On Sept. 3, 1984, as Curt Warner cut sharply on the Kingdome's artificial turf, his right knee went poof. So did the SEATTLE SEAHAWKS' running game. If ever a guy was married to the run it was the Seahawks' coach Chuck Knox. Three weeks later his speedy wideout, Paul Johns, who was leading the team in receptions at the time, injured his neck. Goodby, Johns. Time to retrench, regroup, rededicate.
The Seahawks did exactly that, making the playoffs with a 12-4 record. The running attack spun its wheels (the leading rusher was a blocker, fullback David Hughes, who finished 56th in the NFL), so for the first time a Knox team passed more times than it ran. Dave Krieg, the Cinderella quarterback from Wisconsin's Milton College, threw for 32 TDs, more than he had gotten in his previous four years and second only to Dan Marino. Rookie Daryl Turner from Michigan State became the team's long-ball threat, the only NFL receiver who averaged better than 20 yards a catch and scored 10 touchdowns. The defense, with essentially the same people, improved from 27th in 1983 to sixth.
There was a different outlook, though. The Seahawks got nasty. They hit everything that moved and a few things that didn't. All of a sudden the giveaway-takeaway ratio became a catchphrase in the Northwest. The year before, they had sneaked into the playoffs by virtue of 13 Raider turnovers against them, but now they were forcing them with a frenzy. No one in the league was close. Their special teams also played like maniacs.
All the good guys are back this year, plus a healthy Warner. The top draft pick, 220-pound fullback Owen Gill, gives the Seahawks still more depth for the ground game. They have stars like tackle Ron Essink and middle guard Joe Nash, and superstars like strong safety Ken Easley, defensive end Jacob Green and wideout Steve Largent, who's coming off-one of the great seasons (74 catches, 12 TDs) of a nine-year career. The question is, will they have the same intensity, the same hunger? If not, look out, because the AFC West is a jungle waiting to swallow the unwary.
Four veterans were holdouts in camp. One was Bruce Scholtz, just coming into his own as a formidable outside linebacker. The Seahawks had plans to move him inside, but they had to put that on hold. Now for another of those nagging questions—why is Knox still skeptical about Krieg, despite the wonders he has performed? Last year the Seahawks played footsie with Warren Moon for a while; this year they had former Oakland Invader Bobby Hebert out for a long look. It makes you wonder.
The last memory of the DENVER BRONCOS is of a battered quarterback painfully pulling himself off the turf in a losing playoff effort against the Steelers. Critics say that coach Dan Reeves should have yanked John Elway and gone with a healthy guy, but if the Broncos lost the game that day, they won something else. Hear what veteran linebacker Tom Jackson says about that game:
"It was significant for Elway's career and his relationship with the team. There had been questions about his toughness, but he showed us a lot. I think everybody's behind him now."
The implication is that perhaps everyone on the Broncos wasn't an Elway fan before that. He hadn't hung around town the year before. Some people felt he could have worked harder in the off-season. This year he changed. He acted like a guy trying to make the club. He lifted weights, studied, toughened himself up. In camp his passes whistled. Receivers talked about the Elway Cross as if it were a badge of honor—the little cross mark the ball leaves when it strikes the ribs with great force.
Elway was a productive quarterback in the surprising 13-3 '84 season, but here are two more major reasons for Denver's success—Mike Shanahan and Alex Gibbs, the rookie assistant coaches Reeves lured from the college ranks. Shanahan had a big hand in the offense; he wasn't afraid to buck the boss. Gibbs took an offensive line that looked like a sieve and turned it into a Panzer division. The running game went from 23rd to 10th, sacks dropped from 55 to 35. The Broncos are still a receiver or two away from the big banana, but they might have found a couple in their top draft pick, Steve Sewell, a large guy coming out of the backfield, and second-round selection Vance Johnson, whose 4.38 on grass this summer was the fastest clocking in Denver history.
Kansas City Chiefs nose tackle Bill Maas has this blunt observation on the 1985 season: "If we can win our first three games we'll go to the Super Bowl."
This tells you two things about the Chiefs—there's a new wave of optimism on a club that has been the division patsy for more than a decade, and the schedule is murderous. First three games? How about the first five? There's the opener at New Orleans—the Saints are always cranked up for their first home game—then the Raiders four days later, Miami on the road, Seattle and then the Raiders on the road. K.C. has the toughest schedule in the league. Ten games are against '84 playoff teams, and the Chiefs meet both Super Bowl clubs away. John Mackovic, their young coach, says he likes it that way (what else is he going to say?). If you're gonna play like the best, then you've got to beat the best.
The Chiefs closed out the '84 season by beating the Broncos, Seahawks and Chargers. "We were going nowhere, but those three games became vital to us," veteran guard Tom Condon says. "They were our playoffs."
The new wave of enthusiasm has carried over to the front office. All the rookies were signed, including No. 1 pick Ethan Horton, the best running back in the draft. He came to terms two days after owner Lamar Hunt paid a visit to camp, noted his absence and upped the ante. This spirit of free spending also produced big new contracts for five veteran stars—and this is a club that's traditionally had negotiating problems. The team as a whole reported in such good shape that Mackovic cut the full-pads workouts to one a day, gearing everything to having fresh legs for those first five games.
The LOS ANGELES RAIDERS were out-toughed by the Broncos, Steelers, Seahawks and Bears last year. Who can forget the sight of the walls collapsing against Seattle in the playoffs, and Jim Plunkett running for his life, desperately heaving passes into double and triple coverage? The quarterback situation was, and still is, in turmoil, and the running game died when the offensive line started springing some Titanic-sized leaks.
In a normal year there would be an influx of superstars to take up the slack, an aging veteran who suddenly sprouts wings, a rookie sleeper who blossoms, but they seem to have missed roll call this time. Top draft pick Jessie Hester probably will replace 37-year-old Cliff Branch, whose pass receiving fell off to practically zero late last season, but Jessie wasn't wowing anybody in camp. Guard Curt Marsh broke his arm. Once he was considered the offensive-line star of the future, along with Don Mosebar, who's now playing backup center.
Marcus Allen will carry the offense. Howie Long and Rod Martin and a great secondary will carry the defense, maybe even far enough to get the Raiders into the playoffs.
San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos has had a full year to size up the situation, and what he has found isn't good. Last year, as the new kid on the block, he bit his tongue. This summer he said the following:
"I came in at midseason and had the management of the previous owner. His thinking was different from mine. I will not tolerate negligence. People had become too lax around here."
The message is clear. Don Coryell had better win or he's gone. As for general manager Johnny Sanders, he looks to be on the way out. Spanos was pushing his own guy, Ron Nay, formerly an area scout, now the chief scout. On the eve of camp, Nay cut nine veterans, one-fifth of the team, without input from either Coryell or Sanders. He ran the draft, which will produce at least three starters—Jim Lachey at left tackle, Wayne Davis at a corner and Jeffrey Dale at safety.
The USFL has provided running back Tim Spencer; Lee Williams, a defensive line starter; James Lockette, who had 13 sacks for the Generals last season; and Trumaine Johnson, who might replace split end Charlie Joiner if Trumaine gets his routes straightened out. If they acquire Gary Anderson, one of the USFL's flashiest runners, and cornerback Mossy Cade, the rustling would be complete and the Chargers will have gathered the greatest collection of USFL talent of any NFL team. The Chargers even brought back Shane Nelson, the fulcrum of the old Buffalo Bermuda Triangle defense, and set him down at the strongside inside linebacker position, moving Billy Ray Smith to the weak side. Nelson hasn't played in almost three years, but he says his knee is well now.
Clearly Spanos and Nay have given Coryell the tools to work with, but they can't guarantee that Dan Fouts will stay healthy all year, working behind an offensive line that's creaking in spots. And they can't get Kellen Winslow's knee well. The projection is for a late October return, but if the season's a downer, Winslow might stay out.
In another division, the Chargers might be a playoff team, but they're in the AFC West, where the men live.
For the Raiders' Vann McElroy pass coverage is anything but secondary.
San Diego's Miles McPherson was hopping mad after missing an interception against the Oilers last season.
Toughing it out, by land and air, Elway gained the Broncos' respect.