The core of the defense, though, is Stram's linebacking crew. Bobby Bell is All-AFL on the left side, and he has redoubtable colleagues. Willie Lanier, the middlebacker, was also All-AFL, and Jim Lynch is no slouch on the other side. The trio played together regularly for the first time in 1968, so it should be more effective this season, especially on blitzes.
The Kansas City secondary is still in a state of flux, but with the line and linebackers putting pressure on the passer, it should be able to do the job. If rookie James Marsalis, a first draft choice from Tennessee State, is as for real as he looked against Don Maynard in the Jets-All-Star game, it should do a good job. Stram has said the Chiefs will be better this year, and last year they were 12 and 2. Says Lanier, "If 12-2 won't win it, we're going to be shooting for 13-1."
Prime and Past It
Since the Oakland Raiders were also 12-2 and won the playoff, it may take 13-1. The Raiders certainly have as much talent as any AFL team. They have a fine quarterback in his prime in Daryle Lamonica (and a fine one past his prime in 41-year-old George Blanda), peerless receivers in Fred Biletnikoff, Warren Wells and Billy Cannon, a full complement of running backs who supply size (Hewritt Dixon), speed ( Charlie Smith) and mobility plus speed (Larry Todd and Pete Banaszak). If the Oakland ground game falters it will be because of inconsistent blocking. Guard Gene Upshaw is among the best in the league, but the other guard, Wayne Hawkins, has had knee trouble. The offensive line, headed by Center Jim Otto, in his 10th pro season and his eighth as All-AFL, is solid.
On defense, Tom Keating, a stick-out at tackle in 1967, is trying to come back from an Achilles' tendon injury, which kept him out in 1968 (the Raiders took defensive linemen on two of their first four draft picks). The linebackers—Dan Connors in the middle and Gus Otto and Chip Oliver on the corners—contributed much to Oakland leading the league in sacking passers (49 times), but Bill Laskey, a 1967 starter who was injured last year, may break into this formidable group.
In the secondary, Head Coach John Madden may have the best set of five in the AFL. Free Safety David Grayson led the AFL in interceptions (10) last year, Willie Brown and Kent McCloughan on the corners have both been all-league choices, and when McCloughan was injured last season, George Atkinson filled in and shared Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with Dick Anderson, the Miami safety. Strong safety may be the weakest link now that Rodger Bird is on the injured waived list.
For the past three years the San Diego Chargers have finished third behind Oakland and Kansas City, but Sid Gill-man feels this may be the year he moves up. "We've been getting a little better each year," he says. "I think this is the best team I've had in a long time."
The Chargers have been consistently potent on attack, leading the league in pass offense in 1968 and finishing second to Oakland in overall offense. The offensive line tied with New York as the best in the AFL at protecting the passer, John Hadl and his understudies being sacked only 18 times. With this safe haven to throw from, Hadl set team records in yards gained, touchdown passes—and, inexplicably, interceptions.
But the Chargers suffered on defense, and it is this unit which Gillman has shored up. Since shoddy play by the linebackers contributed much to the Chargers' having the sixth best (or fourth worst) defense in the AFL, one of Gill-man's two first draft choices was Bob Babich, a linebacker from Miami of Ohio (the other was Columbia Quarterback Marty Domres), and he obtained Linebacker Pete Barnes from the Houston Oilers for a fourth draft choice. But Babich will be out for the season with a knee injury, and Rick Redman, who sat out last season with the same thing, will start in the middle as he did in '67. Jeff Staggs will play on the left side.
The Charger defensive line has been tough on the run but slow to reach the passer, contributing to San Diego's vulnerability to the pass. The line is intact, save for Tackle Scott Appleton, who had a team high (for linemen) of 53 unassisted tackles last year. Appleton, who had apparently lost his job to Houston Ridge, "cut" himself. The hard-worked secondary is led by second team All-AFL Strong Safety Kenny Graham.