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Tex Maule
September 16, 1968
The Raiders are again the class of the West, but the ever-dangerous Chiefs could make a good run for it
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September 16, 1968

Western Division

The Raiders are again the class of the West, but the ever-dangerous Chiefs could make a good run for it

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If it is credible to say that a team which won 13 of its 14 games last season had any very serious weakness—other than an inability to beat Green Bay in the Super Bowl—then let it be said that the only thing Oakland really lacked was an outside pass receiver with exceptional speed. A few years ago a sprinter at either flanker or split end in professional football was something of a freak, a fellow regarded as a desperate measure or as a luxury item. They came and went, usually without having caught a pass or touched a linebacker on a crackback block. But now a truly fast outside receiver is a necessity for opening opposing defenses. A good team can hardly get by without one, although the Raiders managed to do so by establishing a sound running game, completing 59 passes to the fullback and playing defense in a style that caused that unit to be called The Eleven Angry Men.

This year the Raiders may have cured themselves. In fact, they may have become fairly wealthy in outside receivers with speed, even though one of the two candidates has been around for several seasons without ever having quite made it and the other would rather not be an outside receiver at all. Warren Wells signed with Detroit in 1964, did two years in the military, was released by Detroit and picked up by Kansas City in 1967, was quickly sold by the Chiefs to the speed-hungry Raiders after last season's exhibition game. He played little for Oakland, catching only 13 passes. But when he did get his hands on the ball he was a marvel. Of his 13 catches, six went for touchdowns. The average distance per reception was 23.2 yards, a remarkable figure. Oakland Coach John Rauch had a close look at Wells in preseason games this year, and Wells has had some brilliant performances. If he can keep it up, the Raider offense will be greatly improved.

However much Ranch might be counting on Wells, there is at least an equal dependence on a rookie who was Oakland's No. 1 draft choice. Eldridge Dickey was a quarterback at Tennessee State, and many scouts believed he might become the first black quarterback to play as a regular in professional football. Dickey also believed it, and he still does. In college he passed for 6,628 yards and 74 touchdowns while his team was winning 34, losing five and tying one. At 6'2" and 198 pounds, Dickey is a superior athlete. Rauch already has three quarterbacks—with veterans Cotton Davidson and George Blanda backing up the young Lamonica—and has used Dickey as a flanker. "I realize it takes a long time to become a good pro quarterback," says Dickey. "I'm willing to play flanker if I can help the club, but I want a tryout at quarterback, too."

Oakland's lack of speed should not be interpreted to mean its passing game is helpless. Far from it. Fullback Hewritt Dixon was fifth in the league in total catches, showing his background as a former tight end. Running Back Clem Daniels, out for much of the year with an injured ankle, is another good receiver. And Billy Cannon, the Heisman Trophy halfback of 1959, has become a spectacular tight end. Last year he caught 32 passes for 629 yards, and he scored 10 touchdowns to lead the club.

Oakland's most effective veteran outside receiver is Fred Biletnikoff, whose speed is somewhat underrated. Biletnikoff relies on deception and on the ability to hold the ball once it reaches him, but he must be moving faster than he seems to be. Last season his 40 catches produced 876 yards for a 21.9 average, which is a lot of ground to cover for a man who is thought of as having mediocre speed. The other veteran outside receiver, Bill Miller, had been cut twice by Oakland after having played for the Texans and the Bills. But last year he finally became a starter, caught 38 passes and was the Raiders' most productive receiver in the Super Bowl.

Ironically, the Oakland passing game did not really become versatile until Davis traded Art Powell, who had been the Raiders' finest receiver and one of the best in the league, to Buffalo for Lamonica. Rather than having Powell to depend on, Lamonica was forced to vary his targets. After four seasons as Jack Kemp's understudy at Buffalo, Lamonica was ready to become a star. He topped the AFL in touchdown passes with 30 and had the lowest percentage of interceptions while finishing as the league's leading passer. Lamonica has the size—6'3" and 215 pounds—that coaches like in quarterbacks, and he is certainly not short on assurance. "We'll be trying new things this season, things I couldn't experiment with last season because I had a tough enough time just learning the basic offense," says Lamonica. "Now we've gone through our first full season together. We'll know each other's moves. Our plays should be sharper. We'll be more flexible. With Clem Daniels able to run again, he'll give us that extra speed. I'm more excited now than I was about the club last year. We know we can win again. Every guy on the team feels it."

If Daniels can indeed run again with his old style—good enough to make him the alltime AFL rushing leader, the Raiders will add further dimension to their offense. But Daniels was limping in the early work and may be less than 90% of himself. That is still superior to most. When he was hurt last season he had already gained 575 yards rushing. To take his place, the Raiders had tough Pete Banaszak, a better blocker than Daniels, but slower. The other running back last year was Larry Todd, who broke in as a rookie in 1965 by gaining 149 yards in 20 carries against Houston but never again came close to that sort of performance. However, all three veteran running backs could be supplanted by Charlie Smith of Utah. Smith, who weighs 200 pounds, has run the 100-yard dash in 9.6. "He is easily the best runner we have ever had in camp as a rookie," says Al Davis. "He could be an outstanding back."

Oakland's offensive line is still improving despite the fact that Center Jim Otto and Guard Wayne Hawkins are in their ninth seasons. Tackles Harry Schuh and Bob Svihus are entering their fourth seasons, and Left Guard Gene Upshaw, who is remarkably fast for his 255 pounds, had a fantastic year for a newcomer. Defensively, Oakland missed the goal set by Rauch but still led the AFL in 19 categories. If Tackle Tom Keating, out of exhibition games with a torn Achilles' tendon, returns to form, the defense should be as stubborn as ever. "We told our defense if we could be the team with the least number of points scored against us, we would be in contention," Rauch said. "Actually, Houston was the least scored upon. But it is also important how you keep your poise after giving up a touchdown. A quick score can crack open a game. We didn't allow any easy touchdowns. Every opponent had to work hard for its points." In contrast, the defense, sparked by Middle Linebacker Dan Connors, repeatedly came up with fumble recoveries and pass interceptions. The front four of Keating, Dan Birdwell, Ike Lassiter and Ben Davidson threw opposing passers 67 times for 666 yards in losses. Cornerbacks Kent McCloughan and Willie Brown are as good as any pair in the AFL, and there is depth in the secondary, especially with the addition of rookie George Atkinson, a seventh draft choice who looks like a winner. The Raiders have developed into the AFL's best team, with good depth. Still developing, they may be a couple of years away from their full potential. "It's a young team, and I think we are capable of being a better one than last season," Rauch says. "We know we have improved our personnel."

With one Super Bowl already behind them, the Raiders are preparing for another. And, they feel, another and another and another.

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