For the last 11 years no other team in professional football has practiced its art with the consistent success of the Oakland Raiders, whose 103-40-11 record for the period is the NFL's best. Yet Pro Football's Dynamic Organization, as Oakland styles itself, advertises its lusty accomplishment with a muted sell, for along with the impressive statistics that have detailed its winning seasons, one line consistently appears in Raider press brochures: "The ultimate goal of the Raiders is a world championship and the organization is working long hours to achieve that goal."
Whether or not this season finally expunges the future tone from this passage, the Raiders again should meet the first prerequisite for postseason success by winning their seventh division title in eight years. Denver will challenge and Kansas City will provide traditional stress, but Oakland simply has too much strength.
The Raiders' abundance of personnel pushed Quarterback Daryle Lamonica out of the picture at the relatively young age of 33. An 11-year veteran who has thrown for 19,119 yards and 163 touchdowns, Lamonica has contracted to jump to the WFL after this season. But even if he were something other than a lame duck, the starting job again would fall to Ken (The Snake) Stabler, 28, who plans to follow Lamonica to the WFL in 1976. In the meantime, he hopes to become the first left-handed quarterback to take his team to the Super Bowl. Stabler's short-course offense is different from the long-range gunnery that earned Lamonica the nickname "The Mad Bomber." Says Managing Partner Al Davis of Stabler's style, "It's like hitting the open man instead of going for the fast break." Yet there can be no faulting Stabler's effectiveness or accuracy. The Raiders were 8-2-1 after he replaced Lamonica early last season, and he led the NFL by completing 62.7% of his passes, 14 of them for touchdowns. During one stretch, Stabler threw 75 passes without an interception, and in a game against Baltimore he completed 25 of 29 (86.2%) to break the NFL single-game accuracy record set in 1945 by Sammy Baugh. "He may be the most accurate left-handed athlete of all time," one Oakland official says cautiously but proudly.
In keeping with the Raiders' penchant for rebuilding while they stay on top, Coach John Madden has Larry Lawrence, a 25-year-old refugee from the Canadian League who was the brightest find of training camp, understudying Stabler. And there's always 47-year-old George Blanda, who seems destined to play the game until he qualifies as a U.S. National Monument.
Stabler's percentage won't be hurt by his receivers, a sure-handed lot led by Fred Biletnikoff, a nine-year vet who had 48 receptions for 660 yards against frustrating double coverages in '73, moving him to fourth on the alltime list among active receivers. Mike Siani, who caught 45 for 742 yards, complements Biletnikoff well, as does Tight End Bob Moore (34 for 375 yards)—assuming he does not lose his job to rookie Dave Casper.
Oakland also rushed for 2,510 yards last season, fourth-highest in the NFL, and a lot of that yardage came behind the blocking of Left Guard Gene Upshaw. Marv Hubbard, who has added moves to his old battering-ram explosiveness, gained 903 yards and, at 28, has just reached his prime. Charlie Smith, a six-year veteran who gained 682 yards, and the wraithlike Clarence Davis (609 yards) are also proficient as pass receivers. As for the kicking game, Blanda again should demonstrate, in his 25th season, that his strong suit is accuracy. George kicked 20 of 22 field goals inside the 40-yard line last year; with the rule change, that's long enough. Ray Guy, the well-publicized rookie who was the team's No. 1 draft choice in 1973, narrowly missed the NFL punting championship, losing out to Kansas City's Jerrel Wilson, 45.5 yards to 45.3.
Oakland gave up 175 points last year, fewer than everyone but Miami and Minnesota. With a front line that may include the rehabilitated Bubba Smith, the Raiders should stop a lot of teams at single-digit scores, which they did on six occasions a year ago. The sans-Smith front four of Tony Cline, Art Thorns, Otis Sis-trunk and Horace Jones helped sack the quarterback 40 times, and All-Pro Cornerback Willie Brown, 33, Nemiah Wilson, George Atkinson and Jack Tatum intercepted 17 passes. The secondary gained youth when Alonzo (Skip) Thomas, 24, took a starting cornerback job away from the 31-year-old Wilson. The linebacking will be strong if Dan Conners matches the performances he had before he ran into the Dolphins. Flanking him are Phil Villapiano and Gerald Irons.
The Denver Broncs will be overpowering eventually, according to optimistic Coach John Ralston, who makes the Reverend Ike sound like a worrywart. "Last year we went down to the wire with Oakland," Ralston says. "Now we assume we're better, and we certainly are more confident. Our attitude used to be, 'Well, we'd like to win, but we probably won't.' Now we know we can beat anybody. We're getting closer all the time. It's going to happen, there's no question about it. It's just a matter of when."
Ralston has the offense to turn "when" into "now," as long as Quarterback Charley Johnson stays healthy. In 1973, despite a pesky strand of cartilage that kept floating into and locking his knee joint, Johnson threw 20 touchdown passes as Denver scored 354 points, highest in the AFC. Johnson endured his fourth knee operation in the off-season and should be ready to direct an offense that is slightly more ground-oriented.
In Floyd Little, who rushed for 979 yards and 12 touchdowns, Ralston has one of the finest running backs in the game as well as a leader who exemplifies his team's confidence. When Ralston drafted Otis Armstrong last year, he apologized to Little for acquiring a running back who would compete for Little's job. Floyd answered, "Hey coach, it's O.K. He'll just sit there on the bench and watch Ol' Floyd play anyhow."
Little, Armstrong and rookie Jon Keyworth, perhaps the Broncos' best fullback since Cookie Gilchrist, should keep the ground game potent. Ralston's No. 3 draft choice, 6'4", 289-pound Tackle Claudie Minor, is not only big, he has fast feet, too. While Riley Odoms may be the best tight end in the game, Ralston is none too deep in pass catchers, even with the acquisition of Otto Stowe from Dallas, and thus will take the calculated risk of playing Bill Van Heusen, his punter, as a wide receiver.
The somewhat uncertain Denver defense should benefit from the trade for John Rowser from Pittsburgh. But the Broncos will be tough against the run atleast, as they employ their odd front alignments, sometimes using four linebackers. Another immediate problem is the schedule: the first three games are with Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Washington. Ouch.
At Kansas City, Hank Stram's big problems are keeping Quarterback Len Dawson free of injury and regaining the rollicking style that used to mark the Chiefs' performances. "Bear Bryant once said to me that the more you win, the more conservative you get," Stram says, "which made me reflect on our situation. We won so big we got away from our personality. We want to recapture the big play in our attack and the enthusiasm that's been our style."
To that end, Stram's top draft choice was Woody Green, a big-play speedster who "looks like he has the ability to do it all." But Green chipped a collarbone against Dallas, which for the time being, at least, leaves the prospective long-gainers up to Ed Podolak, the team's leading rusher last season. Charlie Getty, a No. 2 draft pick, seems ready to take over at left tackle for 35-year-old Jim Tyrer, who was traded to the Washington Redskins, but Stram may not as easily replace Mo Moorman, a starting guard who retired from professional football to enter business.
Were Dawson to stay healthy all season, the Chiefs' offensive worries would diminish greatly. But Dawson, 39, missed eight games last year, and Mike Livingston, who replaced him, moved the team erratically at best. Rookie David Jaynes is the quarterback heir apparent, but Stram would rather not use him much this season.
Kansas City's greatest strength is its defense, which should be good for at least one more big year. Willie Lanier, the All-Pro middle linebacker, has indicated he will retire after this season, and Curley Culp is playing out his option on the way to the WFL. The Chiefs have been sliding, but the right combination of new people and old defenders could stop the decline.
No such hope exists for San Diego, even under the tutelage of Tommy Prothro, one of football's headiest coaches. The Chargers won only two games last year and may not match that this time.
John Madden: OAKLAND RAIDERS
John Ralston: DENVER BRONCOS
Tommy Prothro: SAN DIEGO CHARGERS