Afc West

September 05, 1993|By Vito Stellino

Last season

The San Diego Chargers were the surprise of the division last year, winning 11 of their last 12 after starting out 0-4. They also shut out the Chiefs in their first playoff game before getting routed by the Dolphins, 31-0. The Chiefs got a wild-card spot.

New coaches

Wade Phillips, Denver's longtime defensive coordinator, got the head coaching job, replacing Dan Reeves after Mike Shanahan, a former Broncos assistant who now runs the 49ers' offense, turned it down. Phillips is an easygoing coach who was welcomed by the players because of the contrast with Reeves' intense style. But just because they like the coach doesn't necessarily mean they'll play well for him.

Coach on the bubble

Team owner Al Davis takes all the credit for the Raiders' success and blames the coach for the failure. That's why Art Shell could be in trouble even though he's a Raiders legend and Hall of Famer. The team went 7-9 last year and shows no signs of improving so Shell could become the fall guy.

Best player

Cortez Kennedy of the Seattle Seahawks is the most dominating young defensive lineman in the game. He manages to be a standout even on a sad-sack Seahawks team. At 25, his best days are still ahead of him.

Team on the rise

Bobby Ross is trying to pull off a Joe Gibbs in San Diego while working for general manager Bobby Beathard. In Gibbs' first year in Washington under Beathard (1981), he started off 0-5. The next season the Redskins won the Super Bowl. Ross started off 0-4 with the Chargers last year and did Gibbs one better by finishing 11-5 (Gibbs was 8-8 his first year). Now all Ross has to do is win the Super Bowl this year. The team may not be ready to make that step, but it is getting better.

Team in decline

It's hard to believe the Raiders have won only one playoff game since they beat the Redskins in the Super Bowl a decade ago. The team needs a make-over, but Al Davis is virtually frozen in time. Once noted for bold moves, his decisions have backfired on him. He traded away Jim Lachey for Jay Schroeder, and gambled on Todd Marinovich on the first round. Davis has become a caricature of himself, but he answers to no one so there's not much hope that things will improve.

Key question

Is he the Joe of old or an old Joe? The story of the year was the Joe Montana trade to the Kansas City Chiefs. After playing just one half in the last two seasons, he'll try to prove he can stay healthy and do it at age 37. If he takes the team to the Super Bowl, it'll be a saga for the ages. If he doesn't, he'll be just another old player who played too long.

Outlook

This is the most unpredictable division in the game because of the Joe Montana factor. To expect Montana to win the division and take the team to the Super Bowl at his age after a long layoff is the stuff of a bad movie. Yet nobody wants to count out Montana because he has defied the odds in the past.

In any case, it's a three-team race with the Chiefs, Chargers and Broncos. It could depend on which quarterback stays healthy. The Broncos faded last year when John Elway was hurt. The Chargers were hit with problems early when Stan Humphries suffered a shoulder injury in the last exhibition game. The Chiefs can only keep their fingers crossed and hope Montana stays healthy.

The only safe thing to say about the division is that the Raiders and the Seahawks will bring up the rear. The Raiders figure to continue their slide to oblivion while the Seahawks can't get any worse, but may not be much better than their 2-14 record of last year. A lot will depend on how quickly rookie quarterback Rick Mirer matures.

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