LOS ANGELES, July 9, 2015 — The Snake has left the building, never to return. At age 69, Oakland Raiders legendary quarterback Ken Stabler has died. The late Raiders owner Al Davis once said to a former player, “You’re a Raider, and Raiders don’t die.”
Sadly, they do.
Now Stabler is one of the few people watching the 2015 NFL season in Davis’s heaven luxury box.
Coached by John Madden, Stabler was ultimate misfit on a team of castoffs. He was rebellious back when being a rebel meant something. Teams with Ted “Mad Stork” Hendricks, John “The Tooz” Matuszak and Jack “Assassin” Tatum still needed a leader. They got him the football, and the left-handed Stabler worked miracles.
The two greatest touchdowns in NFL history (as ranked by NFL Films) both involved games Stabler was in. The 1972 playoffs saw the Raiders trailing the Pittsburgh Steelers 6-0 late in the fourth quarter of a defensive bonelock. Stabler then scrambled for a 30-yard touchdown for what appeared to be a 7-6 Raiders win with 1:13 to play. Stabler’s effort was undone when Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris connected on the “Immaculate Reception” with five seconds to play.
The Raiders got their revenge one year later as Stabler’s men thrashed Pittsburgh 33-14.
The 1974 playoffs saw the Raiders trailing the two-time defending champion Miami Dolphins 26-21 late in the fourth quarter. Surrounded by Miami defenders and about to be sacked, Stabler somehow shot-putted a pass to the end zone. Clarence Davis fought for several Miami defenders in what forever became known as the “Sea of Hands” touchdown.
Although Stabler’s Raiders won many playoff games, losses to Pittsburgh in the 1974 and 1975 AFC Title Games questioned whether Oakland could win the big one. The 1974 game had the Raiders up 10-3 after three quarters before a fourth quarter collapse. The 1975 game had Pittsburgh up 3-0 after three quarters in miserably cold conditions. On the last play of the game with the Raiders trailing 16-10, Stabler threw a Hail Mary. The ball was caught, but the receiver was tackled at the five yard line.
Finally in 1976, The Raiders got to the top of the mountain. Stabler led the Raiders to a 13-1 record. Nothing ever came easy for the Raiders. Trailing the Patriots 21-17 with ten seconds to play, Stabler snuck through from one yard out for the Raiders victory. In the AFC Title Game, the Raiders smashed Pittsburgh 24-7. In the Super Bowl, there was no doubt. Stabler led a Raiders attack that reduced the Minnesota Vikings to dust. By a 32-14 margin in front of 100,000 Rose Bowl fans, Davis, Madden and Stabler got their Super Bowl ring.
As defending champions, the 1977 Raiders played the Colts in a game that went into double overtime. Late in that game, with the Raiders trailing and Madden flailing his arms, Stabler calmed his coach down. Madden thought Stabler had a plan. Stabler just looked around and said, “The fans are sure getting their money’s worth today.”
A totally bewildered Madden just sent Stabler back on the field and let him handle it. Stabler threw a 42-yard touchdown bomb to Dave “Ghost” Casper that ended the game forever known as “Ghost to the Post.”The thrilling 37-31 win brought the Raiders and Stabler to their fifth straight AFC Title Game. No team has done that in the AFC or NFC before or since. Although Oakland lost a brutal and highly controversial AFC Title Game 20-17, Stabler’s legacy was secure.
Stabler’s Raiders even made early regular season games interesting. In September of 1978, the Raiders trailed the San Diego Chargers 20-14 with ten seconds left. Stabler went back to pass, got hit, and pretended to fumble the ball forward. After a wild scramble that would now be illegal, Raiders tight end Dave Casper recovered the fumble in the Chargers end zone for a Raiders touchdown. The Raiders won 21-20 as the play would forever be remembered as “The Holy Roller.”
The San Diego Chicken mascot pretended to commit hara kiri after the game. Raiders announcer Bill King made the color commentary of a lifetime.
“The ball, flipped forward, is loose! A wild scramble, two seconds on the clock, Casper grabbing the ball—it is ruled a fumble! Casper has recovered in the end zone! The Oakland Raiders have scored on the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play. Madden is on the field. He wants to know if it’s real. They said yes, get your big butt out of here! He does! There’s nothing real in the world anymore! The Raiders have won the football game! The Chargers are standing, looking at each other! They don’t believe it! Nobody believes it! I don’t know if the Raiders believe it! It’s not real! Fifty-two thousand people minus a few lonely Raider fans are stunned. A man would be a fool to have to write a drama and make you believe it! This one will be relived forever!”
With Stabler’s Raiders, the impossible was possible and the insane was the norm. Ken Stabler scored on and off the field with regularity. He loved the ladies, loved drinking, and “read the game plan by the light of the juke box.”
NFL Films announcer John Facenda is referred to in football circles as “The voice of God.” Facenda created the narrative, but it was Stabler who added color to the vision.
It was Facenda who intoned that “The Autumn Wind is a Raider.” Now Ken Stabler is with the Autumn Wind.
Stabler played on the legendary Bear Bryant Alabama teams that won multiple national championships. Stabler led the Crimson Tide to an undefeated season in his junior year. His record at Alabama was 28 wins and only three losses.
In addition to the Raiders, Stabler played late in his career for the Houston Oilers and the New Orleans Saints. After he retired, like Coach Madden, Stabler naturally became a football color commentator.
For those who love the Silver and Black, a tear is now falling from the pirate’s unmatched eye. For those who love the game of football, Stabler’s legendary exploits on and off the field will live forever.
Like the Holy Roller, if we did not see it, it would be impossible to believe. Maybe Ken Stabler would not even believe it.
Knowing the Snake, he probably would wink and let you know he knew it all the time. One thing will never be disputed. Stabler and his fans sure got their money’s worth.