|With long hair flowing out of the back of his helmet, quarterback Kenny Stabler, number 12, embodied the renegade Raiders during the 1970s.Known somewhat undeservedly throughout his career for his propensity to party, Stabler never let his reputed off-the-field exploits overshadow his heroics on Sundays. He was the leader of pro football’s bad boys, a team featuring the giant defensive end with the handlebar moustache, Ben Davidson; combative linebacker Phil Villapiano; eccentric but talented tight end Dave Casper; and the University of Mars graduate, defensive lineman Otis Sistrunk. These great players and their Raider teammates enjoyed a good practical joke, a few competitive card games and a couple of cold beers during the week, but they lived for Sundays, when they were actually paid to play a game they truly loved. On game day, these players, including the team’s All Pro quarterback, were all business.With accuracy equaled by only a couple of quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, Stabler picked apart a defense with perfectly timed passes to his favorite receiver, Fred Biletnikoff, before tearing out a defense’s heart and soul with a long bomb to speedy wide receiver Cliff Branch. Every Sunday, the former University of Alabama quarterback used the weapons at his disposal — Biletnikoff, Branch, Casper, et. al — to create offensive masterpieces, much like Picasso used different paints to create a classic. Stabler’s canvas on Sundays was the football field, where he led pro football’s most-feared offensive attack.The fact that Stabler threw for more yards, completed more passes and had the highest completion percentage of any quarterback in the history of the Raiders should have guaranteed him a spot in the Hall of Fame. But it didn’t.
After throwing for 19,078 yards and 150 touchdowns and compiling a winning percentage with the Raiders that was among the best in the history of the NFL, Stabler should be in the Hall of Fame. But he isn’t.
His flawless performance in Super Bowl XI against the Vikings in a dominating win should have elevated him to Hall of Fame status. But it didn’t.
Have the same anti-Raider biases that encouraged officials to overlook opposition fumbles and penalties for decades permeated into Hall of Fame voting? How else can one explain that the field general for one of the NFL’s greatest teams, the 1976 Raiders, isn’t enshrined in Canton?
Raider Nation Journal‘s Randy Shillingburg recently talked with Stabler about his omission from the Hall of Fame, and the Immaculate Reception, Sea of Hands and Holy Roller games.
Raider fans, enjoy this conversation with one of the team’s all-time greats:
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RS: What are you doing now? I read that you’re going to be doing some work with the University of Alabama as a radio announcer. What else are you doing?
KS: Of course, the radio work we’re going to be doing with Alabama. I did television for a while, and got out of that by choice. I didn’t have the real passion for it. Because it’s the University of Alabama, I want to get back closer to that program. And like I said earlier, expose my children to it so that they can see where Dad played college football. As I said, I’ve got an old Victorian house that was built at the turn of the century, and we’re in the process of putting together a package to develop a piano bar concept — a coffee house type concept — here in Mobile. It will serve as the base for me and what I do. I’ve been real, real busy, doing a lot of traveling, and doing a lot of sports marketing events. I do a lot of corporate work. I’ve been real busy, the schedule has been busy. Things are going well.
RS: Are you having fun?
KS: Having a blast. I always have, and it’s just getting better and better. I think the reason for that is my children. I think the best thing that’s happened to me in an awfully long time is my kids, being with them, getting involved with them and watching them grow, and communicating with them. It’s been just absolutely wonderful.
RS: Was the ’76 team the best Raiders team you were on?
KS: I suppose it has to be because of the result. I mean, the result was the Super Bowl. That’s the reason you go in there. That’s the reason you play is to get to that game and to win that game. We went 13-1, and we beat New England in the first round of the playoffs and we beat Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game, and then we beat Minnesota in Super Bowl XI in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. I had good personal numbers, and a lot of guys had great numbers. That’s the only way you can get there is for everyone to have good years, to play well and to stay healthy. To answer your question: Without a doubt, ’76 was a really good football team. But it was the same guys who were on the ’74, ’75 and ’77 teams also. We were a really good football team who just happened to put it all together, and got the right breaks and stayed healthy, and we got good years out of our people that particular year.
RS: In my column last week, I mentioned something about “You know you’re a true Raiders fan if someone mentions the words, ‘Rob Lytle,’ and you cringe” a little because of the fumble in the ’77 playoff game that wasn’t called.
KS: Well, we had an opportunity to go, you know, to repeat. Not too many football teams have been able to repeat the Super Bowl. It’s awfully hard to get there once. To repeat is even tougher. We had that opportunity and we went right back to the AFC Championship Game in Denver and Rob Lytle — I guess they said he fumbled and it wasn’t called. It was one of those things. You get some of those breaks and sometimes they go against you. You have to play through that, you have to win regardless of the officiating. You have to win regardless of the injuries and you have to win regardless of the turnovers. You just have to find a way. That particular day we weren’t able to find a way to get it done and as a result, we didn’t get to repeat, but we came awfully close.
RS: At what point in the Super Bowl against Minnesota did you know that you had that game won? How early in that game did you know?
KS: Well, I think we were really confident going into that ball game because of our team and you look at the matchups with that team. We understood that we were a much bigger and stronger team and probably we had a little bit more speed than they did. When you went through the AFC West at that point in time, when you played Denver and Kansas City and those teams that were very, very good, and then you had to go play Pittsburgh in the championship game. When you did that, you were pretty much battle-tested for anybody you wanted to play. We felt really good playing Minnesota, going into that game because of our size. Our offensive line matched up really well against their defensive (line). They were really an undersized defensive line with Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, Alan Page and those people, so we felt good. But to answer your question, I think probably — you know the football bounces funny and anything can happen. When you have Chuck Foreman and Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White and Tarkenton and those people, that’s a dangerous team. But to answer your question: probably, uh, late third quarter, early fourth quarter, you feel pretty good and you’re up. Freddie Biletnikoff caught a real deep down and in type pass. The safety missed an assignment or something, and he (Biletnikoff) breaks it down inside the five.
RS: I remember that.
KS: I can remember saying to myself as I watched (Biletnikoff) run, and they tackled him inside the five — I remember saying to myself, “That’s it. It’s basically over.” I don’t know when that happened. I think that might have been late third or early fourth quarter.
RS: How good was Biletnikoff, first of all, and, secondly, what was that pattern that you two worked to perfection? It was perfect timing. He ran downfield, faked to the inside, drove off the defender, broke to the sideline and the ball was right there.
KS: Well, Freddie was a great, great player. I mean, his numbers speak for themselves. He’s a Hall of Fame player. If you get into that situation, that institution, you’re ranked among the greats of all time. I think he is that, and I think that he did it with a little less ability than most. I don’t think he was as fast as most. He wasn’t as big as most, and he wasn’t as strong as most. But he had a tremendous heart, and was a really smart player who understood what people were trying to do to him. He had a great, great set of hands, and he knew what people were trying to do to him. He was a smart player and he was just a great, great “money” player. When you look back, and you look at the games he played, he always stepped up when there was a lot of money on the table, when it was a big game, and it was a big match up against Denver or Kansas City in the division. You look at the AFC Championship games, and he was the MVP in the Super Bowl that we played in. Anytime that you had to win, anytime that you needed big plays, and there was a lot of money on the table, riding on the game, then Freddie always played well. He was a great, great player.
It was a real privilege to have a combination of receivers – a tremendous possession guy like Freddie to make big plays on third downs, a tremendous tight end in Dave Casper, who worked the middle of the field against linebacker and safeties and that sort of thing, and then a little guy with tremendous speed on the outside in Cliff Branch. (He was a) 4.2 type of guy, a 4.2 (seconds) 40 (yards), a guy who could fly. So, you had all of the tools. The play that you talk about, the pattern that you talk about, that Freddie ran so well: We had a couple of them when the ball was thrown on the outside. We had a real deep comeback route where he would run, push the guy off 19, 20 yards, and come back and catch the ball at 15, 17 yards. And then we had one where he would break to the inside and get the guy turned to the inside and break and go back to a corner. This was called the “short corner.” And he ran both of those things to perfection because he had tremendous ability to cut and stop on a dime. He could cut sharp patterns and that sort of thing. He was fun to play with.
RS: (Laughing) You know, I actually remember him dropping ONE ball.
KS: (Laughing) Well, you know, we’re all gonna drop one, we’re all gonna throw an interception, we’re all gonna do that sort of thing. That’s something that he certainly didn’t want to do. You’d never say anything to a guy who drops one. He wants to catch it as bad as you want him to. I always remember him as being a great, great clutch player.
RS: He certainly didn’t drop many, did he?
KS: No he didn’t.
RS: Anytime the ball was near him, he just snagged it right in. If you were faced with a third and one in a Super Bowl, the last minute of the game, and you had to hand the ball off to somebody to pick up that touchdown running the ball, who would you prefer to hand that ball off to?
KS: We had guys that specialized almost in that sort of thing. They were very, very good. First of all, we were a good short yardage team because of a tremendous offensive line. You know, when you run the ball behind Hall of Fame players like Art Shell and Gene Upshaw on the left side, and a 10-year center in Dave Dalby, and George Buehler was just a real horse, and John Vella was just as tough as a nail, and a really good pass blocker and run blocker. We had good people to run behind. And when you run the ball with guys like — Pete Banazak was the smallest of the bunch, from a fullback standpoint, at only about 220, 218, but really quick off the ball (and) smart. (He) understood blocking combinations and that sort of thing, and knew when to cut back and when to make his move. He was a smart runner. And Mark van Eeghen was, you know, a little bit bigger at 225 pounds, 226, 228, somewhere in there, but really quick off the ball, and really hit the line awfully fast, and was really good at that sort of thing. Mark Hubbard, 6-2, 240 — much bigger than the rest of them — tough, big legs, and big determination, a lot of heart. We had guys – any one of those three on third and one — you felt really comfortable in handing them the ball.
RS: I loved to watch Banazak play.
KS: Well, he was a smart player. He was an undersized fullback. Like I said, he was only 215, 218, something like that. (He was a) good cutback runner, good, smart runner who understood the blocking combinations on the play that was called and knew what to look for, and he was kind of our short yardage guy, our third and one, third and two guy, or inside the five-yard line, third and goal, second and goal — that sort of guy. He was very good at that because of his knowledge of the game and because he was really quick off the ball. He had a great start.
RS: Let say you had the same type of this situation, say from seven or eight yards out. Who would you want to pass the ball to, Biletnikoff or Casper? Which receiver would be your preference in that situation when you had to get that pass caught?
KS: You know, I was fortunate to have a group of guys. You don’t go into the game saying, “I’m going to throw the ball to this guy; I’m going to throw the ball to that guy.” You go into the game saying, “I’m gonna let the defense dictate where I throw the ball.” And you have to have the whole set of receivers, and we did. Like I said earlier, we had a possession guy, a big tight end for the middle of the field, and great speed on the outside. (As a clutch third-down receiver, there was) nobody better than Freddie Biletnikoff. There were very few tight ends any better than Casper. And Cliff had so much speed that they played so far off of him that you worked things in front of people with him. We threw the ball to all of those guys in all the situations. We were really fortunate to have a great offensive line that gave you the opportunity and the time to do that sort of thing. To be able to throw the ball to great, great receivers, you can do some damage.
RS: Most people don’t remember this about your career, but you were the quarterback at the end of the game in 1972 in the Immaculate Reception game. You actually ran it in. What was it, 30 yards out? You scrambled and ran it in to put the Raiders ahead 7-6. Is that correct?
KS: Yes, that’s correct. I came in (during) the second half. Daryle Lamonica started the game, and I played the second half, and Casper came in and played. It was really his debut when he got to play and catch some balls. He and I hooked up. It was really the start of our relationship as quarterback-receiver. Yeah, they came on an all-out type of blitz, where they bring all the linebackers, and they bring a safety, and somehow you get outside of that, you scramble outside of that, and there’s no one out there because all of the cornerbacks and the safeties have all run off covering receivers. There’s nobody there. And so I ran the ball in and we scored, and we went up 7-6. And then Pittsburgh got the ball back with a minute and four left. And then Bradshaw goes incomplete on first down, second down, third down. Fourth and 10, and he throws the ball over the middle and Frenchy Fuqua and Jack Tatum get there simultaneously and the ball ricochets off one of them and Franco catches it jogging along, and it’s a weird, strange set of circumstances. It’s one of those plays that will live on forever. It’s one of those plays that every playoff time and during the year, you’ll see it replayed over and over on TV. It’s just a wonderful play to be remembered as a really unique set of circumstances in that game. You know, it was not good for us because we lost and they basically picked our pocket. But for a game to be remembered off of one play, I don’t know if there’s any better than that one.
RS: One of my favorite players on the team, defensive end Tony Cline, missed Bradshaw by inches on the pass rush. I was growing up in northern West Virginia and I listened to the game on KDKA radio out of Pittsburgh. The game wasn’t even televised in the area. It was just devastating. I couldn’t even watch it. I had to listen to it on radio! It was certainly a memorable game. Later on, it seemed as if you were in some memorable games that turned the other way: The Holy Roller game, the Sea of Hands game. What was your thinking during those great plays?
KS: The play in San Diego when I threw the ball out there on the ground — it was just a common sense type play, that I think most quarterbacks would probably have made. I think it was third down. I think there were 10 seconds or eight seconds left, you know, probably not enough time to get off another play. The common sense school of thought is, “Don’t get trapped with the ball. Don’t get sacked.” I mean, if you get sacked, you lose. Interception, you lose. Incomplete pass, you’re probably going to lose. So, you can’t let those things happen. So, coming out of the huddle, you say to yourself that very thing: “Don’t get trapped with the ball. Don’t take a sack. Sack, you lose.” So when the guy got to me — he was a former Alabama linebacker named Woodrow Lowe — and Woody Lowe got to me. In the course of the sack, (I think to myself) “You can’t get sacked with it. Roll it out there. Roll the damn thing out there and shake the dice, and hope that something good happens,” and it did. Pete Banazak dove at it and knocked it down inside the five, and Casper kicked it into the end zone, and fell on it. You know, it was just another one of those plays that will always be relived forever when you’re talking about wild plays, crazy plays, crazy finishes. That one just happened to bounce our way.
RS: (Laughing) You guys caused more rules changes. The “not being able to fumble the ball forward,” the “use of stickem” rules. You kind of stretched the rules a little bit, and then they changed them on you.
KS: Well, that’s probably a good rule. It was a good reason to change the rule. It keeps people from doing that very thing. The last play of the game, if you don’t think you have an opportunity to get another play off, you just throw the damn thing up in the air or roll it out and hope something happens. You know, it’s probably not the way the game should be done, so they make that rule change. It’s a common sense play that I think most quarterbacks would have made in that situation. Just throw the damn thing out and the football bounces funny and maybe it will bounce your way. And it happened to do that.
RS: The Sea of Hands was the “John Vella play,” isn’t that right?
KS: Well, John Vella’s guy, basically John’s man forced me to do what I did. Vern Den Herder was the defensive end for the Dolphins. I think he beat John on a pass play, and he beat him to the outside or the inside, I’m not sure. He forced me out of the pocket and I started to run, and he dived at my legs and tripped me up. In the course of falling down I threw this end-over-end dying duck back into the corner of the end zone. Basically I saw a black jersey there somewhere. I didn’t even know it was Clarence Davis. I just knew that there was a Raider receiver in that area. The ball probably should have been intercepted, but Clarence wanted it worse than they did, and he took it away from two or three people, and Clarence just made a wonderful play out of the whole thing.
RS: It was a wonderful play. Ken, do you consider yourself a Raider, a Saint or an Oiler?
KS: Well, that’s kind of a no brainer. For whatever name I made as an athlete, as a football player, as a quarterback, it has to be as a Raider. I mean, if you look at playing 10 years in one spot compared to two years in Houston and playing three years in New Orleans. For whatever quarterback I am, it has to be that 10 years that I spent in Oakland.
RS: Well, I pretty much figured that, but for the sake of Raider fans around the world, I just wanted to hear you say it. The last question, Ken: Why do you think you’re not in the Hall of Fame? Your numbers, your completion percentage, your ability to win the big game, your ability to drive a team in the last minute — probably no other quarterback in the history of the league was your equal. You’re one of the best quarterbacks ever. Why aren’t you in the Hall of Fame?
KS: Well, I don’t know. I’m not the person to ask that, you know. I don’t know what the criteria is. I don’t really know how it’s done or who votes on that sort of thing. I don’t have any idea. All you can do is go out there and play, and play as hard as you can, and let the cards fall where they may. I don’t have any idea why those things happen, or why you’re not in there. It’s not something that I think about an awful lot unless somebody brings it up. I mean, if you should be there, then eventually maybe you will be. It would be a great honor, but like I said, it’s not something I think about an awful lot.
RS: Well, I tell you what. If you find an e-mail address or phone number of anybody who’s voting on the Hall of Fame, we’ll get some Raider fans around the world — maybe a couple of hundred thousand fans — to send them some e-mail and call them because you certainly deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. If there is anybody out there who isn’t in the Hall of Fame and deserves it more, I don’t know who that would be.
KS: Well, that’s nice of you to say that. I don’t have any problem with it. I mean, I had a wonderful career. I think that anytime you’re blessed to play with the guys we’ve been talking about, and playing for John Madden and Bum Phillips and guys like that. It was an awful lot of fun. They let you be the kind of player you want to be on the field, and the kind of guy you want to be off the field. I don’t have any problem with my standing in the football community. I had a great career and we won — we won a world championship. I was paid the way most quarterbacks were paid. I don’t have any problem with it. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, then I’m content with where I’ve been and how I got there.
RS: Well, you were certainly one of my favorite players, and I know you’re the favorite player for a lot of the people who will be reading this interview in the Raider Nation Journal. It’s been an honor, Ken. Raider Nation Journal is written by Raider fans for Raider fans around the world. We’re very proud to have interviewed you today. Thanks, Kenny.
KS: Thank you, Randy.