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AFC west

It came up in chitchat at the training camp of the Denver Broncos. Someone remarked to John Elway that he looked happier this year, and he said, "well, the shoulder's O.K." Shoulder? We knew he had a sore knee last year and that a painful bursa sac was removed from his right elbow after the season. But the shoulder?

"First exhibition game last year," Elway said. "I strained the rotator cuff. I was never 100 percent. I tried to fight through it and blank it out." Really? Nothing was ever written about it. "I didn't tell anybody." said Elway.

He certainly had an off year. For the first time since '85 Elway threw more interceptions than touchdown passes. Tony Dorsett was brought in to bolster the running game, but it ended up 19th in the league. The defense slumped to 22nd. The Broncos suffered their first nonwinning season since 1982.

Then the house fell down. Coach Dan Reeves, who lost his offensive coordinator, Mike Shanahan, and two other assistants to the Raiders a year earlier, fired his entire defensive staff. Wade Phillips, formerly Buddy Ryan's defensive coach in Philadelphia, is the new defensive coordinator, and he says his unit will attack and swarm. Every new defensive coordinator says his guys will attack and swarm. Just once I would like to hear one say, "Well, we'll pull back and play more coverages."

The front seven got outmuscled in '88, but the coaches promise big things from second-round draft pick Warren Powers, a defensive end with the kind of size (6'6", 287 pounds) that the Broncos have seldom had. Top draft choice Steve Atwater, a 217-pound defensive back, was expected to beat out 30-year-old strong safety Dennis Smith, but instead Atwater is giving 192-pound Mike Harden a run at free safety. All in all, the defense will have more muscle.

The offense will have bigger guys too. Reeves has never had a big back, but now he has two—6'1", 225-pound Melvin Bratton, who scored 32 touchdowns at Miami before tearing up his knee and sitting out last season, and 232-pound Jeff Alexander, a first-year player who spent last season on injured reserve. The Broncos have a lot of ifs—Elway's return to form, the productivity of Bratton and Alexander, the heftier defense. But it won't take much to win the West.

I keep jotting down little W's and L's for the KANSAS CITY CHIEFS, and keep coming up with a 7-9 record, the same one I get for the Raiders and the Seahawks. So what gives the Chiefs the edge? New coach Marty Schottenheimer, for one thing. In 4½ seasons as coach of the Browns he showed that he knew how to put a team together.

I also like Kansas City's assistant coaches. Most of them worked for Schottenheimer in Cleveland. In addition, Al Saunders, who's handling the receivers, is a former head coach of the Chargers, and Tony Dungy, who's in charge of the defensive backs, was Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator last year.

The Chiefs were hapless in '88, with two aging quarterbacks, Steve DeBerg and Bill Kenney, a sporadic running attack and a defense dotted with fine players—nosetackle Bill Maas, linebacker Dino Hackett, most of the secondary—who had trouble staying healthy. Another aging quarterback, 38-year-old Ron Jaworski, will start, which means K.C. is just trying to get through the season. Second-round pick Mike Elkins isn't ready to take over.

The stabilizing influence in the ground attack could be 37-year-old Mike Webster, who joined the team to coach but decided he could help more at center. Though he missed most of camp in a contract dispute, linebacker Derrick Thomas, the No. 1 draft choice, could light up a defense that finished third from the bottom in sacks last year. Things are improving, but the Chiefs are still two drafts away.

With no powerful teams threatening to block the way, don't be too surprised if the SEATTLE SEAHAWKS repeat as division champs. They have a terrific fullback in John L. Williams, a productive quarterback in Dave Krieg, a competent pass-catching contingent and some superb offensive linemen. So what's wrong?

The defense against the run, for starters. Physical teams shoved Seattle around in '88. Brian Bosworth was supposed to be a sturdy, plugging, inside linebacker, but he was injured and ineffective. "When you're not well liked by your teammates," says one coach, "you do two things. You keep your mouth shut and play like hell. Boz didn't do either." The draft didn't provide much defensive help.

Curt Warner, the franchise runner, was accused of tiptoeing through 1988, but he says he got a bum rap. "I'm getting blasted," says Warner, "and all I did was play a whole year on an ankle that had had two operations [before the season]."

He wanted to come back strong this year, but his right knee, on which he had surgery in 1984, popped some cartilage in camp. If Warner makes a miraculous return to full strength, the Seahawks will have one of the league's best running back combos—and that could be enough to steal the division.

The LOS ANGELES RAIDERS were scrimmaging the Cowboys in Oxnard, Calif., when Al Davis stepped onto the field. "That's enough of that," Davis told the Raider defense. He then turned to the Cowboy offense and said, "Give us a four-wideout look." Dallas did. Afterward, the L.A. players were breaking up. "Did you see that?" said one. "Did you see the way Al stopped the scrimmage? Even the Cowboys listened to him. Hey, Al's back."

The Raiders had slipped further and further away from Davis while he carried legal briefs into courtrooms throughout the land. Now he appears to be taking a tighter hold. When camp opened, L.A. had seven players who had made the Pro Bowl for other teams. The best of Davis's foreign legion could be former Redskins quarterback Jay Schroeder, who spent the off-season in the Raider complex, working on his playbook and his throwing. "We opened it up in the last game of 1988, and you saw the result," says Schroeder about the 331 passing yards and 37 points Los Angeles got against Seattle. "That's the way we're going to go now—the old Raider way."

Defensive end Howie Long had what he calls a "totally dedicated" off-season. He proved it by running a 4.78 40 in camp. Steve Wisniewski, L.A.'s second pick in the draft, should be an outstanding right guard. Marcus Allen missed all of camp seeking a new contract, though he has returned for the start of the season. Bo Jackson is hitting gappers for the K.C. Royals. The show may not be great, but what a cast.

Bobby Beathard hangs over the trade that brought Jim McMahon to the SAN DIEGO CHARGERS from the Bears. Rumor has it that Beathard will be the Chargers' general manager in 1990. That must make San Diego's current director of football operations, Steve Ortmayer, feel great. So what's Ortmayer's play? Concentrate on winning right away. Make it impossible, or at least embarrassing, for the club to fire him.

If the future were secure, Ortmayer and coach Dan Henning could wait for quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver, the hot rookie they drafted in the second round, to develop. But the owner, Alex Spanos, is a table-pounder, a let's-get-it-done kind of guy. Henning, who was doing a solid job in Atlanta when he was fired following the 1986 season, knows all about impatient owners.

So he and Ortmayer must squeeze out as many wins as they can this year. McMahon, 30 and injury-prone, might not be the long-term answer, but Tolliver will miss at least the first six weeks of the season because of a broken collarbone, and in any case McMahon is better than Tolliver or anyone else the Chargers have. Try this scenario: McMahon has a hot year and exerts his fabled leadership qualities. All those 300-pound linemen San Diego picked up in this spring's Plan B free-agent grab bag become blocking demons, and an obscure 248-pound rookie fullback named Marion Butts becomes a killer. (Butts's offensive coordinator at Florida State, Wayne McDuffie, once called him "John Dillinger in headgear.") The defense rises to the occasion. End Leslie O'Neal is a big hit at his new position, linebacker. The fans fall in love with these overachievers. Spanos is satisfied.

Scenario No. 2 is 4-12. That's the one we're choosing.