It may be impossible for current Packer fans to believe this, but there was a day when the Packers were among the dregs of the National Football League.
What has been called the Gory Years stem basically my entire conscious life before marriage. (So thanks for the great wedding present, Ron, Mike and Brett.) Between 1968, the season after Super Bowl II, and 1991, the Packers had exactly two playoff seasons, 1972 (10-4, NFC Central champion) and 1982 (5-3-1, third place in the NFC according to the strike-season format), and three more winning seasons, 1969 (8-6), 1978 (8-7-1) and 1989 (10-6). That’s it.
As a result, most kids in my world developed alternative NFL allegiances, or at least teams they’d root for in addition to the Packers — the Miami Dolphins (right, Rick?), the Pittsburgh Steelers (right, Tim?), the Dallas Cowboys, the Los Angeles Rams, or even the rival Minnesota Vikings, all teams that won more than they lost, in contrast to the Packers, whose season ended before the playoffs started every year. (I remember no one from the neighborhood or my schools rooting for the Chicago Bears, because the Bears were as bad as the Packers were in that era.)
Yes, we were all a bunch of little frontrunners while our fathers watched, and sore at, the ineptitude of the Packers. I remember in third grade getting a greatest-sports-legends book from the school library. (The book, strangely enough, had neither Muhammad Ali or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but there was a boxer named Cassius Clay who looked just like Ali, and there was a basketball player named Lew Alcindor who looked just like Abdul-Jabbar and played for the Bucks. Weird.) The book included former Packer quarterback Bart Starr, and added the unbelievable fact that the Packers won five NFL titles and Super Bowls I and II. That seemed impossible given that even an eight-year-old could figure out that that team wearing green and gold on fall Sundays was bad.
My alternative team was the Oakland Raiders. Part of the reason was the fact that the Raiders often were the second game of the Sunday doubleheader, usually on NBC. Many Raiders games were announced by my favorite announcer, Dick Enberg. The Raiders played in California, whose weather was always better than Wisconsin’s by the end of the season. Their uniforms — black jerseys and silver helmets and pants — looked cool.
In those days, most NFL teams had a few renegade players. The entire Raiders team consisted of renegades, beginning with their owner, Al Davis. (Legend has it a visiting coach believed his team’s locker room had been bugged. After the visitor lost, the coach yelled at a light fixture in the locker room, “Damn you, Al Davis! Damn you!” A Raider official’s response was that it wasn’t in the light fixture.) Their coach, John Madden, was like watching a human thunderstorm. Their announcer, Bill King, also announced the San Francisco (later Golden State) Warriors in a radio/TV simulcast, but was never shown on TV because he wore a beard, in the early 1960s.
The non-home-grown players were often high draft picks from other teams who were cut (by their first and later teams) for behavior issues. That included Oak Creek’s John Matuszak, a number one draft pick cut by four previous teams. That also included Ted Hendricks, a tall and skinny linebacker who was with the Packers for one season but moved on because the Packers couldn’t figure out where to play him; the Raiders said play wherever you want, Ted, and he became known as the Mad Stork. (That did not include George Blanda, who nonetheless was a backup quarterback at 40 and kicked until he was 48.)
The homegrown players were hardly shrinking violets either. Defensive tackle Otis Sistrunk was photographed one night with steam coming off his bald head, and ABC-TV’s Alex Karras announced he was from the University of Mars. One cornerback was known as “Dr. Death,” another was called “Lester the Molester,” a safety was called “the Assassin,” and another defensive back was called, by Steelers coach Chuck Noll, an example of the “criminal element” in the NFL. One of the apparently more mild-mannered players was Chilton native Dave Casper, who became a Hall of Fame tight end despite playing offensive tackle at Notre Dame.
Their quarterback was Ken Stabler, who had been called The Snake since his University of Alabama days …
… for something he wasn’t often known for in his NFL days, his running ability. The nickname stuck for his inability to make improbable plays to improbably win games despite his perceived immobility (he would stand in the pocket and look for an open receiver) and unimpressive-looking arm, which gave him the appearance of a left-handed relief pitcher who faces one batter per appearance.
Fans forget that the famed Immaculate Reception …
… would never have happened except for Stabler’s coming into the game and leading the Raiders to the go-ahead score, his own 30-yard run.
Stabler came from the days when the quarterback called the team’s own plays. (Stabler described his play-calling philosophy as: “Run for show, throw for dough,” which probably kept his excellent offensive lines happy.) Legend had it Stabler read the Raiders playbook by the light from a jukebox. Such implied hard living, plus his long hair and beard (both of which grew gray as he headed into his 30s, gave him style appropriate for a team with a pirate motif. (The Raiders’ logo apparently used actor Randolph Scott for a model, complete with eyepatch.)
Stabler’s autobiography and another autobio by the aforementioned Assassin told tales of a team that seemed to be the real-life example of the fictional North Dallas 40. (The novel was a thinly veiled tale of the 1960s Dallas Cowboys, but unlike the Cowboys, the Raiders never denied their wild life.) One of the more tame stories was of the annual team air hockey tournament, which had only one rule: Cheating was mandatory. Players would wear fur coats in 100-degree training camp heat to play games that would go scoreless for hours. Stabler’s book makes one wonder how he lived as long as he did.
Of course, style is nothing without performance. The first Raiders game I remember well was the 1974 AFC divisional playoff game against Miami. The Dolphins were trying for their fourth consecutive Super Bowl, having won the previous two.
The game started with a bang, with Dolphins wide receiver Nat Moore returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
And yet no one ever trailed by more than a touchdown. The Raiders took the lead on a tightrope touchdown catch by wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, who couldn’t outrun anyone, but always caught the ball whenever it was in his area code.
And then came the fourth quarter, when the Raiders got the lead back on a bomb pass to wide receiver Cliff Branch, who caught the ball, fell down, got up because no Dolphin touched him, and ran it in the rest of the way.
That would have been the highlight were it not for the touchdown the Dolphins scored right after that. When Stabler got the ball back, just 2:08 remained. That turned out to be plenty of time.
Stabler spent much of his career winning other improbable games …
… the most crazy of which remains the Holy Roller …
… a play so bizarre that the NFL banned it.
The Raiders were among the NFL’s best teams throughout the ’70s, but only got to one Super Bowl with Stabler, beating Minnesota in Super Bowl XI. The highest praise, besides his two player-of-the-year awards, probably came from offensive guard Gene Upshaw, who said, “When we were behind in the fourth quarter, with our backs to the end zone, no matter how he had played up to that point, we could look in his eyes and you knew, you knew, he was going to win it for us. That was an amazing feeling.”
After two winning but non-playoff seasons, the Raiders traded Stabler to the Houston Oilers for their quarterback, Dan Pastorini, previously known as the guy who handed off to running back Earl Campbell. (Pastorini didn’t win a Super Bowl with the Raiderrs, because he broke his leg. In yet another case of something happening only to the Raiders, backup quarterback Jim Plunkett led the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins, one in Oakland, one in Los Angeles.) Stabler then went to New Orleans to end his career.
Stabler should be in the NFL Hall of Fame. He is the only member of the NFL Team of the ’70s not in the Hall of Fame. He doesn’t have as many Super Bowl rings as Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw (four), Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach or Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese (two each), but he has more than Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton (none). His statistics compare favorably with other Hall of Fame quarterbacks who played in his era, which featured much less passing than today. He had 96 regular-season wins as a starter, which is one more than all the other quarterbcks drafted with Stabler combined.
If Stabler ever gets in the NFL Hall of Fame, it will be posthumously. He died last night of colon cancer at 69.