LOS ANGELES RAIDERS
The practice field is now officially in Los Angeles, workmen soon will merrily hammer in those little silver-and-black knick-knacks in the luxury boxes high atop the L.A. Coliseum, the battles with Pete Rozelle are a distant memory. Only the city of Oakland's near-dead eminent domain suit and an NFL appeal of the Raiders' antitrust victory remind the team of the home it left behind. Freed of courtroom responsibilities, Al Davis, his light-blue warmup jacket glinting in the sunshine, is again a familiar figure on the practice field—lengthening the pass routes, encouraging the defensive linemen, quietly pulling a veteran aside and murmuring, "It's time to redo your contract."
Serenity has settled on this theater of the bizarre. Drug scandals have not rocked the Raiders, who have kept such matters out of the headlines. The big money deals of the USFL have turned no heads—so far. Davis' policy of upgrading the pay of veterans who perform, while hard-lining it with unproved rookies, such as No. 1 draft choice Don Mosebar, has been successful—so far. In his quiet way, Tom Flores has emerged as the right kind of coach for the gang of roughnecks who wear the silver and black. This is exactly Davis' kind of team, at least defensively-defensive ends Howie Long and Lyle Alzado, linebackers Ted Hendricks, Matt Millen and Rod Martin, Cornerback Lester Hayes: flamboyant, rough, intimidating, lots of action, lots of penalties. Pacifists need not apply. "These guys are warriors," Davis says.
The first three draft picks after Mosebar, Defensive End Bill Pickel, Linebacker Tony Caldwell, Defensive End Greg Townsend, are all "nasty-tempered, perfect Raiders," according to the club's executive assistant, Al LoCasale. Vann McElroy, taking over at free safety for the retired Burgess Owens, is a hitter. It's a formidable array of defenders the Raiders will put on the field, but on offense things are a bit confused.
The running game, which got a shot of adrenaline from Rookie of the Year Marcus Allen, still slipped from No. 8 in the NFL in '81 to No. 13 last year, with yards-per-carry dropping from 4.2 to 3.7. How come? Gone is the old Highway West on the left side of the Raiders' line, Gene Upshaw and Art Shell. And now Left Guard Curt Marsh is also gone (back surgery), leaving that side to 270-pound Ed Muransky, a converted tackle, and incumbent Tackle Bruce Davis. Everyone keeps writing off Quarterback Jim Plunkett, but so far he has held off the challenge of third-year man Marc Wilson, and he could have a new long-ball receiving threat in fifth-round draft choice Dokie Williams from UCLA. If Plunkett gets time, he can still stand and deliver.
Last year some people picked the Raiders down near the bottom of the division, but the team ran up an 8-1 record while commuting from Oakland to L.A. "We must be pretty good to play a complete road schedule and lose only once," Plunkett said. No argument.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
It's the best tennis game in town: We score, you score; we throw for 400 yards, you throw for 350. Break service and you win the set. Gene Klein, the Chargers' owner, was getting a sore neck from watching the ball go back and forth so many times. Basta! Bring in some defense. Start writing contracts. I'll pay. Billy Ray Smith, the linebacker from Arkansas who was the team's top draft choice, got $2.4 million for four years. Cornerback Gill Byrd, the Chargers' third pick on the first round (the second, Gary Anderson, is in the USFL), got better than $1 million for four seasons. And the team's fourth-round pick, Cornerback Danny Walters, got $310,000 for three years. Not impressed? Well, this is a club that traditionally devotes its available funds to the offense—bye-bye Fred Dean, for instance. Of course, it was bye-bye J.J. Jefferson, too, when the wide receiver wanted a rich new contract a few years ago. Klein evidently has had a change of heart, and the vault is now open. All he wants is a Super Bowl, something that has been predicted for the Chargers ever since Air Coryell began to operate. And just to make sure people remember that Dan Fouts is the best quarterback in football, Klein gave him the best paycheck of all—a reported $7.2 million for the next six years.
The money's there, and so's the offense. Fouts will perform behind the oldest and best pass blockers in the game-Billy Shields, Doug Wilkerson, Don Macek, Ed White and Russ Washington. But are all those rookie defenders really going to bring the Chargers up to Super Bowl level? Five were projected as possible starters, Smith and ninth-round draft choice Mike Green as inside linebackers, Walters and Byrd at the corners and seventh-round pick Bill Elko at middle guard. The lesson of San Francisco, which won a Super Bowl with three rookies in the secondary two years ago, was not lost.
But building a new defense isn't that easy. Smith must make the difficult transition from stand-up defensive end to linebacker. Against the Chargers in their preseason opener, the Rams ran for 203 yards, a lot of it over the middle. Elko is fighting to survive against NFL centers, and if he can't make it, the anchor of the Chargers' new 3-4 defense would have to be Louie Kelcher, 30, a cartoon character at 326 pounds, a guy who seems to have lost his love of the game. Gary Johnson, a natural pass rusher as a tackle in the 4-3, will now be spinning his wheels as a 3-4 defensive end. The formula doesn't seem right, but two years ago no one liked the 49ers' chances very much, either.
If this were England, John Elway would have been knighted by now. In South America they'd have named a military junta after him. In Moscow he'd have his own apartment. But since this is America and the NFL, the best we can offer is $1 million a year and a personal press corps that dutifully records his every move. Denver is a town that went crazy over a defensive unit—the Orange Crush—in '77. Imagine what the folks there will do when this kid completes his first touchdown pass, which should be either three or six minutes into the season, depending on who wins the coin toss. Yes, he's got it all—a football coach for a daddy, who taught him the right stuff from Day 1; an ex-NFL coach, Paul Wiggin, who gave him a pro-style offense at Stanford; a cannon for an arm; quick feet; great football savvy—everything.
What was most amazing about Elway at Stanford was his ability to throw 50-yard passes on the money when he was off-balance or running for his life. What's that you say? That talent will come in handy as he works behind the Broncos' offensive line. Now, now, let's not be vicious. You'd be surprised how much linemen perk up when they realize the guy behind them is mobile and nimble, when he can escape the first rusher all by himself. Don't forget, these are guys who got gray hair trying to pass-block for a statue, Craig Morton.
The receiving corps has perked up already. Steve Watson, they say, is back to his Pro Bowl form of 1981. Rick Upchurch had the best camp of his career. Gerald Willhite, coming out of the backfield, is the kind of skittery little target Elway had at Stanford in Darrin Nelson and Vincent White. But the running game, 17th in the NFL last year, lacks the big crunch up the middle, and it won't get much better unless Elway's bullets open things for the ballcarriers.
The defense, once the NFL's finest, sagged to 24th last year, and even Elway's fireworks may not be enough to compensate for its deficiencies. A big upper could be the return of Outside Linebacker Bob Swenson, a contract holdout much of '82, to the form that made him one of pro football's best two years ago.
The Seattle press, cowed and browbeaten by Seahawk Coach Jack Patera for seven years, welcomed former Buffalo Coach Chuck Knox with sighs of relief. He didn't let them down in his first press conference. He promised that things would improve. He looked the writers straight in the eye and swore that better days were ahead. He ended his talk with a rousing "Let's go out and kick their butts," and that night eight writers got booked for assault. No, no, no, it's a joke. They aren't that desperate in Seattle yet, but if ever a man had a town pulling for him, it's Knox.
He traded upward in the draft to get Penn State's Curt Warner, who could be the first 1,000-yard runner in the club's seven-year history. Then he brought in the blockers, not rookies but the old veteran types he is so comfortable with—Fullback Cullen Bryant and Tight End Charle Young from his old L.A. Ram teams, Guard Reggie McKenzie from Buffalo and Cincinnati Center Blair Bush.
Everyone ran on Seattle's defense last year, but Tom Catlin, one of the six assistants Knox brought from Buffalo, faced a similar problem with the Bills and conquered it. A major change: Catlin switched one of pro football's last remaining 4-3 defenses to a 3-4. Now all he needs is the people to play it.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
No problem with defense here, or at least it's not the major problem. Left End Art Still is coming off his third straight Pro Bowl season. Mike Bell, on the right side, might join Still if he can put together an injury-free year; he spent time in the off-season at the Olympic training site at Colorado Springs learning how to keep his tightly wired muscles from pulling. Gary Spani's a fine inside linebacker, and in the secondary the Chiefs have a superb cornerback in Gary Green and a Pro Bowl free safety in still another Gary, Barbaro, if they get his contract worked out.
It's the offense that has been keeping the Chiefs in the doldrums, that and a growing disenchantment with a front office that gets colder and more remote as the memories of the old Hank Stram Super Bowl days grow dimmer.
Enter new Coach John Mackovic and the razzle-dazzle, shifting formations of the Dallas Cowboys, whose quarterbacks he coached the last two years. But the tragic drowning death of little Joe Delaney, whose slashing, darting runs gave the K.C. fans some of their few happy moments during the last two years, was a big blow, and now Mackovic is left with a very ordinary set of runners, a first-round draft choice at quarterback, Todd Blackledge, who's not quite ready to play, and an offensive line that lost its inspirational leader when Center Jack Rudnay retired.
Critics say that the Raiders will go ker-plunk with Plunkett, but he keeps playing—and winning.
L.A. Raiders 11-5
San Diego 10-6
Kansas City 5-11