Oh those Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, talented and uninhibited, who, like the poem, would knock you ’round and upside down and laugh when they’d conquered and won. They seemed less a team of athletes than a group from central casting, characters but, when needed, full of character.
Ken Stabler, who died Thursday at 69 from colon cancer, was the perfect quarterback for those Raiders, someone who sensed how far he could push the rules and, in a manner of speaking, push his teammates — which was all the way to the top.
Let’s borrow a line from a song: Those indeed were the days. Fewer restrictions, more fun. Ted Hendricks wearing a Halloween mask on the sideline, the Raiders writing obscenities on footballs for games against the Steelers, no dress code for road trips. As their coach John Madden would say about adversity, “Who cares if the mules are blind, load up the wagon.”
Funny about Bay Area quarterbacks. Nobody particularly wanted a lefty — the ball comes out of his hand spinning the wrong way — and then the Raiders get Stabler, after which the 49ers get Steve Young.
They were similar, great runners — where do you think Stabler got the nickname Snake? — as well as passers. They were dissimilar.
Stabler was a rebel, the quarterback who followed Joe Namath at Alabama. He was drafted by the Raiders in 1968 and sat on the bench impatiently, as do all backups. Raider owner Al Davis was even more of a rebel. Image was unimportant to Davis. Results — “Just win, baby” — were terribly important.
I was Raiders beat man for the other San Francisco paper in the early ’70s, and when Oakland couldn’t get the ball in the end zone with Daryle Lamonica starting at QB, I tracked down Stabler in a locker room that was as open to reporters as it was to players, and he vowed, “I can get us points.” His words were headlined across the top of the sports page. Davis wasn’t perturbed. On the contrary.
So Stabler, living up to that promise, took over. The Raiders finally got past Pittsburgh and into Super Bowl XI, where they crushed the Vikings.
Stabler had a page-boy haircut which gave him a misleading look of innocence, especially when he was relaxing. But the man was a competitor who was as quick a thinker as he was runner or passer. And maybe the best part was that his contributions were rewarded labels which remain distinctive.
The memories remain vivid. Stabler somehow evaded what appeared to be an entire Dolphins defense before, falling forward, he threw the pass to Clarence Davis forever known as “Sea of Hands.” Stabler unloaded the pass to Dave Casper in the final seconds of regulation, “Ghost to the Post,” which set up a win in the second overtime. Stabler rolled the ball that would be batted into the end zone against San Diego, the “Immaculate Deception” or “Holy Roller.”
Stabler said he fumbled it on purpose. Of course he did, and not long after that the NFL instituted a rule against that type of play. Of course it did. Just like the Raiders to force an issue. Just like the league to respond. A conspiracy. And maybe the “tuck rule decision” was repayment, if years later.
Casper, who resides in the Bay Area these days, said in Paul Zimmerman’s “The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, that Stabler set coaching back 50 years
“He knows everything there is to know on a football field,” Casper said of Stabler, “but when they give him a game plan on Wednesday he probably takes it and throws it in the waste basket. No one ever knew how little he knew about the game plan any particular week.”
What mattered was not what Stabler threw away, paper, but what he threw to his receivers, Fred Biletnikoff, Cliff Branch and Clarence Davis.
Stabler was a natural, a champion. Madden said if he needed a drive to win a game, he wanted Stabler at the controls. Watching Ken Stabler was a joy, if you were a Raider fan. If you weren’t it was terror. To this day, you still can’t figure how he escaped those Dolphin defenders.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.bleacherreport.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Al DavisClarence DavisCliff BranchDaryle LamonicaDave CasperFred BiletnikoffImmaculate DeceptionJoe NamathJohn MaddenKen StablerNFLOakland RaidersPaul ZimmermanSan Francisco 49ersSteve YoungTed HendricksUniversity of Alabama