(Photo courtesy of the Oakland Raiders)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
You couldn’t have been cooler than Kenny Stabler unless you were an ice cube, and he knew something about ice cubes.
The best quarterbacks are known for that trait above all others. You can be more accurate than GPS or throw the ball harder than Nolan Ryan, but the thing that matters most about playing quarterback is that you are always in control, even when everything around you seems chaotic. On a football field, the Snake was always in control.
The rest of the time is open for debate because it was unclear what he enjoyed more: winning football games, drinking cocktails or chasing women. He was quite handy at them all, but what he will always be remembered for most, after passing away at 69 from colon cancer, was that he was the coolest guy under pressure who ever strapped on a helmet.
Stabler revealed that in many ways, but two come to mind. Each was in a game most people have long forgotten, but if you were there the memories stay with you long after the details fade. The first was a Monday Night game at the Superdome in his final season as a Raider.
Oakland was struggling by then, and so was its quarterback. They would finish 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the second straight season, a result that ultimately led Al Davis to ship Stabler to Houston the following year for Dan Pastorini. By then the two of them were at war, their relationship having deteriorated into a competition. Players cannot win from owners.
New Orleans was favored by three points that night of Dec. 3, which if you know anything about football history says more about the Raiders’ slippage than the Saints’ rise. When New Orleans shot off to a 35-14 lead early in the third quarter, the assumption was the Raiders were done. That seemed particularly so after Stabler threw an interception to linebacker Ken Bordelon with 6:24 left in the quarter and was knocked tipsy trying to make the tackle as Bordelon ran over him for a New Orleans touchdown.
Seeing Stabler glassy eyed, head coach Tom Flores had Jim Plunkett warming up on the sidelines. But when the Raiders got the ball back, Stabler ran by Flores saying, “I got us in this mess. It’s my job to get us out.’’
And he did.
Stabler threw three touchdown passes in the final 20 minutes, including a 66-yard bomb to Cliff Branch to tie the game in the fourth quarter and an 8-yarder to Branch to win it with less than two minutes to play. It was one of the greatest second-half comebacks in the history of Monday Night Football. When it was over, Stabler was asked how he held things together when all seemed to be collapsing around him.
“We’ve been there before,’’ he drawled. “We’ve been in these so-called impossible situations in the past. We have a lot of experience at it.”
Certainly he had, having brought the Raiders back time and time again from the most desperate of circumstances. “Holy Roller Game.” “Ghost to the Post.’’ “Sea of Hands Catch.’’ He not only won games for them, he created folklore.
But even quarterbacks who go 96-49-1 as an NFL starter and win a league MVP, a Super Bowl and are named to the All-Decade Team of the 1970s can lose. And when they do, that cool can melt away. Not Stabler’s.
On Oct. 16, 1977, the Raiders played host to their divisional rival and bitter enemy, the Denver Broncos. The Broncos’ “Orange Crush’’ defense was the backbone of what would become a Super Bowl team that year, and it showed its teeth that day.
Seven times the Broncos intercepted Stabler in a 30-7 loss. Not even Ken Stabler could rally his team that day, but when it was over he didn’t disappear, mumbling some half-heard non-sequiturs.
He sat at his locker for over an hour, going through each pick and explaining what happened. Finally he looked up and smiled that Southern boy smile that charmed everyone who saw it and drawled, “They kept getting open, so I kept throwing it to ‘em.’’
Cool, even when the situation was hot. That was Ken Stabler.
Stabler would take that same team to the AFC championship game in Denver, losing by a field goal because of a controversial call later proven erroneous by replay cameras. It was one of five straight AFC title games that he led the Raiders. They only won once, but the winner claimed the Lombardi Trophy four times so, one could argue, he really took his team to four straight Super Bowls.
What followed playing the Raiders proved anti-climactic.
In 1977, Oakland reached that AFC title game in Denver by eliminating the Baltimore Colts in double overtime on Christmas Even in the famous “Ghost to the Post’’ game in which Stabler completed a 42-yard bomb to tight end Dave Casper to set up a game-tying field goal with less than a minute to play in regulation.
During the second overtime, which would end with another Stabler-to-Casper touchdown pass, their third of day, Stabler stood on the sidelines discussing his options with head coach John Madden. Madden recalled fondly what happened next.
“He really helped me because the hotter the game, the hotter I got, and Kenny was truly just the opposite,” said Madden. “The hotter the game, the cooler he became.
“We’re playing Baltimore in a playoff game in Baltimore and it was one of the real great games in NFL history, the kind that got lost because it wasn’t a championship game or a Super Bowl. Anyway, it went six periods. At the end of regulation, we’re tied and at end of that period we’re tied, and then we’re going into another period and we have a timeout so it’s our ball. And we’re just kinda crossing midfield. So, I’m there and I’m talking to Kenny during the timeout, and he has his helmet cocked back. And he’s looking back at the stands and I’m talking to him, ‘Let’s do this, let’s do that; let’s go for it; let’s go play[action].’ And he goes, ‘You know what, John?’, and I thought, ‘Oh great, he has a play.’ And I said ‘What?’ He goes, ‘These fans are getting their money’s worth today.’
“I’m thinking, ‘Why are you talking about the fans?’ That’s the way he was. I’m going all over the board on what we should do, and he was just coolly looking up at the stands and, ‘They’re getting their money’s worth today, man.”’
They always did when Ken Stabler was under center, and they did that day when he found Casper in the corner of the end zone to finally end a game Madden described that day as, “Two sudden deaths. This wasn’t overtime.’’
Sadly, sudden death is what took Stabler before he ever got his just due, which is a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Somehow the most electrifying quarterback of his era has been passed over for more than 25 years by the Hall of Fame’s selection committee. Who knows why?
A finalist three times, Stabler got into the room to be debated, but he never got into the Hall. His career figures pale in comparison to what the passing game has become now that pass defense has been outlawed and hitting the quarterback banned by Congress.
When Stabler played, the quarterback ran the game, called the plays and made deep throws. Because of the Raiders’ style, which was based on deep balls and five seconds of pass protection, he ended up with 28 more interceptions than TD passes. This seems to throw off the stat geeks who have limited understandings of how things were done in those days,
The Raiders played the vertical game, not the horizontal one made popular by Tom Brady and the West Coast offense’s derivatives. Although considered by his peers to be among the league’s most accurate passers, his job was to let it fly. Few did it better.
So some look at 28 more interceptions than touchdowns and a career completion percentage of 59.8 and miss the point. The numbers that counted most with Stabler are these: 144-52-2. That is his record as a starting quarterback going back to his days at Foley High, back home in Alabama.
He was 29-1 in high school, 19-2-1 as a starter at Alabama, 69-26-1 with the Raiders and 96-49-1 overall in his NFL career. In 198 games as a starting quarterback in his life, his teams won 73 percent of the time. As a starter in Oakland, his team won 72 percent of the time. If he was your quarterback, you won a lot more often than you lost.
Hell, he was even .500 with the Saints, a team that hadn’t had a winning season when he arrived. He went 16-12 with the Oilers and even took them to the playoffs. Ken Stabler was more than cool. He was a winner, and he made you one, too.
“In Super Bowl XI, in the first couple drives we had, we got stopped, and we had to kick field goals and I was all upset about not being able to finish and not being able to score,’’ Madden recalled. “I’m telling Kenny, ‘We need touchdowns, not come here to kick field goals,’ and all that and Kenny put his hand on my shoulder and said, `Don’t worry about that, John. There’s plenty more where that came from.’ And the funny thing is, it did affect me. I thought when he said that, ‘He’s right’, and I felt a heck of a lot better about it.
“And it wasn’t just me, it was the whole team. That’s what he gave the team. He would throw a bad pass, and it didn’t bother him. He would forget it and go on to the next one. He’d throw a low pass or throw a pass into the dirt, and he’d say, ‘Low ball throw or high ball breaker, huddle up.’ And go onto the next play. He just didn’t let things affect him. He was always positive.
“And in those days the quarterback called the play, so there was a lot to that too. Sometimes we’d forget how smart Kenny Stabler was. He was a brilliant, brilliant quarterback and a brilliant, brilliant football mind. He would set things up, and there was a thing that they don’t even judge anymore. They call it ‘field general’. Ken Stabler was a true field general. The offensive players really believed in him and followed him and anything that came out of his mouth they totally believed.
“If you just look at how he played — he’s a Hall of Fame quarterback. We get caught up today in statistics and comparing statistics, and you can’t do that with different eras. For example, when we threw a medium range pass it was 17 yards deep. Now, a medium range pass is 8-to-10 yards deep. We didn’t have any of those smoke screens. I’m not saying its wrong. That’s just the way they play today.
“But to this day, if I had one drive I had to make to win a game and I had one quarterback to pick, I’d pick Kenny Stabler as quarterback. You just think of in those situations and in those drives when he would get into his drop and that back foot would set and he would stand straight up. He would get taller. He would make himself taller in the pocket. There are some guys that tend to make themselves smaller in the pocket; Kenny Stabler would go back and then he would rise. That’s the way he played. The bigger the situation, ‘I’m gonna get back, get to my drop, and I’m gonna step and I’m gonna rise. I’m gonna rise to the occasion.’ And that’s what he did.”
That’s what he did and that’s how he lived. He lived big and so did the Raiders in those days. Asked once to describe the difference between the Raiders and the rest of the NFL, Stabler smiled that smile and drawled in that reed-thin voice of his, “We were the only team in pro football whose team picture showed both a front and side view.”
He made no bones about his affinity for juke joints and a good time, once asking what difference it made if he was studying the playbook by the light of a jukebox. It was that style that made the Raiders who they were. They were badasses, as author Peter Richmond called them in a book on those days, and none was badder than Snake.
Predictably, as he began to age and the wins came less frequently, he was criticized for the same things for which he once was heralded. It caused him to turn bitter against the media and understandably so because he wasn’t doing anything different than he ever had.
You think a guy named Snake is going to start doing yoga and eating tofu?
“It was just that (the media) were questioning my lifestyle,’’ he once told Sports Illustrated when asked about those final days in Oakland. “Hell, my life-style hasn’t changed in 20 years. It was all right when we won the Super Bowl, but then we lost some games, and all of a sudden I’m a fat drunk, out of shape, overweight and all that.
“To be perfectly honest, I’m not going to change, because I don’t know any other way. I’m going to live the way I want to live. I don’t think it distracts me from doing what I want to do during the season. People say, ‘You can’t do those things as you get older.’ Well, if I can’t, and it hurts my game, I’ll get out. But I’m not going to let football control my entire life. I play and I work as hard as I can, and in the off-season I do the things I like to do. That’s not going to change.”
It didn’t. Which was cool. Cool as an ice cube in a cocktail glass.