quality at Oakland as this season begins is the new coach, John Rauch, a former All-America quarterback at Georgia. Rauch was an assistant at Oakland for three years while Al Davis was building the Raiders into a winning unit and says he does not intend to change the team's personality. Chances are that Davis, who has returned to the club as a part owner with the splendid title of Managing General Partner, will help see to that.
Davis has a magic touch. Last year he traded for Quarterback Dick Wood from the Jets when he already had two able, if dissimilar, quarterbacks in Tom Flores and Cotton Davidson. So Davidson got hurt in training camp and missed the entire season, and Wood threw eight touchdown passes. The Raiders won eight games, one less than Western Division champion San Diego, and might well have won a couple more with Davidson. His absence was especially felt against hard-rushing clubs like San Diego and Kansas City. Wood has gone to Miami, but Davidson, the scrambling relief pitcher, is back to help Flores, who is an accurate passer but does not have a strong arm.
The Raiders are what pro football men call a big-play team, which means they can turn a disadvantage into an advantage in a hurry. One big reason for that is Halfback Clem Daniels, who ran for 884 yards last season, caught 36 passes (the Raiders often throw to their running backs) for 568 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. Roger Hagberg and Hewritt Dixon, who was a tight end at Denver, supply depth at fullback. The swift Larry Todd, who at 185 pounds was considered too light for running back, has been moved to the flank, where he will be a dangerous receiver. Rookie Tom Mitchell may become the tight end Oakland has sought. Fred Biletnikoff, who came on fast during the last half of his rookie season, could become an outstanding deep receiver.
But there is one Oakland receiver who stands far ahead of the others. He is Art Powell, who takes a tremendous beating from linebackers in Oakland's cast formation but makes the key third-down catches and is difficult to cover deep. Powell is not only big and fast but has excellent moves. Like Daniels, his partner in a training camp holdout designed to get them more money, Powell scored 12 touchdowns last year.
Oakland's offensive line features Center Jim Otto, whose specialty is picking up a blitz. The guards, one of whom is three-time All-Star Wayne Hawkins, are not large but are fine pass blockers. Tackles Bob Svihus and Harry Schuh were regulars as rookies and should have improved. The Raiders are fast, run their deep patterns well and are adept at forcing a linebacker into one-on-one coverage and then beating him.
Although it may not sound so, Rauch views his offense as the place where Oakland needs improvement. The defense was solid last year, giving up an average of 17 points per game and allowing no opponent to score more than three touchdowns. Defensive Ends Ike Lasiter and Ben Davidson are rejects who have begun to play up to their potential. Davidson, a 6-foot-7, 270-pounder with a red mustache, is a fierce pass rusher. Tackle Dave Costa is strong against the run. The Raiders are looking for another tackle with a good inside pass rush. Last year Oakland used from four to six rookies as starters in every game. This season the Raiders signed four of their first five draft choices and three futures.
Regular Middle Linebacker Archie Matsos has been traded to Denver, leaving two pro sophomores, Bill Budness and Dan Conners, competing at that position. John Williamson, the left linebacker, is the oldest of the group at 24. Gus Otto, a rookie last year, is the starter on the right. The Raiders are wealthy at corner backs, with All-AFL Dave Grayson on one side and Kent McCloughan, a 1965 rookie, on the other. McCloughan was a 220-yard dash champion at Nebraska, where he outscored Gale Sayers in the Big Eight. At safeties the Raiders have Warren Powers and Howie Williams—last year's starters—as well as Joe Krakoski. Rodger Bird, No. 1 draft choice, could break into the Oakland secondary.
The Raiders move into the new 53,000-seat Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum this season. That sports palace is a fantastic improvement over the makeshift stadium where the Raiders used to play. The Raiders themselves are just as much of an improvement over the Raiders of the past. Rauch's concern over his offense likely will prove groundless. "I sincerely believe," he says, "that the forward pass is pro football's most effective weapon and will design my offense accordingly." With that intention, he is fortunate to have Davidson back. The Davidson-Flores combination won 10 games in 1964. "They were never cold at the same time," says General Manager Scotty Stirling. "If one was having a bad day, the other came in and always was hot." Oakland will be in the Western championship struggle with Kansas City and San Diego all the way.