From 1968 to 1975, the Oakland Raiders played in six A.F.L./A.F.C. title games and lost each one of them to the eventual Super Bowl champion.
In 1976, they finally beat the arch-nemesis Pittsburgh Steelers to advance to Super Bowl 11. Then, against Minnesota two weeks later, with the clock winding down and victory assured, a relieved John Madden shook hands and embraced his quarterback, Ken Stabler. After just four years as the starter, Stabler seemed on a Hall of Fame trajectory.
But, as it turned out, when he walked off the field that day in Pasadena, his best football was already behind him. Stabler was selected by the Raiders in the second round of the 1968 draft (52nd over all).
After quitting briefly in frustration, he returned to Oakland in 1970. Stabler waited his turn behind Daryle Lamonica and George Blanda until becoming the starter in 1973, the year he turned 28.
Stabler led the league in completion percentage, 62.7, in 1973, and in touchdown passes, 26, in 1974. In 1976, he led in completion percentage, 66.7; touchdown passes, 27 (in 12 games); in yards per attempt, 9.4; and in passer rating, 103.4. Stabler was The Associated Press’s Most Valuable Player in 1974, and The Sporting News named him its A.F.C. Player of the Year in 1974 and 1976.
Those completion percentages are even more impressive considering the Raiders’ style of offense and the rules that limited the scope of the passing game. Before the downfield bump-and-run was eliminated in the late ’70s, offenses couldn’t rely on their receivers to reach particular spots on the field within the necessary time frame.
When they arrived, it was often too late. The quarterback was already on the ground. The precision and timing so integral to today’s passing attack wasn’t possible on a consistent basis. As a result, league-wide completion percentages were much lower than they are now.
In 1974, Ken Anderson, in Bill Walsh’s ball-control pass West Coast offense in Cincinnati, completed 64.9 percent to lead the N.F.L. Of the 224 completions by Bengals quarterbacks (213 by Anderson), 110 were to backs. Fran Tarkenton completed 64.2 percent of his passes in 1975. Minnesota’s quarterbacks completed 281 passes (273 by Tarkenton), 150 of them to their backs, including 73 to Chuck Foreman and 54 to Ed Marinaro.
Aside from a few screens, most of those were what were then called safety valve or outlet passes. Today they’re called check downs.
That wasn’t the Raiders’ philosophy. Oakland wanted to establish physical superiority with their powerful running game and then attack downfield primarily to the tight ends and wide receivers.
In 1974, only 44 of the Raiders’ 186 completions went to their backs. In 1976, out of 232 completions, just 74 went to the backs. As Al Davis said many times: “We don’t take what the defense gives us. We take what we want.” (NFL Films)
Smart. Tough. Accurate. The ability to think clearly and act decisively under pressure. Stabler had it. He was especially good at picking apart the three-deep zone, the standard pass defense by the early 1970s. The running game allowed the Raiders to take advantage of Stabler’s effectiveness as a play-action passer. He had the ability to snap his head around and quickly regain his downfield vision after momentarily turning his back on the defense to execute the run fake.
The images of Stabler standing in the pocket and delivering a pinpoint strike to Fred Biletnikoff on a comeback route or a long one to Cliff Branch down the sideline were an important part of many Sunday afternoons and Monday nights in the 1970s.
After his Super Bowl-winning season in 1976, Stabler’s performance declined sharply. In 1978, he threw 16 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions as the Raiders fell to 9-7 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1971. His play improved the next year, but Oakland again failed to make the postseason. In 1980, during one of his many public disputes with Davis, Stabler was traded to the Oilers for quarterback Dan Pastorini. The Raiders, with Jim Plunkett replacing Pastorini, proceeded to win two of the next four Super Bowls.
Stabler finished his career with two undistinguished seasons in Houston and three mostly forgettable years with New Orleans. Unlike his contemporary Ken Anderson, in the early ’80s, or Kurt Warner in Arizona, Stabler had no second act to his career.
How could Stabler’s skills have eroded so quickly? Injuries, yes, but it was more than that. “I always admired the absolute disdain he showed for the other team, for the guys rushing him, even when they got to him,” said Pat Toomay, one of Stabler’s training camp roommates in Oakland.
“It’s like they weren’t even worth thinking about. But then after being around him for a while I had different feelings. The way he lived… the lack of effort he put into his job… well, I just couldn’t respect it.” (Paul Zimmerman, “The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football”, Simon and Schuster, 1984)
Or this, from the Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper, Stabler’s teammate for eight seasons, in Oakland and Houston:
“He set coaching back 50 years. He knows everything there is to know on a football field, but when they give him his game plan on Wednesday he probably takes it and throws it in the waste basket. No one ever suspected how little he knew about the game plan on a particular week. He’s fooled ’em all his life and he continues to fool ’em… I don’t think he ever cared about losing. Winning is fine. Losing? So what? He’d rather win the gamble and force a pass in there. A bluffer, a gambler… he’d rather do it the hard way. (Zimmerman)”
Perceptions of Stabler illustrate the inevitable gap between history and memory. He tends to be remembered in the glow of all those important and exciting games the Raiders were a part of in those years and the pivotal role he played in them. The Sea of Hands. The Ghost to the Post. The Holy Roller.
A successful N.F.L. career is usually the product of a combination of talent, hard work, and a little good fortune in being in the right situation. In Oakland, Kenny Stabler was the starting quarterback on a football dynasty. He was surrounded by some of the greatest players and coaches of his time.
For all his achievements, he should’ve been better, for longer. He should’ve been a Hall of Famer.