Quarterback Len Dawson has thrown 132 touchdown passes in the past five seasons, more than anybody else in either league. He is very accurate either as a drop-back passer or rolling out and throwing from Stram's "moving pocket," and he is a good enough runner to be able to scramble for long yardage. Dawson's backup man, Pete Beathard, is one of the team's better runners and has an exceptionally powerful arm. In Dawson and Beathard, the Chiefs have the finest pair of quarterbacks in the league, with the possible exception of Jack Kemp and Tom Flores at Buffalo. Their targets—Flanker Otis Taylor, Split End Chris Burford and Tight End Fred Arbanas—have proved themselves to be of championship quality. Taylor is a particularly dangerous receiver. In 1966 he caught 58 passes for an average gain per reception of a fantastic 22.4 yards, nearly three yards more than the average of Bob Hayes of Dallas.
The offensive line is about the same as last year's. Center Jon Gilliam has returned after an injury to challenge Wayne Frazier at that position. Left Tackle Jim Tyrer and Left Guard Ed Budde are standouts. Curt Merz and Al Reynolds are competing at right guard; so are Dave Hill and Tony Di Midio at right tackle. Stram's main concern is on defense—in line depth, at corner back and at linebacker. Left Defensive Tackle Ed Lothamer missed the final seven games of last season, as well as the championship and Super Bowl games, because of an injured shoulder. The shoulder has been operated on and seems all right now, but Lothamer has come up with a bad ankle. His replacement, Andy Rice, is not in Lothamer's class as a pass rusher. End Jerry Mays and Tackle Buck Buchanan are all-AFL performers. Right End Chuck Hurston was ill and played in the Super Bowl more than 20 pounds underweight, but he has recovered.
Left Linebacker Bobby Bell, one of the quickest in the league, is as good as ever. However, Middle Linebacker Sherrill Headrick, a nine-year veteran, may have slowed up a bit, and Right Linebacker E. J. Holub, victim of chronic knee trouble, does not get around as well as he once did. Two of Stram's best rookies—245-pound Willie Lanier from Morgan State and 235-pound Jim Lynch, Maxwell Trophy winner from Notre Dame—are pressing Headrick. Corner Backs Fred Williamson and Willie Mitchell were somewhat less than brilliant against Green Bay receivers in the Super Bowl. Mitchell got most of the criticism, which Stram says he does not deserve. "There were a number of factors involved," says Stram, "including Bart Starr. Nobody stops Bart Starr from completing passes." Williamson won't stop anybody for a while; he is out with a broken arm and will miss several regular-season games. Fletcher Smith and Emmitt Thomas could wind up as the Kansas City corner backs. Fortunately for Stram, there is no worry at safety, where Johnny Robinson and Bobby Hunt handle the patrolling.
Nor is there a problem with kicking. Last season when Tommy Brooker faltered, the Chiefs were lucky enough to get Mike Mercer from Buffalo on a lend-lease deal. Mercer kicked 21 of 30 field goals and was reclaimed by Buffalo after the Super Bowl. Now the Chiefs have a rookie named Jan Stenerud, a Norwegian who went to Montana State on a skiing scholarship. A baseball coach saw Stenerud bashing a football around the campus. After he was persuaded to join the football team, Stenerud kicked a 59-yard field goal in a game. He consistently drives his kickoffs into the end zone. "That takes a lot of pressure off our defense," says Stram. "If the circumstances call for it, I wouldn't hesitate to have him kick any time we have the ball from the 50-yard line on in." That means Strain would let Stenerud try a field goal from his own 43-yard line, but he has the leg for it. The punter is Jerrel Wilson, with an average of 44.2, highest in the AFL.
Stram says last year his team's theme was "maturity and leadership." This year it is "poise, confidence and attitude." That the Chiefs' attitude is spirited was proved in the exhibition opener in Houston when Kansas City and the Oilers engaged in one of the wildest on-field brawls in football history. Houston Tackle Willie Parker jumped offside and hit Beathard. Garrett promptly slugged Parker. Both benches emptied and the two teams collided in what looked like an infantry charge. There were fights all over the field, but there were also spots of humor. "I pulled at the shoulder pads of a guy in a blue jersey," said Jon Gilliam, "and then I looked up and saw it was Ernie Ladd. So I said, 'What do you say we go break this up, Ernie?' " That is a nice example of poise. If the Chiefs keep it, they should be able to stand off the charge of Oakland.
The Raiders are a club with everything but a quarterback. They traded their regular, Tom Flores, to Buffalo along with their best receiver, Art Powell, who was unhappy in Oakland. In return, they got Receiver Glenn Bass and Buffalo's backup quarterback, Daryle Lamonica, whose duties in relief of Jack Kemp had become less and less demanding. But Coach John Rauch, who faces the prospect of winning the title or getting fired, was not satisfied with Lamonica. Rauch brought in enough quarterbacks to fill an extra bus. When the early scrimmaging was over, Lamonica was the starter, despite having to learn an offensive system that is drastically different from the one he knew at Buffalo. But, lo, out of the mob appeared elderly George Blanda, who had been released by Houston and signed by Oakland as a field-goal kicker. Blanda played a bit in exhibition games and some are predicting he will be the Oakland quarterback before the season is over. Cotton Davidson, another venerable fellow, who has some very hot days, is still around and is the only quarterback thoroughly familiar with the way the quiet man, Rauch, does things, which is about the same way former Coach Al Davis, now an owner, did things. It is conceivable that Davis could become the Oakland coach again in midseason if the team is not doing well.
The Raiders have a fine young offensive line held together by that fine old center, Jim Otto. In the Oakland style, a great number of passes are aimed at the tight end, and Oakland has good ones, best known of whom is former Running Back Billy Cannon. Lionel Taylor, traded by Denver, will probably play split end ahead of Pervis Atkins. Rauch's lone concern at flanker is which ones to keep. At one period he had Bill Miller, Fred Biletnikoff, Glenn Bass and Rod Sherman all in the same position. Clem Daniels, a perennial holdout, has signed his contract and will be the running back ahead of the very talented Larry Todd.
Defense, though, is the Oakland specialty. The line—featuring the huge, mustached end, Ben Davidson—is tough to run on and has a thundering pass rush. The linebackers are young and mobile. The defensive backs are the best in the AFL, particularly Corner Backs Dave Grayson and Kent McCloughan. Several Kansas City survivors of the Super Bowl admitted they were, of course, quite impressed with Green Bay. "But I would have to say," Beathard says, "that the Oakland corner backs are every bit as good as Green Bay's and maybe better."
The lack of a quarterback experienced in the Oakland system is the only thing that will keep the Raiders out of the AFL championship. That fault should be corrected within a year or two.
The San Diego Chargers, meanwhile, have been busy correcting faults of their own, primarily on defense. When Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison departed the Chargers after the 1965 season, the talk in San Diego was that the team would have a smaller, quicker, more fluid defense. It was so fluid that people waded right through the Chargers. For this season, Sid Gillman traded for Scott Appleton, Tom Day and Johnny Baker—all experienced, all defensive hands—and is counting on several rookies, including his No. 1 draft choice from Wyoming, Defensive End Ron Billingsly, 6'8" and 265 pounds. "This will be our best defensive team in years," Gillman says. That could be a significant statement since Gillman once won championships with his defense. The linebackers, Rick Redman, Chuck Allen, Frank Buncom and the injury-jinxed Baker, are excellent and all thoroughly tested. The defensive backs are good, but there are not enough of them, as the Chargers found out in their terrible rout by the Rams. Kenny Graham and Speedy Duncan are first-rate, but the Chargers will miss Miller Farr, who went to Houston for Appleton and Baker.