This is what has to happen if the Kansas City chiefs are to make it all the way to super bowl XXV. Neil Smith has to make a big statement at defensive left end. Bill Maas has to assert himself on the other side, after having switched to end from nosetackle. The camp holdouts—linebacker Percy Snow, the top draft pick; right cornerback Kevin Ross; and left corner Albert Lewis, one of the game's best but a guy who is mad at the organization—must be ready to go by opening day. Finally, free safety Deron Cherry, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, has to come back from December knee surgery in time to be of help.
That's a lot of ifs, and you'll notice they're all on the defensive side of the ball. But if the gears mesh, the Chiefs could have the premier defense in the league, so good that they could go all the way to Tampa without a glamour quarterback. Steve Pelluer was supposed to have challenged Steve DeBerg for the starting spot, with second-year man Mike Elkins as the comer. It hasn't happened. Kansas City will have to win with defense, and the thunderous running of Christian Okoye.
How good is this defense? Let's start with nosetackle Danny Saleaumua, the best Plan B pickup ever, who was good enough to push Maas out of a job. Saleaumua is 297 pounds, strong enough to collapse the middle, nifty enough to drop back into coverage. Outside linebacker Derrick Thomas was All-Pro last season as a rookie. Chris Martin, on the other side, is vastly underrated. The defense could be good enough to control the tempo of any game.
Here's another big reason that I like the Chiefs: Marty Schottenheimer, the coach. Order and stability follow this man wherever he goes. He had the Browns in it every year, while overcoming some insurmountable obstacles.
What's interesting about K.C. is that it could go 8-8, while the conference's talent factories—-i.e., Denver, Cincinnati, Buffalo—fight it out at the top. But this time I'm betting on the long shot. Chiefs vs. Rams in Supe XXV.
Without pointing any fingers, let's try to figure out, dispassionately and analytically, what goes wrong with the DENVER BRONCOS once they hit the big time. Why does their Super Bowl record stand at 0-4?
Denver vs. Dallas: Offense crumbled under pressure of the Cowboy rush; an overmatch. Denver vs. Giants: Courageous first half for John Elway. Broncos got physically worn down on both sides of the ball in the second half. Denver vs. Washington: Terrible defensive collapse. Couldn't stop the Counter-Gap, the play everyone knew you had to stop to beat the Skins. Couldn't stop Doug Williams. Couldn't stop anything. Denver vs. San Francisco: Ditto. Joe Montana had a read on everything the Broncos and their new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, were doing.
Is it the defensive scheme that has done in Denver of late? Is it lack of manpower? A combination of both? Or is it just the NFC's superiority over the AFC?
There's no dog in this team. Last year's victory over Washington in Week 11 was a heroic performance. When coach Dan Reeves underwent heart surgery during training camp, he was supposed to be out six weeks. He was back in one. The Broncos want it, all right, but is that enough?
Their starting lineup is exactly the same as it was last year, with one position switch. Karl Mecklenburg goes from inside linebacker to the outside, where he has found a home, exchanging positions with Michael Brooks. The coaching staff remains unchanged. The enemy will be looking at films of what San Francisco did to the Broncos, of how the Niners busted their zone at the seams. Denver will see a season of teams trying to do the same.
Self-doubt is Denver's big worry: Why do we get blown out in the biggest game of all? So far no one has found the answer.
It's late July. LOS ANGELES RAIDERS training camp. End of a long, sweaty practice. Coach Art Shell has the boys running wind sprints. Team president Al Davis is watching from the sidelines. "That's enough, Art, they've had enough," mumbles Davis. "Let 'em go."
The players are at the starting line. Shell yells, "Ready, set—ah, the hell with it. Go on in." A cheer breaks out and practice is over.
"The old Raider way," Davis says. "Fool 'em and then say, 'The hell with it.' "
Shell has made everyone mellow. The vets love him. The rookies are awed by his massive presence. Here are three reasons why Los Angeles will improve on last year's 8-8 record:
1) Rookies. The best first-year defensive twosome I've seen so far this year is second-round draft pick Aaron Wallace, a devastating blitzer as an outside linebacker, and seventh-round selection Garry Lewis, who looks as if he were born to play NFL cornerback.
2) Offensive line. Terrific middle three in guards Steve Wisniewski and Max Montoya and center Don Mosebar.
3) Breathtaking speed. Tim Brown, Sam Graddy, Willie Gault, Bo Jackson—they'll challenge anyone in the league in the 4 x 100 relay. Add to them former Olympian Ron Brown, who might make a successful switch from wideout to defensive back.
O.K., the flaws. Special projects coach Mike White is trying to teach Jay Schroeder how to put touch on the ball. Good luck. Schroeder was handed the job when Steve Beuerlein held out. Bombs-away passing isn't enough these days.
The Marcus Allen situation. Here is a guy who bleeds silver and black, a great, tough, proud back who has given his all to the club and is still a fine player. Then Bo comes waltzing in from a baseball field and Allen is forgotten. It ain't right. It ain't the old Raider way.
The SAN DIEGO CHARGERS could be the surprise team in the AFC. They've turned their image around. Now it's the defense that carries the offense. In '89 the defense had a conference-high 48 sacks, thanks to big league pass rushers Lee Williams, Leslie O'Neal and Burt Grossman and solid linebacker Billy Ray Smith.
If new general manager Bobby Beathard can latch on to some offensive lineman to give quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver a base to work from, things could fall into place. Tolliver is an upbeat, sincere young guy who looks like a 218-pound, thick-necked Huck Finn. He has good weapons to work with: speedy wideout Anthony Miller and a pair of pounding runners, Marion Butts and Rod Bernstine.
Everyone expected Beathard to go for an offensive lineman in the draft, but he took a pass rusher, USC's Junior Seau, whom he had a tough time signing. This club is one more draft and a few offensive linemen away from seriously contending.
There are few fans as loyal as those of the SEATTLE SEAHAWKS, and frankly, they deserve better. Curt Warner, the best runner, was lost on Plan B, Steve Largent retired, Fredd Young was traded, and the Boz took the club for a ride and split. They've been trying to replace Dave Krieg at quarterback for a couple of years, but he usually winds up in the Pro Bowl one way or another. Brian Blades, the leading wideout, is a catch-one, drop-one guy. Top draft pick Cortez Kennedy, a tackle, was supposed to shore up the new 4-3 defense, but he was a holdout.
Seattle has some good rookies, especially sleeper free-agent halfback Derek Loville. Coach Chuck Knox is mentioning some offensive gimmicks, even some run-and-shoot. The Seahawks will win a few home games—their fans will see to that—bill dark days are ahead.
Tight end Jonathan Hayes is a Chief with a Super goal.
DR.Z'S POSTSEASON FORECAST
DIVISION CHAMPIONS: Los ANGELES (12-4), MINNESOTA (12-4), WASHINGTON (11-5)
WILD CARDS: SAN FRANCISCO (12-4), NEW YORK (11-5), PHILADELPHIA (10-6)
FIRSTROUND: WASHINGTON DEFEATS PHILADELPHIA, SAN FRANCISCO DEFEATS NEW YORK
SECOND ROUND: Los ANGELES DEFEATS WASHINGTON, SAN FRANCISCO DEFEATS MINNESOTA
CHAMPIONSHIP: Los ANGELES DEFEATS SAN FRANCISCO
DIVISION CHAMPIONS: KANSAS CITY (11-5), CINCINNATI (10-6), BUFFALO (10-6)
WILD CARDS: DENVER (11-5), Los ANGELES (9-7), HOUSTON (9-7)
FIRST ROOND: CINCINNATI DEFEATS LOS ANGELES, DENVER DEFEATS HOUSTON
SECOND ROOND: KANSAS CITY DEFEATS DENVER, BUFFALO DEFEATS CINCINNATI
CHAMPIONSHIP: KANSAS CITY DEFEATS BUFFALO
SUPER BOWL XXV: Los ANGELES RAMS 24, KANSAS CITY 17