Later in this saga will dig deep into the famous Steve Sabol quote, and the Silver & Black, yet as have for past few weeks we begin with the NFL standings.
Last Saturday night the Colts took on the "only super team in the league" (quote from a dumbass writer earlier in the year) the Cardinals. During the '50s the Chicago Cardinals did not play the Rosenbloom Colts of Baltimore, and also did not play very often in the '60s. Since the merger a few games, but this could never be viewed as a rivalry past or present. Mr. Taylor and the Colts o-line have pounded their way into the playoff picture.
The season of 2009 both Colts and Cardinals were beaten by the Saints in the play-offs(only four times both teams have made the playoffs in the same year). Watching the Rams win in Minnesota on Sunday brought back plenty of memories from past December 26th games between these two teams.
Friends shared with me during the decade of the '70s that they hated the Vikings and Cowboys, and we all know why. Minnesota is 4-0 when they have a 100-yard rusher against the Rams; while the Rams are 6-2 when they have at least one rusher go over the century mark. Yes, that includes Akers on Sunday.
Will examine the new head coaching hires when appropriate, but as all of you know my allegiance to the Bears and the fact they are nineteen games under .500 in the past decade with Smith, Trestman, Fox and Nagy as coaches. My disdain for the McCaskey family is well documented, and when an organization is as unprofessional as they have been in dealing with me...don't have an expectation of a phone call asking me to come out of retirement and coach the team.
Shifting back to the positive based upon the last three weeks the Eagles & Dolphins have forged their way into the discussion about playoff-caliber teams. We all can state emphatically the players we believe should have been chosen/selected/voted to the Pro Bowl rosters.
The Eddie Meador-led Ram secondary of 1968 led the NFL in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 47.1. How many of the white & blue clad Coliseum Warriors were chosen for the Pro Bowl? Yes, this is a TEAM efficiency statistic, yet having watched my boy George Allen coach these men, somebody should have been chosen.
Poyer of Buffalo is my choice for oversight of the year, and since the Bills led the league by a wide margin in the defensive passer rating category, can make a case for his selection.
Having so many excellent sources for a story on the 1976 Raiders has made the rest of my column both a challenge and a joy.
How much should be written about all the aspects of this team? Should I begin with some background? Hell yes! When Oakland dominated in 1967 and earned their first Super Bowl berth no one that really understood the inner workings of the Raiders believed coach Rauch was the man responsible. The merger and re-alignment of the conferences in '70 would not deter the silver and black from being yearly contenders for the game for the silver trophy.
Will go to my grave knowing/believing that the '73 Dolphins were a juggernaut, and in the AFC title game Oakland actually gave Miami a game. Home for the AFC title game in '74 the Raiders knew they would beat the Steelers just like they did in the '73 play-offs....wait a minute, the Raiders not only lost but were physically destroyed in the game? Watch the film, look at the stats. Chuck Noll's o-line blocked the hell out of Dan Conners, and coach John Madden knew a change had to be made. John Madden? That big fat buffon roving the sidelines, and screaming at referees? Al Davis coaches the Raiders.
Yesterday in an insightful phone conversation with Mr. Neil Zender of NFL Films he stated that Madden was not viewed in the proper light as a coach. Madden was smart and had a deep understanding of the game in all facets. Thanks for the time and comments Neil! John Madden played community college football at San Mateo and later after his one injured season on the Eagles roster he began his coaching career.
His first year at Hancock Community College his team was competitive, but his outstanding coaching job in '63 at Hancock is never really discussed. John Madden was 27 years old and ready for his next step up the coaching ladder. Before going any further, why does coach tj often relate stories about Junior College football? Simple, my years as a Community College football coach impacted my life in many ways, and would not trade any of those seasons...losing, or winning for anything! John Madden is hired by Don Coryell at San Diego State to coach the defense for the Aztecs.
Joe Gibbs at a coaching clinic years ago enlightened and entertained all of us coaches with stories of life on the practice field with Coryell and Madden. John goes from assistant to head coach by the end of the decade of the '60s as Al Davis allows Madden to have much more responsibility than Rauch. Why you ask? He earned those responsibilities with his ability to teach, relate to players on a human level, and news flash —his understanding of all facets of the game. The defending Super Bowl champion Steelers of 1975 were battle tested, tough as hell, and talented, and earned the home field for the AFC title game vs. Oakland.
No one is going to beat Pittsburgh, right? Oh, the Raiders won't back down? Icy field, turnovers aplenty, but also both teams knocked the hell out of each other, and on the final play Branch's catch positions the Raiders with a chance to win, if, they had time for one more play. The Colts of '76 are vastly improved over their play-off team of '75, and are very well-coached by Marchibroda. The Patriots of '76 are a powerhouse that have finally found out how to win under Fairbanks.
The Steelers of '76? Two-time defending champions and still young, talented, nasty, and in their minds...invincible. Will go to my grave knowing that this is the four strongest teams from one conference ever during the era of eight teams in the playoffs.
My book on the '50s details all the starters for a team, and though that will not be done here, many of the players will be discussed, and evaluated. Let's begin on defense shall we? Oakland was 12th in points allowed, and tenth on defense in yards allowed rushing. Oakland led the entire NFL in the defensive passer rating category in 1975 with a mark of 37.2! Oakland drops to 15th in 1976 with a mark of 68.8 (league average is 67.0), so as a team they are average against the pass. Why the drop-off? Herbert Furlow states in the Pocket Book of Pro Football that "George Atkinson can be a bad actor". Atkinson still hustles, but film study shows him late to the tackle too many times, and he does not record an interception.
Dr. Death Skip Thomas was outstanding in '75 and very average in '76. Old Man Willie Brown can still make a play, yet this is year fourteen for him. Jack Tatum is still a force to be reckoned with due to his hitting and speed. Phillips and Colzie do get playing time but do not improve on their rookie seasons.
Some teams in the '70s moved/adjusted to a 3-4, and with injuries to the d-line—Madden has his excellent d-line coach Tom Dahms teach a new alignment to his players. Sistrunk is more than adequate at right defensive end, but the man that needs to be discussed/detailed is Dave Rowe.
Page 294 of the 1976 Sporting News Football Register has Dave Rowe's background. Earns a Pro Bowl berth with the 1968 Saints, yet is traded to the Oilers, then traded to New England, then traded to the Chargers, then traded to the Raiders on September 23rd, 1975. Not sure why, yet will surmise that he was not viewed as a key man in the defense of those teams, or possibly there were issues with coaching or management.
Look up the record of the '72 and '73 Patriots, the '74 Chargers. Dave Rowe no doubt did not miss playing for those teams. Like so many, he found a home in Oakland. Zany renegades? Light of the jukebox misfits? Madden did not care as long as you "were on time, paid attention, and played your ass off". Dave Rowe did that in 1976 as the starting middle guard of the Raiders.
John Matuszak had played for the Oilers and Chiefs, and was viewed as an underachiever, but gave the Raiders consistent play at left defensive end.
Willie Hall was released by the Saints(a losing team) in September of '74, and the Raiders after signing him in 1975 waived him to the Lions, but was released three days later. Oakland takes Willie back in November. Was this his last chance? Maybe, and while not an All-Pro, Hall is a hustling consistent player in 1976. He is one lucky man when you examine the three linebackers he lines up with in 1976.
Paul Zimmerman told me that Ted Hendricks' season in 1974 as a Packer was on par with the best years a strongside linebacker ever had. Yes, that includes my boy Jack Ham, and the legendary Bobby Bell. Oakland paid a high price for Ted, and his season on the bench in '75 is mystifying ...until he plays in the game vs. the Bengals in the '75 playoffs. Ted Hendricks plays the right or weakside in '76, yet if a tight end did align that side, "Kick'em in the Head Ted" could handle him. Besides blocking kicks, and stonewalling sweeps his side, this future Hall of Famer was a force on the blitz, and excellent in coverage.
Game of the week in '76 between the improved Bears and the Raiders...Hendricks sacks Avellini and intercepts. Possibly Bob Thomas missed field goal attempt that hit the upright would have been blocked by Ted if the kicker had followed through properly? Finally, the defensive MVP of the Raiders...Phil Villapiano. Besides being a fascinating interview many times for the folks at NFL Films, this overshadowed strongside linebacker is the complete package.
He did earn a pro bowl berth with his open-field tackling, his ability to defend the strong side sweep, his ability to cover man to man and go to his area of responsibility in zone, and finally when asked he could blitz. Phil Villapiano brings the esprit de corps for the Raider defense. The consummate teammate, and vocal leader...he wanted the Steelers to beat the Colts and come to Oakland Alameida on December 26th. That covers the defense, right?
Oh, left someone out? Almost forgotten, unless you are luggin' the leather...Monte Johnson was the soul of the Raider defense. He played solid football as a rookie in '75 but when you watch and study film of him in '76 he is one of the most improved players in the league. He filled the gaps, made the tackles, pursued with a vengeance, and recorded seven takeaways! Jack Lambert had a season for the ages in '76, but Monte J. also played the game the right way. There is no need to detail the offensive line, pick up a publication, listen to the pundits—the Raider strength on offense is the consistency of the o-line. Size, technique, and ability to both run and pass block puts these five men at the head of the class.
Raider running backs are rock solid, kinda by committee though Mark van Eeghen eventually stood out till the Super Bowl. He was an excellent lead blocker for Davis when asked. Charismatic Ken Stabler had become pre-eminent in 1974, but his balky knee in '75 limited him. He is ready in '76 at the age of 31 (he turned 31 the day before the AFC title game). His accuracy, and ability to inspire have been well documented, yet it is his decisiveness that set him apart in 1976. He knew who to throw to, and delivered, and he knew when to run, and delivered.
Quoting Harry Kalas in the NFL Films game of the week against New England..."Never count out the Snake". Before going any further, it is time for a stat! Oh, coach tj does that on occasion? Five teams between 1946 and 1975 averaged at least 46 rushing plays a game. The '48 Bears, '49 Eagles, '73 Rams, '75 Raiders, and '76 Steelers stand out as the most prolific run teams in history based upon attempts. Oh yeah, the composite record of those teams was 54-12!
The Silver & Black run first, then throw. Though they run alot in '76, just not as much as in '75, and there is a reason why. The most complete receiving corps in the league. Ken Stabler is the teams' offensive MVP, yet the Snake would be the first to tell you about the traits of his receivers.
Fred Biletnikoff had some knee issues in '75 but is now completely healthy, and in year 12 he still can confound every secondary, and rival defensive back. Feisty, resilient, competitive, and unparalleled since Raymond Berry with his ability to catch every ball thrown his way, I mean EVERY ball.
Cliff Branch was a work in progress that gave the Raiders the mystique they cherished...we take what we want. Throw deep, as Branch outruns the corner, but he also has improved as a route runner, and is much more consistent in latching onto passes.
Bob Moore was a solid player at tight end, yet after languishing on the bench for two seasons, and beating out the much more heralded Ted Kwalick.....Mr. Dave Casper not only wins the job, he wins ball games. One of the best blocking tight ends in league history, he is athletic, runs his routes to perfection, learns to read coverage. Casper makes the tough catch, and he is money, I repeat MONEY in the red zone.
Prolog for 1977 stated, "Casper helped to invigorate the Raiders offense with a blend of pass catching and blocking". Fourteen regular season games and a record of 13-1, not even the Steelers had done that! NFL Prolog for 1976 discussed the team's pass rush of 55 sacks, and stated, "A Super Bowl contender as usual".
Street & Smith's stated "are the fates stacked up in a goal line defense against the Oakland Raider d-line"? Then the premier publication details all the strengths of the teams, yet also attempts to explain why they had lost three straight AFC title games. Opening day and the home come from behind win over the black & gold opened a few eyes, but with the demoralizing loss at Foxboro, and a handful of hard-fought close victories the Raiders after nine weeks were 8-1 but had outscored the opposition just 195-184...please read that again.
The Raiders are not dominant, they are winning yes, but have yet to reach their peak. The six previous seasons the Raiders had lost just six times to their division rivals, those teams just did not measure up. The Broncos, Chiefs, and Chargers were going to be swept in '76 by the silver and black. The last five games of the campaign the Raiders outscored the opposition 155 to 53.
Am not going to review any of the regular season games, yet one game does deserve mention. Dick Vermeil in his first year as coach of Eagles lost to John Madden and the Raiders. Ok, so what you ask? Dick Vermeil was the backfield coach of the San Mateo Bulldogs in 1963. When is the last time two San Mateo Bulldogs faced off in the regular season and went on to win a Super Bowl title in their coaching careers? Steve Grogan had a passer rating of 120.5 in the October victory over the Raiders, and Sam Cunningham gained 101 rushing yards but in the play-off rematch Grogan's efficiency fell to 72.2, and Cunningham gained 68.
The Patriots have been set home and for the fifth consecutive year the silver and black play the black and gold in the playoffs. Though many times statistics can tell the tale, this game the tale is told by watching film. The Raiders had adjustments ready if needed for the Pittsburgh offense that would revert to single back, but this game comes down to Ken Stabler and his play calling. A superb mixture of run and pass, and the use of varied alignments, and formations that did not allow Bud Carson's defense to dictate the tempo of the game. Ten consecutive dominating defensive victories by Pittsburgh fall by the wayside with a 24-7 Oakland win.
The Raiders controlled the ball as they held possession of the ball for 52 of the first 81 plays of the game! Oakland leads 10-7 with just nineteen seconds left in the half as the Raiders align in a three-tight end formation on the Pittsburgh four-yard line. Pittsburgh replaces two linebackers anticipating run. The Snake fakes a run to the right and flips a touchdown pass to former Steeler Warren Bankston in the left part of the end zone.
The Snake faced 4th and one at the Steelers twenty-four in the 3rd quarter. He goes back to Bankston again, and no one, not even Bud Carson or Chuck Noll would have anticipated that strategy. The play gains seven yards, first down Oakland, and eventually a Banaszak touchdown run. The Super Bowl is over by half-time as Oakland led 16-0.
Quoting Gene Upshaw..."We don't worry about our plays. We have complete confidence in Stabler". NFL Films America's Game chapter on the '76 Raiders lists Oakland as the 10th best team of all-time. Not sure how many folks realize how powerful they were that special season.