Snake always ready to strike


(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.

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  1. July 23, 2015

    I couldn’t agree more and couldn’t have stated a better obvious case for Ken Stabler. “The Snake” should have been inducted years ago, and it will be bitter sweet if the Hall finally does the right thing now and inducts Kenny. They argue he only had 5 strong years 73-77, but in reality in 1979 Kenny put up some of finest numbers, ranked only 2nd to Dan Fouts that year, with 3615 yards,26 TD’s against 22 Int’s and a 61 pct. pass completion. Also if one looks at his playoff stats they were the 1970’s best with a QB rating of 86.2 in 13 games. Ahead of Griese 82.1, Bradshaw 81.9 and Staubach 75.4, all in the Hall of Fame. And stats were supposedly the reason he didn’t quite make it. And when you look at his accomplishments and the historical value he contributed for that decade you can not tell the history of the game without mentioning Ken Stabler over and over again. It is time to “Elect Ken Stabler for the Hall of Fame”!

    • July 24, 2015

      Stats apply only to your era. They do not often translate to other eras. Unless you’re name is Jim Brown.

  2. July 23, 2015

    I could not have said it any better, Ron.I grew up in the Blanda,Lamonica and Stabler era.I watched them all and that is what makes great memories.I agree Kenny deserves to be in the HOF. “PUTSTABLERNNFLHOF” My blood runs Silver N Black ! Glenn May GOD rest your soul,Kenny

  3. Vinny Ruggieri
    July 24, 2015

    I am about to turn 60 years old and don’t ask me why or don’t ask me how I became a RAIDER FAN. It’s something that is inside you, you either have it or you don’t. Back in the Stabler day’s it was not every week you would get to watch the game on T.V or being from Boston I couldn’t even listen on radio, but I never missed a game that was televised, and every game you could take one thing to the bank, as long as there was time on the clock and #12 was in the huddle you were always alive. I remember all those famous games that Ron mentions in his article, but I also remember every other game that Kenny played. People forget that he sat on the bench for his first couple of seasons but he never complained he knew it would be his team one day. Still to this day I bleed Silver and Black and being from Boston I take my share of abuse, but I can’t help it, I am a FAN and that means I enjoyed the great years and now I am feeling the pain of watching my team struggle every week just to remain competative. I see good things happening with the Raiders, we finally have a Q.B.that we can count on for many years, and the young draft picks bring a smile to my face. Even if you hate the Raiders ( and there are many of you ) if you know anything at all about the game and are old enough to remember ” THE SNAKE ” there is no possible way he does not belong alongside the greatest players, in Canton Ohio. It’s a shame that Kenny will never get to see it ( if it happens )but how great would it be for the entire Stabler Family to have their beloved # 12 finally get his due ??? Thank you SNAKE for giving me all those memories and for making me into the football junkie that I am today. ” JUST WIN BABY ” and that’s all he did.

    • July 24, 2015

      That was not only an entertaining team but an insane one. Great fun to be around.

  4. William Underwood
    July 24, 2015

    Ken Stabler epitomized the grit, savvy and spirit of the NFL Golden Era ( 1970’s ) More meaningful games, more larger than life personalities and more pure, professional football then, than we have witnessed since.
    Namath is in the hall primarily because he played in a huge TV market, NY. During those same years, the west coast was just developing into a large market and Kenny and the Oakland Raiders were a huge reason for that growth. What? You think the Rams, 49ers and Chargers were even on the radar in the 1970’s? Please.
    The Raiders destroyed “traditional” NFL paradigms and ALWAYS drew attention to otherwise mediocre teams when they went to play them. Al and his renegades were the perfect foil to the NY suits and stogy old guard of NFL execs. The Davis Roselle feud was perfectly suited for the era of counterculture and social change. But I digress. Without Kenny’s leadership on the field, Al’s designs would never have left the drafting table. Al was crafty, secretive and mistrusting of most people who weren’t under his direct control. Snake was engaging, inclusive and adept at optimizing the potentials of his comrades. Madden was a nervous, emotional whirling dervish who harangued officials and boosted player morale. While Kenny was commanding the Raiders, AFC teams dominated the league and won most of the Superbowl games. Most of those teams had to get past Oakland in order to play in the Superbowl and having passed that test, NFC opponents weren’t nearly as tough an obstacle. Kenny Stabler and company made the NFL stronger and IMO great, during the best era of NFL football EVER. If Kenny doesn’t deserve enshrinement in the NFL HOF, then his contemporaries who are in, are diminished because of his absence.

  5. July 24, 2015

    Thank you, Ron for this excellent article. Great work as ALWAYS.

  6. Kim Ross Bush
    July 24, 2015

    If the HOF is to honor those who made contributions to the game of football and contributions that are documented by some of the most legendary plays in the 1970’s then the HOF Committee has really made a gross mistake. Issues of lifestyle or personal beefs have nothing to do with the merit of Kenney’s game on the field. He was a Champion, one of the greatest. The HOF Committee has egg all over their face in my humble opinion. But the truth is Kenney is much bigger than football and the HOF. He unquestionably was a GREAT GRID IRON LEGEND but he was an even GREATER MAN. So so tragic it has to be post-humously… shame on Canton.

  7. July 24, 2015

    I love this article Ron. Great job. I wrote this for Ken and I was on Alabama’s ESPN affiliate radio station 97.7 The Zone talking about his life.

    I really like your writing and will pass it on to my twitter followers.
    Thanks! Jim Jax

  8. Carlos Hernandez
    July 24, 2015

    Dear Sir, thank you very much for writing an article to get Ken Stabler in the HOF. Kenny deserves to be in there as well as , many other Raider players do. I really hope that the HOF does the right thing. Sincerely Yours , Carlos Hernandez.

  9. Anonymous
    July 24, 2015

    Thanks for an article that simply sums up why the Snake not only deserves in the hall but should be mentioned as one of the greatest QB’s of all time.

  10. Stan Nelson
    July 24, 2015

    Thanks for an article that simply sums up why the Snake not only should be in the hall but also should be regarded as one of the greatest QB’s to ever play the game!

    • July 24, 2015

      It continues to baffle me that Stabler has been denied while Dan Fouts is enshrined. No knock on Fouts but come on.

  11. July 25, 2015

    Thank you for this article, Ron.
    It is a fact that Stabler has the 7th highest winning percentage in NFL history. He, was the on field leader of a team involved in more named games than any QB in history. He may not have the most 4th quarter comebacks in league history, but he certainly has some of the very most memorable and important ones and that in the decade that put the NFL “on the map,” and that should help cement his legacy. Thanks again.

  12. Judy Spears
    July 26, 2015

    Yet once again, one hundred percent spot on! Another great article! Thanks again! Ken really was the epitome of: “a riverboat gambler” and two minute Kenny”!! AND…. It is so biased that two journalist(s) can keep a person so talented out of The Pro Football Hall of Fame for so many years and that his name was only mentioned just three times!! PITIFUL!

  13. Duane Rockerbie
    July 26, 2015

    Building up big career stats was more difficult in the period before salaries really took off. Bradshaw and Griese both had lousy statistics early in their careers – Bradshaw was lucky the Steelers did not cut him. Most QB’s back then had maybe 6 or 7 good years to build up their stats. Now with the big money top draft picks up paid, there is pressure on teams to start them in their rookie or second season. This gives them many more productive years and the career stats pile up. But stats mean nothing if you don’t win. The only modern QB I can say that understands how to read defenses and call plays as well as Stabler is Peyton Manning – no one else comes close. Alas it might be too late for Kenny to get in the HOF.

    • July 27, 2015

      “The only modern QB I can say that understands how to read defense and call plays as well as Stabler is Peyton Manning — no one else comes close.” Does the name Tom Brady ring a bell?

      • Duane Rockerbie
        July 27, 2015

        Brady doesn’t call his own plays. He stares at the sideline and waits for the play to come into his helmet over a radio. If it doesn’t, he starts banging his hands on his helmet. IMO helmet radios should be taken out of the NFL.

  14. Marl
    July 30, 2015

    Simply put The Snake was NFL football in the 70’s. Back to the days when quarterbacks ran the game and got down and dirty with the
    Test of the team. Not the dress wearing don’t hit me
    Ruin my makeup days (Brady) like we have now. The snake was and still is my hero! It’s time for a long overdue enshrinement !

  15. Richard
    July 30, 2015

    Kenny should have been in the HOF long ago and to me it’s a no-brainer.When being considered,one should be taken as an entire package.Stas alone put people like Fouts in and hype put people like Namath in,but check out Namath’s stats and tell me what did Fouts ever win?I wish there were a way to poll a cross section of players and coaches from that era and have them tell you this: if you had a 4-point lead with a minute left and the opposition had the ball on their own 40….who would you NOT want to see in their huddle?

  16. John
    August 20, 2015

    Ron – Do you happen to know who will be presenting on behalf of Stabler when he is presented to the HOF voters as a senior candidate early next year (if that has been determined) ? I am an attorney and long time supporter of Stabler for the HOF and would like to share materials I have put together to support him.


    • Rick Gosselin
      August 20, 2015

      Undetermined at this point but it will be one of the five senior committee members who attended the meeting.

  17. Anne
    August 26, 2015

    Thanks, Ron, for an excellent article. I’m Bay Area born and raised and I grew up with the Oakland Raider and A’s. My dad and oldest brother went to the games at Kezar, Frank Youell Field, and had season tickets at the Coliseum from the opening year until they moved to LA. We LOVED our Oakland teams (still do) and it was the Snake who unequivocally put us on the map and forged the BEST football era ever. There is NO WAY you can talk about 1970s football without talking about Kenny Stabler.

    I think if I had to boil it down to one quality, it was Ken Stabler’s leadership. This is something the HOF doesn’t seem to get because leadership is hard to quantify, so they act like it doesn’t exist or matter. He was our man, we trusted him, we knew he would win for the team, for the City of Oakland, and for us. Even if we hadn’t met him personally (and he was very accessible unlike today’s players), we felt like we knew him. He had character. He set the tone, he set the standard of expecting to win, and he consistently delivered wins, as well as some of the greatest games in NFL history. Yes, he was a “bad boy” but that’s Bay Area culture and it made us love him all the more! He was a perfect fit at the perfect time in the perfect place.

    I tire of the biased treatment the Snake gets. How many times have I heard “ohh, Johnny Unitas called his own plays.” Then, “yes, Ken Stabler was a party animal and womanizer.” How about, “ohh, the Snake called his own plays”? How many times have I heard that “Montana was a master of the 2-minute drill.” And, then, “yes, Ken Stabler was a party animal and womanizer.” Montana learned the 2-minute drill from the master – the Snake! This quarterback did this and that quarterback did that and then, “yes, Ken Stabler was a party animal and womanizer.” This deflects the conversation away from his accomplishments.

    Ken Stabler was a GREAT quarterback, a great leader, and a legendary NFL player. Please keep us posted on anything we can do to make sure Snake gets into the Hall of Fame, where he belongs.

  18. John
    August 27, 2015

    Thanks Rick. I was thinking that when I have my materials completed, I would send them to the Hall’s nomination address in support of Stabler and request the materials be distributed to the voting members, or if that is not allowed (the HOF website isn’t really clear), at least to the Senior Committee member who will be presenting him for the vote as a resource. Any suggestions on whether that will work ? If you and Ron have email addresses, I could copy you directly as well.

    I recall that a similar sort of background report/info helped Floyd Little gain admission a few years ago. With Peter King recently indicating again after Stabler died that he still did not support his admission, it does not seem like it will be slam dunk case….

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