This is a weak position in the division. Oakland's Monte Johnson is still learning in his second season as a regular. However, he is flanked by Phil Villapiano and Ted Hendricks, and their proficiency makes his job easier. Randy Gradishar was one of the few Broncos who started all 14 games in 1975. He led the team in tackles, and intercepted three passes en route to the Pro Bowl. San Diego's Tom Graham, discarded by both Denver and Kansas City, remains a journeyman. Willie Lanier starts his 11th season with the Chiefs but bad knees have slowed him down; still, the savvy Lanier had a career-high five interceptions in 1975. Jimbo Elrod, a fifth-round draft choice from Oklahoma, may replace Lanier if Kansas City starts slowly. "I've never seen a player with such an obsession to be where the football is," Wiggin says of Elrod. Tampa's Steve Reese, acquired from the Jets, will get little rest.
Never exactly fearsome, Oakland's front four lost End Horace Jones, a five-year veteran who had played in 70 consecutive games, when he tore knee ligaments on his first play of preseason. In Jones' absence, Madden will deploy a three-man rush of Tony Cline, Otis Sistrunk and Dave Rowe or add either his top draft pick, 6'9", 270-pound Charles Philyaw, or Jeff Winans, recently acquired from Buffalo, and play the standard four-man front. Philyaw may be the biggest man in the NFL, but several scouts expect him to be the biggest bust. "He's the first player I rejected," says Tank Younger, San Diego's assistant general manager. "He can't play. No way." Indeed, for all his size (he wears a size 17 shoe) and an alleged speed of 4.7 for the 40, Philyaw's exhibition play was marked by recurring ankle injuries and a tendency to complain over lesser hurts. The Raiders have football's most aggressive ball hawkers in the secondary, with an NFL-high of 35 interceptions a year ago. Cornerback Alonzo Thomas picked off six, and so did rookie Safety Charles Phillips. Still, Phillips has been unable to crack the starting safety tandem of George Atkinson and Jack Tatum.
Stan Jones built one of the NFL's most effective rush lines when he coached at Denver from 1967 to 1971, and now he returns to the Broncos after four years with Buffalo. Jones has switched Paul Smith to right end and has installed more formations than the Broncos ever used before. Most important, he has moved tough Lyle Alzado to the point-man position in an unbalanced front. San Diego has added youth at linebacker, with rookies Woodrow Lowe of Alabama and Ray Preston of Syracuse battling for the weak-side job and Rick Middleton, secured from New Orleans, challenging Don Goode on the strong side.
Kansas City may start as many as four rookies, including Free Safety Gary Barbara and Tackle Keith Simons. One old Chief who will be missed is Buck Buchanan, the large tackle who anchored the Kansas City front for 13 seasons but has retired to join Hank Stram's coaching staff in New Orleans. Tampa's rush features Dave Pear ("the core of our defense") and the irrepressible Selmon brothers, Dewey and Leroy of Oklahoma fame. Almost accidentally, McKay went to a three-man line during the preseason, and when it worked well it was promptly labeled the "Double Bubble." Dewey Selmon and Pear alternate at the core, with Buffalo's Pat Toomay at one end and Leroy Selmon sharing time with Council Rudolph at the other. When the Double Bubble bursts, though, McKay will need some more old Sooners at linebacker and in the secondary.
Raider Owner Al Davis likes to keep his players in constant fear for their jobs, sometimes to the detriment of morale. Almost to a man, the Raiders deplored Davis' handling of George Blanda at camp. In Davis' defense, Blanda refused to retire gracefully and didn't want a glamorous press conference to announce his retirement from the game. John Ralston may be out as general manager and coach if the Broncos don't make the playoffs. They have never played a postseason game in their 16-year history. Ralston's failure in the trading market, specifically his inability to land Jim Plunkett, his former Stanford quarterback, has upset the Denver players. Another rap against Ralston is that he devotes more time to public speaking than to football. San Diego's season-ticket sales dropped from 40,341 in 1973 to 20,467 this year; the Chargers need a winner and don't need any more books written about them—or any more "drugs" incidents. Tampa Bay's assistant coaches all appear to be intimidated by John McKay, who seems a study in detachment at Buccaneer practices, just as he was at USC.
The Raiders, of course, for the ninth time in 10 years, followed by Denver, San Diego, Kansas City and—stop laughing. John—Tampa Bay.