In Irvine, Calif., where the Chargers trained, even Unitas was doubtful. "My knee has bothered me," he said while watching an old black-and-white Western on TV, which was fitting—most of his greatest feats were telecast in black and white. "It got sore when I was doing agility drills. I haven't done agility drills in 10 years. That's for defensive linemen. Finally, I said to hell with it and quit. Now the knee feels pretty good, but the main problem with it is that it's 40 years old. People told me that things change after you're 40, but I didn't know they changed so much. The first two weeks of camp made a believer out of me. Little things I used to shake off are big things now. I'm going to give it a try but if I don't think I can cut it, I'll hang 'em up. It wouldn't be fair to the club or the good young quarterbacks if I tried to hang on."
It seems likely that Johnny U will cut it, at least for this season, especially in view of the strength of the Charger line, which allowed only 23 sacks last year. Unitas will have fine running backs to hand off to, most notably Mike Garrett, who could have his second straight 1,000-yard-plus season.
One possible source of friction is that Unitas' approach to the game does not coincide with the Chargers'. "They believe in ball control," he said. "Someone is going to have to change. I like more freedom. And I've been around too long to change."
If Unitas gets his freedom, he'll be heaving to two flyers in Jerry LeVias, who missed almost all of 1972 with a knee injury, and Dave Williams. His most reliable target, however, is Gary Garrison, the only receiver in NFL history to catch 40 or more passes for seven straight seasons. And if the Chargers get close enough they'll score. Dennis Partee has not missed a field-goal try from inside the 30 in two years.
The Charger defense depends upon an elderly, much-traveled but rugged line. Deacon Jones and Coy Bacon are disaffected Rams, Ron East came from Dallas, Dave Costa left the Denver Broncos in a huff, and Lionel Aldridge is a former Packer. Behind the front four the defense is questionable, the linebackers being particularly bewildered covering backs against the pass. A solid year at middle linebacker from Tim Rossovich, who missed nine games last season with knee surgery, would help.
The Denver Broncos have not plugged enough holes to challenge Oakland or Kansas City this season but in the next few years they may supplant Kansas City as the team Al Davis drafts and trades to beat. Denver Coach John Ralston certainly thinks so, but then he's an accredited Dale Carnegie Institute instructor.
Charley Johnson, healthy for the first time in years, gives them an old head and a soft arm at quarterback. A young, strong and improving offensive line will probably afford him more than enough time to hit his receivers, who are top-notch. Riley Odoms, a tight end who was a No. 1 draft pick last year, shows signs of becoming preeminent and the wide receivers—Gene Washington, who was obtained from Minnesota in exchange for Rod Sherman, and Haven Moses—have hands and speed. The running backs, led by All-Pro Floyd Little, are deep and dangerous.
The Bronco defensive line is one of the top young fours in the league, but Coach Ralston needs to shore up a skimpy set of linebackers and he could use another good back to help with increased zone coverage. The Bronco secondary gets unusual help from the line, which dumped opposing quarterbacks 41 times in 1972.
So it looks like the Raiders again. Under Madden and Davis they are one of the few innovative and daring teams left in pro football and one of the two or three strong, favorites for the Super Bowl, the others being Miami and possibly Pittsburgh.
"I'm worried," Davis said recently. " Denver is a really strong young club and Kansas City had a lot of injuries last season and you can't expect them to have the same bad luck this year. We'll be lucky if we win our division. Real lucky."