Before their game in Oakland last week the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders were tied for the lead in the Western Division. Whoever won would clinch the division title and advance to the playoffs. Whoever lost wouldn't even be sure of making the playoffs as the American Conference's best second-place team. Take it on faith; the procedure is so tortuous that the NFL was still "clarifying" it in the 12th week of the season. With so much at stake, Hank St ram took the Chiefs to the Coast three days early, hiding them out in Palo Alto far from their madding fans and inquisitive reporters. He also raised the fine for missing the 11 p.m. curfew from $250 to 52,500.
Strain's precautions were to no avail. The Raiders, a team that has come to be wedded to last-second miracles principally performed by their elderly deus ex machina, George Blanda, won without benefit of a little sleight of hand.
What the Raiders did this time was put the early-retiring Chiefs into a coma. Blanda helped put them to sleep with two field goals and two extra points, but found it unnecessary to appear in the closing seconds, wave his right foot or hand and produce a touchdown pass or field goal. In the closing seconds of this game the Raiders were ahead 20-6; when the game ended they were still ahead 20-6.
The day before, Blanda explained what the Raiders hoped to do to the Chiefs. "We'll take it to them," he predicted. "Straight-ahead blocking. Short passes. Patience. We'll take what they give us and not look for the bomb. It really isn't a complicated game. Forget all the formations and the terminology. What it comes down to is a series of individual matches, man on man. And when it comes to that, I think we're better."
Well, the Raiders were better and they won most of the head-to-head confrontations, but the game was a bit more sophisticated than that. When the clubs played in Kansas City on Nov. 1, a game that ended in a 17-17 tie on one of Blanda's feats of magic (a 48-yard field goal in the last three seconds), Lamonica established a pattern of play-calling that Strain must have taken into account in preparing the Chiefs for this contest.
In the earlier meeting, Lamonica threw 28 passes, 18 of them on second down. He sent his backs outside tackle 26 times, 15 times on first down. He called only 12 plays inside the Kansas City tackles, eight on first down. You couldn't ask for a clearer blueprint for a game plan. The Chiefs, alas, built a defense on it.
"Against the Kansas City defense, you're better off throwing on first down," Blanda said before the game. "They play a read-and-react defense, and if they know what you're going to do you're in bad trouble. You have to create doubt in their defense, and then you make them think longer, and while they're thinking you can do what you want to do. If you look at their movies and their personnel, you begin to think there's no way you can score on them. But you can. One way or another, you can."
Still, it wasn't only an out-of-pattern offense that won for the Raiders. Their defense all but shut off the Chiefs. Most of the time the Raiders played an odd line, a defense where one lineman is stationed nose to nose with the center. For the Raiders this lineman was Tom Keating, an All-Pro tackle who earned All-Pro all over again on this bright and nippy afternoon.
Jim Tyrer, a 6'6" 275-pound offensive tackle for the Chiefs, himself an All-Pro, talked about Keating earlier in the week. "He's a great defensive tackle," Tyrer said. "When they play him head-on the center, he occupies three players. The center knows he's there and both the offensive guards have to be aware of him, because he can go either way around the center and then they have to help." Keating usually played head-on with Jack Rudnay, the Chiefs' rookie center who handled him successfully back in November. Rudnay failed to repeat last Saturday.
This was a good, satisfying football game, not won by any prestidigitation or breaks. Mainly it was won the Blanda way—in the pit. "All the stuff about formations, rolling pockets and the rest of it is meaningless," Blanda said. "If you have the right people you can run from the short punt and win. We have the right people."
This time, anyway, Oakland had the right people. A giant among them was Marv Hubbard, a burly running back who went to Colgate, can you imagine. He carried the ball 16 times, gained 93 yards and scored the first and winning touchdown.
The Raiders rarely use Hubbard, who is listed on their depth chart as a substitute for Hewritt Dixon. Until last week, he had carried the ball only 35 times, but 18 of those (for 98 yards) had come in the first game against Kansas City. "I'm at my best against these guys," Hubbard said, an assessment with which Coach John Madden is evidently in accord. "I love to beat them more than anything else."
Hubbard moves as mercilessly as a bowling ball and is a strongly motivated man. "All afternoon I was looking for Willie Lanier [the Chiefs' middle linebacker]," he said after the game, blithely ignoring his running heroics. "He's supposed to be the best and I want the best. Finally I got him on a block and I knocked him right on his butt." Lanier, to be fair, replied in kind on a couple of occasions.
In another key matchup, Oakland Wide Receiver Fred Biletnikoff had the edge on Jim Marsalis, the Kansas City cornerback. Marsalis has fine speed, water-bug-quick reactions and a nose for the ball, but Biletnikoff caught a 36-yard touchdown pass with Marsalis a half-step behind him. Earlier, Biletnikoff had run the same pattern, but Marsalis went up with him and tipped the ball away. The difference between the two plays was that Lamonica's pass hung the first time.
In midweek Jim Tyrer said, "This is going to be a fistfight. It will be won on the front line. The thing about our offense has been blown out of proportion—the moving pocket, all the rest of it. It still comes down to Jim Tyrer blocking Ben Davidson. It's like serving the same dish with different dressing, a little different preparation. When the dressing is removed, it comes down to eight Chiefs being All-Pros. We're a Sears, Roebuck team. Coach Stram looked through the catalog and picked the people he needed to fit his needs."
Tyrer did a fairly good job on Davidson. Big Ben, known for his handlebar mustache and flair for wreaking havoc on quarterbacks, was unable to talk after the game. He whispered he had laryngitis from shouting at the officials. Like all defensive linemen, he was howling about being held. "We were very loose before this game," Davidson croaked. "I've played on a lot of pro ball clubs, but I never saw anything like this. It was amazing. In the dressing room the radio was going wide open and guys were dancing buck-naked. It was something."
The first half of the game was less than that, a reversion to the days of punt, pass and prayer. Neither team wanted to take chances, and because both stuck to the ground the first quarter zipped by in 22 minutes. At the end of this period Kansas City had its only lead of the day, 3-0. Those points came on a 20-yard field goal by Jan Stenerud. Later Stenerud missed a 29-yarder, one of the few times he has missed a gimme. Blanda put the Raiders ahead in the second quarter with his two field goals, one coming typically with three seconds to play in the half, a kick that created an extraordinary exultation in the crowd of 54,596, a stadium record by a margin of two fans.
The second half was no contest. The Raiders had established physical and psychological superiority; the Chiefs responded to intimidation with increasing lethargy. Although behind, Strain—the gambler in the red vest—played his cards so close to that vest that the red must have rubbed off on them. Even when he fell far back, Dawson was reluctant to go to the bomb; perhaps he was haunted by the memory of Frank Pitts dropping two long balls in the first half, one of which should have been a touchdown. Yet it might have turned the trick. The Raiders play bump-and-run, and if the bump doesn't work near the line of scrimmage, the run must be fast indeed to cover receivers like Pitts and Otis Taylor racing deep into the secondary.
The Raider touchdown drive in the third quarter was a good example of how Lamonica mixed up his plays, thoroughly confusing the tendency chart the Chiefs had plotted on him off the first game. Late in this period, with the Raiders having a first and 10 on their 20—a situation usually calling for a conservative move—Lamonica threw to Warren Wells for an 18-yard gain and a first down. Next, Hubbard went outside right tackle for 14 yards and through left tackle for eight more. On the following play Hubbard went up the middle for two and a first down. Then Lamonica threw again, to the surprise and ultimate dismay of the Chief defense. On this play Marsalis was caught interfering with Biletnikoff and the Raiders had the ball on the Kansas City 16. From there Hubbard carried four times in a row, scoring from six yards out.
Gene Upshaw, the Raiders' left guard, said after the game, "We picked 'em and picked 'em and picked 'em. One time I went into the huddle and said, 'Run 65, man-to-man blocking.' At the start I didn't think we could do it, but we did it. We had to do it—for ourselves."
The Oakland offensive line was generally more widely spaced than usual. "A team as big as Kansas City, you can't get shoulder to shoulder with them," Upshaw explained. "Buck Buchanan, playing head on you, covers two holes all by himself, and he's the toughest I play. Once he hit me in the back after a play was over and I asked him, 'Is that the way it's going to be?' He said, 'Get back in the huddle and play football.' "
As he dressed, Lamonica said, "We figured we had to smack them right out of there. We kept them guessing. We had them looking at different things. Not major changes, little ones. But little things can become major. We didn't make any drastic changes. I could feel the aggression building all week. And I felt it warming up today. Voom! We couldn't wait for the game to start. Voom! I knew we were ready."
Ready or not, on the first Oakland series Lamonica threw a pass to Charlie Smith which was intercepted by Right Linebacker Jim Lynch. The Raiders had planned to pick on Lynch, whom they considered the least competent of the Chief linebackers. They wanted to isolate Smith on Lynch and throw to him; the Chiefs were aware of that and helped Lynch out by giving him deep help from Johnny Robinson, their safety. Knowing Robinson was behind him, Lynch stuck to Smith like a leech and took the pass away from him.
"We came back after that first mistake," Lamonica said. "We drove right down the held and the offensive line knew it was their day, which it was."
It was, too, the day of the Raider defensive line. Tom Keating, who did as much as any one man to disrupt the Chief offense, said, "It feels good to mess 'em up, to do a job on them. They cost me 20 grand last year."
Keating and Middle Linebacker Dan Conners had collaborated on stunts designed to confuse the Chief blockers. "In our triple-under defense, we both didn't go into the bubble," Keating said. In a triple-under the Oakland defensive line is overshifted to the weak side of the Kansas City offensive line; the bubble is the gap on the strong side created by the overshift—a wide hole between the tackle playing head-on with the offensive center and the defensive end on the strong side.
"I don't feel like I played 40 plays today," Keating said. Someone pointed out, "You didn't. You only played 38."
"I don't even feel like I've been in a game," whispered Ben Davidson.
The Raiders ran 69 plays to 38 by Kansas City. What is surprising is that with so great an imbalance, the Raiders only won by two touchdowns.
The Oakland secondary shouldn't be forgotten, either. Earlier, Len Dawson said, "They're all burners back there. There are no weak spots in their defense. Some teams have a weak man and they have to compensate for it, but the Raiders don't need any compensation. They play the same coverage 70% of the time and just change the depth of the coverage."
Free Safety Dave Grayson agreed with Dawson. "We were playing the same coverage today," he said, "with a few wrinkles. We made Dawson guess and he was guessing more in this game than he ever has. We overplayed his primary receiver, then made him guess on the second receiver, and by that time the pressure was getting to him. We didn't give him the look he expected. We took away the crosses and the ups."
Dawson had expressed considerable concern about Grayson. "We have to try to contain him," he said. "Somehow, we have to get him out of that middle. With him in the middle, the cornerbacks can play it very tough short and to the outside, knowing they have help deep in the middle. They have the kind of defense that makes things happen. You know, you can't give all the credit to the offense for those games they win in the last few seconds. The defense had to stop people to give the ball to them. Our approach is to have patience. You can't waste a single play against Oakland. Containing Grayson is the key."
As the Raiders entered their dressing room after the game, big Al Dotson, who played tackle next to Tom Keating and who did a good job, too, was yelling happily, "We ran it down their throats. We beat 'em to death!"
SHEEDY & LONG
Sub Fullback Marv Hubbard, who took many a handoff from Daryle Lamonica, was the Raiders' leading rusher; he scored the winning touchdown behind a block by Gene Upshaw.
SHEEDY & LONG
In the second quarter Fred Biletnikoff and Jim Marsalis (40) went up in the end zone for a long pass, Marsalis tipping it a way.
SHEEDY & LONG
In the fourth quarter Biletnikoff ran the same pattern, the pass was better thrown and he beat Marsalis for a touchdown.
SHEEDY & LONG
George Blanda performed no sleight of hand, but kept his foot in by kicking two field goals.