Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Mentor Meant Business: How Hank Stram’s 1968 Full House Backfield Ran Over the Raiders

By Joe Zagorski
For Kansas City Chiefs head coach Hank Stram, necessity was not always to be regarded as the mother of invention. Sometimes, Stram just decided to tweak his strategies just for the fun of it. But Coach Stram was not doing too much laughing in the wake of sustaining some unsettling injuries to his wide receiver corps in the middle of the 1968 American Football League season. 

Superstar pass catcher Otis Taylor was among those on Stram’s roster who would not suit up for the Chiefs in their upcoming grudge match against their divisional rivals, the Oakland Raiders, at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium on October 20, 1968. Fellow wide receivers Frank Pitts and Gloster Richardson were also banged up going into their seventh game of the season. The Chiefs stood firm in first place with an impressive 5-1 record, but a loss to the Raiders would mean that the two teams would be tied going into the second half of their respective schedules.  

Indeed, this first of two regular-season matchups against each other would be vital for both teams, as both represented the AFL in the first two Super Bowl games.  Both the Chiefs and the Raiders planned on attending Super Bowl III at the end of the 1968 season. 

But what would Stram do in order to help his team overcome their shortcomings against the strong Oakland defense? The Raiders had given up a meager 75 points up to that point (an average of only 15 points per game). There was no time to scour the waiver wire to find an available receiver who was lingering out on the market. And even if Stram was able to locate and obtain a new receiver, it would take a long time to acquaint the new man with the complexities of Kansas City’s diverse and difficult multiple offensive formations and plays. No, Stram was going to have to go another route if he planned on putting up a decent fight against the Raiders in less than a week.

By 1968, the Oakland Raiders were developing a reputation as a dynamic team, one that was prone to throwing the ball a lot. Pro football in the 1960s was still primarily a running game as far as offensive strategy was concerned. Nevertheless, the AFL was the league where experimenting with the air game was much more common than the basic ground attacks in the older and more conservative NFL. The Raiders and the San Diego Chargers utilized the two most prolific air attacks in pro football during the latter part of the decade. 

What Stram needed to do was to somehow blunt the throwing and scoring of Oakland’s offense. Strangely enough, he would discover what appeared to be the answer to his dilemma with the inner workings of his own offense.
Holmes (45), Hayes (38), Garrett (21) fake a sweep left as Dawson drops to pass, credit: AFL FIlms)
Kansas City might have had some bad luck with the injuries to their receiving corps, but they had plenty of talented running backs, each of whom was more than capable of gaining positive yardage in virtually every down and distance situation. Tailback Mike Garrett (5-foot-9, 200 pounds) was a shifty and fluid runner who could change directions on a dime, and who had the speed to outrace virtually any linebacker in the league. Fellow backfield mate Wendell Hayes (6-2, 220) was a bigger and stronger version of Garrett, and even though he did not possess that quickness of Garrett, he did deliver a strong blow to would-be tacklers that Garrett could not. Hayes represented the natural bridge to a bull of a runner, fullback Robert Holmes (5-9, 220), a man who made no pretense of his intentions.  

Holmes was considered by all as a power runner, a call carrier who would run into a brick wall, then chuckle as the assorted bricks lie strewn in his wake. Holmes was not the type of runner who would try to juke a defender. There was simply no need for him to do so. Holmes would rely on his innate ability to hit a defender —or several defenders—with his shoulders, his upper torso, and his oversized knees and thighs.  It typically did not take too long for said defenders to try to get out of Holmes’ way, then try to latch on to him from behind in their feeble attempts at dragging him to the turf.

It was this threesome that Coach Stram felt could be the key to winning the game against the Raiders. If he could alternate the carries that each of his running backs would get on every play with no specific or recognizable pattern, the guessing game that the Oakland coaching staff would be forced to play would probably work to Kansas City’s favor. The most important objectives of Stram’s full house backfield was to keep obtaining first downs, which would keep the game clock running. This, in turn, would keep the dynamic Oakland offense on the bench.
Chiefs Front Seven, credit: AFL Films
Stram had a solid defense that was getting better every year during the late 1960s. They had given up a total of just 56 points in their first six games of the 1968 season (a meager 9.3 points per game average), heading into their week seven game against the Raiders. They had a big and brutal defensive line, with defensive ends Aaron Brown (6-5, 265) and Jerry Mays (6-4, 252), and defensive tackles Buck Buchanan (6-7, 287), Curley Culp (6-1, 265), and in some instances, the gigantic Ernie Ladd (6-9, 290). 
Chief Secondary after a Robinson interceptions, credit: AFL Films
They also had what many experts agree was the best trio of linebackers in AFL history. Comprising that group were rangy outside backers Bobby Bell and Jim Lynch, and middle linebacker Willie Lanier, who was fast becoming one of the greatest players at his position in the history of pro football. The Kansas City defensive backs listed cornerbacks Emmitt Thomas and Willie Mitchell, and safeties Johnny Robinson and Jim Kearney, each of whom were more than capable of covering the quality opposing wide receivers that one saw in the AFL at that time.  If any defensive unit could slow down the Raiders offense, Stram’s defense was that group of defenders.

Stram did not worry much about his defensive players.  He knew that they were going to play well, especially if his offense did what he hoped that it would do...control the ball and move the first down markers downfield. 

The plan that “The Mentor” (a moniker that Stram gave to himself), called was a “Straight T” formation. That meant that the running backs in Kansas City’s offensive backfield lined up before the snap of the ball in the shape of the letter “T,” with one of them directly behind the quarterback, and the other two spread out behind that running back, and a few yards directly behind the offensive guards.  But that was just one way that Stram employed the Straight T.  

On other occasions, he would transfer the backs so that they would reverse where the top line of the T was aligned. And, of course, he would always call for a change in the position of each individual back, meaning that Mike Garrett might line up on some plays as one of the two backs along the top line of the T. On other plays, Garrett might be the back who lined up directly behind the quarterback. It was all geared to keep Oakland’s defense from successfully keying on any one particular runner in the Chiefs’ backfield.  It was also intended to create overall confusion among every player in Oakland’s defense, and on this day, it accomplished all that Stram had hoped for.

“Hank has always been a guy that wanted to look at new ideas, new schemes,” recalled Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson.  “Football was his life.  That’s what he thought about most...I think almost 24 hours a day.  He was one that was always looking at things.”
Chiefs Two Tight End Offense with three backs, credit:  AFL Films
The game against Oakland began with Stram showing the Raiders that he meant business.  He had quarterback Len Dawson hand the ball of to his runners right from the get-go.  The target area of the ground assault was between the Kansas City offensive tackles, right up the gut whenever possible. To help his offensive line with the blocking duties, Stram kept tight ends Reg Carolan and Fred Arbanas in the game, and even they would line up in different locations for every play. Most of the time, each tight end would line up alongside of each offensive tackle, but on other occasions, Stram would have both tight ends line up next to each other on the same side of the field. As a result, the Raider brain trust was stuck with even more confusion from the Kansas City offense.

“We thought they would go with the two tight ends,” admitted Oakland head coach John Rauch after the game.  “They hadn’t shown that formation before.”  Stram felt that the move was simply a helpful addition to his blocking schemes.  “You have to do what you think is best when your squad situation is the way ours is,” said Stram.  “All I was concerned with was winning, and I thought this was the best way for us to win.”

The path to what turned out to be one of the greatest strategical victories in Hank Stram’s coaching career relied on providing just too many blockers for the Raiders defense to contend with at the line of scrimmage. The two running backs who did not get the ball on any one particular play would focus their attention on the intended path ahead of the actual ball carrier. These two “decoy backs” would then block out any Oakland defender who was trying to fill up the designated hole. It was a simple numbers game, where one team has more players at the point of attack than the other team had to stop them. 

The numbers started to add up for Stram’s team early in the contest. A long drive by the Chiefs in the first quarter was culminated by a 1-yard dive off of left tackle by Wendell Hayes, giving Kansas City a 7-0 lead. The Kansas City defense then blunted what appeared to be a promising Oakland drive early in the second quarter with a timely interception by Chiefs safety Johnny Robinson. Kansas City’s defense was so stifling, that the Raiders could accrue only four first downs throughout the entire first half. They also failed to register a single point on the scoreboard during the first half as well.
Robert Holmes with a short touchdown run, credit: AFL Films
Later in the second quarter, another long Chiefs drive led to their second touchdown. But on Robert Holmes’ 4-yard rush to paydirt, Stram surprised the Raiders defense once more, this time with a sweep to the left.  Holmes scored standing up, and one could almost sense the puzzled and concerned feelings emanating from the Oakland sideline.  Still another long drive by the Kansas City offense closed out the first half with a 13-yard field goal by placekicker Jan Stenerud, giving the Chiefs a 17-0 halftime edge.

More of the same was in store for the Oakland defense on Kansas City’s first drive of the third quarter.  Dawson and Company ate up over nine minutes of the game clock to start the second half.  Wendell Hayes completed that drive with his second 1-yard scoring rush of the game, and it came on an identical dive over left tackle that was seen on his first quarter touchdown. The Chiefs now owned an insurmountable 24-0 lead. 

Oakland finally started to move the ball late in the third quarter, and they finally put some points on the scoreboard with a 45-yard touchdown pass down the near sideline from Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica to setback Billy Cannon. In the fourth quarter, Oakland’s defense finally solved the Kansas City running game by bunching up their defenders into the line of scrimmage. They did this very well, allowing exactly zero first downs by the Chiefs throughout the fourth quarter. Lamonica accounted for the majority of his 189 passing yards in the final stanza, mainly because he finally had possession of the ball long enough with which to do so. A 28-yard field goal by Oakland placekicker George Blanda closed out the scoring with the final verdict: Kansas City 24, Oakland 10.

The final numbers were impressive, to say the least. Kansas City ran the ball an incredible 60 times in the game, accounting for a total of 294 ground yards. Mike Garrett rushed for 109 yards on 24 carries. Robert Holmes contributed 95 yards on 19 carries, and Wendell Hayes rushed for 89 yards on 14 carries. Len Dawson would throw the ball only three times in the game, completing two of those tosses. But in this contest, Stram did not want him to throw the ball. A successful running strategy was what the Chiefs needed the most in order to beat the Raiders.

“Well I think Oakland was an excellent football team to begin with,” affirmed Len Dawson many years after that game, “and we knew that they were the arch-rivals, and we had to get past them to get to any championship. They were a good football team.  I think that we were a similar type of team.  Both of us (had) outstanding defenses. Both of us (had) good running attacks and both of us were very physical football teams.”

In the end, Coach Stram was typically magnanimous in victory. The win boosted the Chiefs to a 6-1 record and undisputed first place in the AFL’s Western Division. 

“Give the credit for this game to the people it belongs to, the people up front who blocked and tackled and to our entire squad,” said Stram.  “It was a team effort.”

In retrospect, the main cause for the impressive Kansas City win over Oakland on October 20, 1968, was Hank Stram. His willingness to defy traditional coaching philosophies and using what many considered to be previously outdated strategies turned out to be the main key to victory.   

Author’s Note: Joe Zagorski’s upcoming book about Kansas City Chiefs middle linebacker Willie Lanier is scheduled to be available in the latter part of 2019.  Entitled America’s Trailblazing Middle Linebacker: The Story of NFL Hall of Famer Willie Lanier, it will be published by Rowman & Littlefield.  His first book, The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade, was published by McFarland and Company, Inc., in 2016, and was rated as one of the top ten football books in 2016 by The Library Journal. 
Works Cited:
Associated Press, “Chiefs Retain Lead in West.”  Independence (Missouri) Examiner, October 21, 1968, 7.
Brinker, Bernard.  “Beat The Hell Out Of Them: The Chiefs-Raiders Rivalry, 1968-1971.”  The Coffin Corner, September/October, 2012, 11-18.
Nissenson, Herschel.  “Raiders Run For Juice But Get Spiked Punch.”  Wichita Falls Times, October 21, 1968, 20.
Len Dawson Interview with NFL Films, May 5, 2006.
Neft, David S., and Cohen, Richard M.  The Sports Encyclopedia Edition 6, Pro Football the Modern Era, 1960-1988.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

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