"We used to say that we'd take one thing at a time," says 39-year-old John Madden, now starting his seventh season as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. "It was one practice at a time, one game at a time, and we would never mention what our ultimate goal was. But this year is different. Now, from the start, the ultimate goal is the Super Bowl."
Pro football coaches are supposed to look beyond next Sunday only on the day of the college draft. But if Madden's statement seems outrageous, it is an honest reaction born of long frustration and heightened ambition. During the past eight years, Oakland has an .800 winning percentage in regular-season games and seven division titles—and wound up the year with a loss, regarded scornfully as "the team that can't win the big one."
This year may be no different, but it is more than likely that the Raiders will win another division crown. Denver, replete with new faces, should challenge, while San Diego continues to improve and Kansas City starts the long, tough road back under new Coach Paul Wiggin. But Oakland has too much strength. The Raiders can certainly win the "little one."
Led by Quarterback Ken Stabler, the AFC's Most Valuable Player, the Oakland offense again will be a mixture of explosion and ball control. In recurrent refutation of the saw that left-handers are inaccurate, last season Stabler led the NFL with 26 touchdown passes, completed 57.4% and had a string of 143 attempts without an interception. The Raiders are 22-6-1 in games in which Stabler has started, and Madden expects the team to do even better.
The Oakland receivers may be the best in the game. Cliff Branch, the wraithlike sprinter who became a starter for the first time last season, gained 1,092 yards and scored 13 touchdowns while catching 60 passes. Fred Biletnikoff, who seems to have eyes in his feet the better to see the sidelines, caught 42 for 593 yards and seven touchdowns—the eighth straight year he has had 40 or more receptions. Tight End Bob Moore, who is being pressed for his job by Dave Casper, snagged 30 passes for 356 yards; and Mike Siani, who sat out most of last season with an injury after catching 45 in 1973, is healthy again. As if the Raiders weren't deep enough in receivers, Morris Bradshaw has had a superb preseason.
Oakland had the third-best rushing attack in the NFL last year, led by Marv Hubbard's 865 yards and Clarence Davis' 554. There should be no falloff even though Center Dave Dalby, 6'3", 250, will replace Jim Otto, who retired. Backing up Hubbard and Davis are Harold Hart, the sensation of camp, rookie Louis Carter, a No. 3 pick from Maryland whose special talent is the option pass, and Pete Banaszak, a 10-year veteran.
The most impressive new face on the Raiders, however, is that of Ted Hendricks, the 6'7", 220-pound All-Pro outside linebacker who played for Green Bay last season. With a talent for intercepting passes and blocking kicks, Hendricks figures to make Oakland a point tougher per game. Another linebacking change has Monte Jackson, 6'5", 240 pounds, replacing Dan Conners in the middle.
Oakland's secondary yielded but 12 touchdown passes last year to tie a team record, even though Willie Brown, the veteran cornerback, missed six games. This season Skip Thomas, George Atkinson and Jack Tatum may be challenged by Neal Colzie and Charles Phillips, the Nos. 1 and 2 draft choices. Colzie from Ohio State and Phillips from USC both excelled in exhibition games.
In the kicking department, the Raiders have Ray Guy, whose 42.2-yard punting average led the NFL, and George Blanda, who celebrates his 48th birthday this week. Madden has no worries that Blanda has lost his touch. "He'll be O.K.," Madden says. "He was supposed to be too old to play this game 15 years ago."
Oakland won the division last year in 10 weeks, the football equivalent of clinching a pennant in the first week of August. It could take the Raiders a little longer this time, but they mean to have their longest season.