"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.
So, too, do the Denver Broncos, who have made a number of changes as a result of last year's disappointing 7-6-1 finish. Coach John Ralston blames himself for not realizing you can't stand pat in the NFL.
"I confess very freely to making a cardinal error," Ralston says. "I guess it's part of paying your tuition in the National Football League. The previous year we had played Oakland for the division championship in the final game of the season and we lost by four points. I'm thinking, 'Geez, we're only four points out of the division championship; this is going to be a snap. All we've got to do is keep the squad together and do a little better job of coaching and we're going to be in the whole deal.' Well, it just doesn't work that way. You've got to be making changes every year and I made hardly any."
This year Ralston has dealt away eight veterans, junked the three-man defensive rush, shuffled his linebackers and installed Louis Wright, the No. 1 draft choice from San Jose State, at left cornerback.
Four out of Denver's first five draft choices went for the defensive help Ralston needs to reduce the 294 points, 88 third-down completions and 265 first downs the team gave up last year. The return of veteran Tackle Paul Smith, who was out with a snapped Achilles tendon in '74, should stiffen the defense. The linebacking also has been upgraded with the addition of rookie Bob Swenson, who was signed as a free agent from California.
The offense needed fewer repairs, principally because of Otis Armstrong, who gained a league-leading 1,407 yards last season. Armstrong, who scored nine touchdowns and averaged 5.3 yards a carry, is contemplating a 2,000-yard season. Teaming with him is Jon Keyworth, a 6'3", 235-pound battering ram who led the AFC in rushing touchdowns with 10. In reserve is Floyd Little, looking like the '72 model again.
Quarterback Charley Johnson threw for 18 touchdowns despite sporadic protection. "We feel this way about Charley," Ralston says. "He won't carry a team, but he can win in this league consistently if you have a good defense and a good solid running game."
Denver has the best tight end in football in Riley Odoms, who led the club with 42 receptions for 639 yards and six touchdowns, and competent wide receivers in Haven Moses and Billy Van Husen, who also does the punting. Rookies Jack Dolbin and Rich Upchurch give the Broncos outside speed for the first time. Dolbin is a tough refugee from the WFL Chicago Fire, for whom he played several games with a broken jaw. His first catch as a Bronco went for a 93-yard touchdown in the Colt exhibition. On a previous play he had suffered a broken nose.
At San Diego, Tommy Prothro has an outfit barely older than those he coached at Oregon State and UCLA. Fully half of his 43-man roster are rookies or second-year men.
The Chargers' basic strength is an offensive line that opens good holes for Don Woods, the AFC Rookie of the Year, who in 12 games gained 1,162 yards. Woods' running mates, unfortunately, are not nearly as skilled. Prothro's primary concern is his quarterbacking. Dan Fouts has had a history of injuries, Jesse Freitas has yet to show a take-charge attitude, and Virgil Carter is trying to get on track after a year in the WFL. They are helped, however, by Gary Garrison, one of the league's best receivers, and Dwight McDonald, a rookie from Utah who looks good despite the fact that he wasn't drafted because scouts said he was too slow.
Three rookies will figure prominently in Prothro's front four: Fred Dean, Louie Kelcher and the team's No. 1 draftee, Gary (Big Hands) Johnson. Prothro is encouraged by the performances of Kelcher and Johnson, who have been particularly impressive for youngsters.
At Kansas City, Wiggin has inherited a club that is decidedly long in the tooth, with the exception of the offensive line. His major problem will be finding a successor to Quarterback Len Dawson, who at the age of 40 has lost little of his class but some of his durability. Dawson's backups are Tony Adams from the WFL and Mike Livingston.
The Chiefs' strength is the defensive backfield, with All-Pro Linebacker Willie Lanier coming out of retirement and Emmitt Thomas, the NFL interception leader, at corner-back. The running game is built around last year's rookie flash, Woody Green. Morris LaGrand, a newcomer from Tampa, looks stylish at fullback, and Cleophus Miller had a late surge of good running last year. Ed Podalak, long the main cog in the running attack, will alternate with Green, and Jeff Kinney will back up MacArthur Lane, who was obtained from Green Bay. On the receiving end will be Otis Taylor, the Chiefs' big-play man since 1965.
Wiggin, who replaces Hank Stram, Kansas City's only coach until he was fired last year, has brought a measure of informality to the job. He has done away with Stram's ban on beards, mustaches and the like, and most players, if not all, are pleased with the change.
Wiggin won't have to wait long to find out how the Chiefs are going to shape up. Four of the first six games are against division rivals.
LINEBACKER WILLIE LANIER KANSAS CITY CHIEFS