The Oakland Raiders, a most impressive team that has won four straight division championships, are more impressive than ever this year, which is bad news for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs are impressive enough in their own right, but they have stood pat since 1970, when they finished second to Oakland, while the Raiders, under what one might call the lively and imaginative leadership of Managing General Partner Al Davis, haven't.
Neither, for that matter, have the Denver Broncos, a club that has never been better than .500 in its 11 years despite an increasingly formidable defense. The fourth club in the division, the San Diego Chargers, has succumbed to the Southern California syndrome of "see changes"—let's change and see what happens, the philosophy of the Los Angeles Rams.
It is a bit difficult to justify a clear-cut choice between Oakland and Kansas City. But if there is an edge, it must go to Oakland; the Chiefs have had key losses since last year with no comparable replacements, while the Raiders have replaced the few soft spots in their lineup with players who should be an improvement. Since Oakland beat Kansas City in the division in 1970, there is no reasonable way to figure it won't do the same thing this year—and more decisively. Especially when you consider that Oakland plays a slightly easier schedule than Kansas City; the Raider opponents won about 41% of their games in 1970 while Kansas City's won 46%. Denver faces teams which won over 50%, likewise luckless San Diego.
Even without the benefit of the schedule, the Raiders have a heck of a shot at the Super Bowl. In Daryle Lamonica they have the best passer in the AFC and in George Blanda the best passer available when the best passer isn't. Lamonica is entering his prime (30), he is big (6'3", 215) and extraordinarily accurate; Blanda is in his prime (44), almost as big (6'2", 215) and extraordinarily durable, having played in 154 straight pro football games, some, admittedly, for only a few seconds. He also kicks good. Moreover, there is Kenny Stabler, who throws left-handed but does just about everything else right.
The major changes in the Raiders have come in the offensive line. In the off season, Davis acquired Bob Brown, the immense, mobile and sulky offensive tackle, from the Rams and lured Ron Mix, who until he retired was a perennial All-Pro at San Diego, away from a budding law practice. Brown, who goes 290, is, on his best days, the best, but has been, on his worst days, a difficult man for coaches to reason with. Nonetheless, he has been All-Pro five times.
"I'm not Prince Charming," Brown said upon reporting to the Raiders, "but I'm no better or worse than any of the other 1,000 guys playing pro football.... I want to cooperate." He showed his new attitude by breaking a goal post with his forearm while warming up for his first practice.
Mix has said he will play to exhaustion to make the club, and so far he has. "The first three weeks were pure torture," he says. "All that contact is foreign to the human body. I asked myself, 'What's a 33-year-old attorney doing here?' "
Behind guys like that, the quarterbacks are home free. They have able runners in Hewritt Dixon (who suffered a knee injury and may not be ready for the opening game), Charlie Smith and Clarence Davis, a rookie who is third to O. J. Simpson and Mike Garrett in overall rushing yardage at USC. There are experienced reserves, too, like Marv Hubbard—who usually puts on a one-man show against Kansas City—Pete Banaszak and Don Highsmith, and if the running does not go, there are a number of talented receivers.
Tight End Raymond Chester is the biggest target and one of the most consistent; he caught a pass in every game he played last year, made a rookie All-Pro team in one poll and was the Rookie of the Year in another. The wide receivers are now the superb Fred Biletnikoff and Rod Sherman, Warren Wells having been sentenced to 90 days of "diagnostic study" in prison, after being found guilty of repeatedly violating probation from a 1969 attempted rape conviction. The incarceration is a particular blow to Blanda, who in his last-second heroics in 1970 went to Wells often.
There isn't much new in the Raider defense, because why change a good thing. Dave Grayson, an All-Pro free safety, is gone, but the club's first draft choice was Jack Tatum, regarded by many scouts as college football's best defensive back last year.