Hank Stram of the Kansas City Chiefs and Sid Gillman of the San Diego Chargers are unique in pro football. Each has been his team's only head coach. They took over at the formation of the AFL in 1960 and have endured through thick and thin, but mostly thick.
The Chiefs and the Chargers are perennial contenders for the AFL title, and no doubt the continuity of command has had a good deal to do with this. (Or, vice versa, if they hadn't been contenders, the command wouldn't have been so continuous.) At Oakland, the other Western power, the continuity is on a higher level—Managing General Partner Al Davis, once the Raiders' coach, still spends a lot of time peering over the head coach's shoulder. He breathed so heavily on the neck of John Rauch, who took the Raiders to the conference title last year, that Rauch went to the Buffalo Bills.
At Cincinnati, the head coach is Paul Brown, who, win, lose or tie, will last as long as he wants to—he is also one of the owners. The head coach of the Denver Broncos is Lou Saban, back for his third year of sufferance. But the strength in the West is undeniably Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego, and there is little to choose among them.
When Lamar Hunt formed the Chiefs (as the Dallas Texans), he immediately hired Stram, and Hank has done a remarkable job. He is one of the real innovators in pro football. It was Stram who invented the "moving pocket" for his quarterbacks, inhibiting the pass rush, and he came up with the "stack" defense to make his linebackers hard to find. More recently he has used the Tight End I, an attack which puts the tight end in the backfield before the snap, so he can shift out of the I into a variety of sets designed to confuse the pass defenders.
Last season the Chiefs probably were as hard hit by injuries as any team and still managed to tie for the regular-season lead in the West. They lost to Oakland in a playoff, but this year, with the old injuries healed, save for Ernie Ladd's knee (and despite a new injury to Tight End Reg Carolan, who is probably out for the season and has been replaced by Fred Arbanas), and with some help from the draft, it looks like the Chiefs will win without a playoff.
Stram has an excellent quarterback to operate his varied attack in Len Dawson, who appears to be at his peak at 34. Dawson has had a history of early season sore arms, but he claims off-season exercise has cured that; indeed, he has thrown extremely well in the exhibitions. Since he led the AFL in passing last year, Dawson's sound right arm is essential to the Chiefs' attack.
Dawson will be operating behind an offensive line which will be better this year. It better be. His receivers—notably Otis Taylor, who gained 1,297 yards on 58 catches in 1966 when the Chiefs won the AFL title, but was hobbled by a groin injury last year—are tops. "Taylor is a key man," Stram says, but if Taylor is a bit off, the Chiefs have Frank Pitts (no kin to the Packers' Elijah) and Gloster Richardson (brother of the Colts' Willie).
Sound on the Ground
Mike Garrett, the 1965 Heisman Trophy winner, heads a corps of brilliant runners. Garrett came to camp 10 pounds lighter this year and seems faster. Stumpy Robert Holmes, runner-up to Cincinnati's Paul Robinson as Rookie of the Year in 1968, was the second leading rusher in the AFL.
When the Chiefs stumbled in 1968, it was due to defensive difficulties, mostly in the secondary. Although Ladd will be sitting out the season, the front line, with Jerry Mays at end and Buck Buchanan at tackle, remains massive and mobile and is, if anything, stiffened by the development of Aaron Brown.
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.
On offense, Gillman has Lance Al-worth and Gary Garrison. Add powerful tight ends and depth and it is obvious why the Chargers have an extraordinary passing attack. The runners are big (with the exception of 5'9" Dickie Post) and speedy, and the development of rookies Ron Sayers (Gale's brother) and Jeff Queen adds further potency. If the defense holds up, the Chargers may move up. They certainly won't move down.
A Lot of Bad Breaks
Denver and Cincinnati, the fourth and fifth teams in the West last year, won only eight games between them, and none against the first three. It seems unlikely they will better that record this year. Oh, those busted Broncos! In one week they lost four men with torn right knee ligaments, but so far they've avoided the plague of broken collarbones which cost them their No. 1 quarterback, Steve Tensi, and No. 1 receiver, Al Denson, for most of last season. Other injuries chopped up their offensive unit, forcing the defense to play 60% to 70% of each game, and with rookies sprinkled in the secondary, Denver led the league in pass yardage given up. Moreover, the linebackers didn't once get to the passer on a blitz.
The quarterbacking should be superior to last year. Tensi's collarbone has knit, and Saban has added reserve strength in Pete Liske, a four-year veteran from the Canadian League. Tom Smiley, a big fullback acquired from Cincinnati, is a fine blocker and will give Floyd Little some help carrying the ball.
Paul Brown, in the second season at Cincinnati, needs all the help he can get. In 1968 Brown did very well to win three games with castoffs and rookies. And he found several nuggets: Running Back Paul Robinson, who gained 1,023 yards and made Rookie of the Year, Center Bob Johnson and Bill Staley, a defensive tackle.
"But," as Brown says, "we have to have more early picks to build up. You cant hurry it. The other clubs have improved, too. We may not win as many this year as last."
Greg Cook, the Cincinnati University quarterback who shone in the All-Star game, could be a 1969 find, as could Bill Bergey at middle linebacker. But the Bengals, with six rookie draft choices starting, will have to depend for victories on Brown's brain.