Perhaps the coach with the highest all-time winning percentage over 10 or more seasons wouldn’t have been the same without a lucky second-round draft pick in 1968.
John Madden, head coach of the Oakland Raiders from 1969 to 1978, recalled the day his team drafted Ken Stabler, one day after the quarterback’s death from colon cancer was made public:
“It was ironic. We drafted another quarterback in the first round, Eldridge Dickey. We were kind of choosing between the two. We had Kenny Stabler rated as the No. 1 pick. So, we took Eldridge Dickey from Tennessee State and then in the next round, the second round, and Kenny Stabler is still there.”
The team took Stabler 52nd overall 1968, too good of a player to pass on, even with a quarterback selected already. But with “Mad Bomber” Daryl LaMonica and George Blanda already on the Raiders roster, there was no need for Stabler to step in right away, and his first two seasons were largely spent sitting on the bench.
During the 1970 season, Stabler saw his first game action. Seven passing attempts for 52 yards, only two completions and no touchdowns. 1971 was marginally better. 48 attempts, exactly half completed, for 268 yards and a single touchdown.
Stabler’s 1972 wasn’t much different, but in 1973, “The Snake” had the Raiders’ starting quarterback job. Sort of. LaMonica had battled knee injuries for the majority of his career, and on September 30 of 1973, another one struck.
Stabler stepped in. Cool, composed, he completed four of six passes. His two misses, though, were interceptions, one of which Chiefs linebacker Willie Lanier took to the house for six points. But Stabler, despite the losing performance, kept the job. By default.
Stabler, surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, took the Raiders to the AFC Championship game that season, and was just getting started.
Madden remembers a moment he said signified who Stabler was on the field:
“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 game. It went six periods. The end of regulation, we’re tied, and we go another period and then we’re tied and then we’re going into another period.”
The Raiders had one timeout, possession, and were crawling across midfield. Madden turns to Stabler, helmet resting on the crown of his head, facemask towards the heavens. As Madden was scrambling to concoct a sequence of plays that would win the game, Stabler blew him away.
“Then, he says, ‘you know what, John?’ and I thought, ‘oh great, he has a play.’ So I asked him ‘what?’ and he said ‘these fans are getting their money’s worth today.’ That’s the way he was. I was going all over the board on what we should do, and he was just cool, looking up into the stands.”
Stabler may have been the best player Madden ever had while Madden was coaching. Always cool. Always about the team. And always able to calm everyone else down, even if the situation was tense and rigid.
Even in Super Bowl XI, when Madden was becoming frustrated by being forced into kicking field goals. Madden said:
“Kenny put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘don’t worry about that, John, there’s plenty more where that came from.” It did affect me. I thought, when he said that, he’s right. I felt a heck of a lot better about it. It was the whole team.”
The Raiders beat Minnesota that January day in 1977, maybe more accurately, the Raiders pummeled the Vikings. Stabler threw one touchdown pass, and completed 12-of-19 for 180 yards, with Oakland kicking their last field goal after Stabler calmed Madden.
To be fair to the both of them, the Raider led 19-0 when Stabler calmed Madden, and Oakland’s defense was ripping into the soul of the Fran Tarkenton-led Vikings offense.
Raiders defensive back Willie Brown intercepted a Tarkenton pass and took it 75 yards downfield, for six points and the icing on Oakland’s championship season.
Stabler was not one to discuss his own injuries with teammates. In fact, few of his teammates would ever see him work with the team trainer.
It didn’t matter if he’d taken shots from Mean Joe Greene or linebacker Jack Lambert after facing off against the Steelers in a championship game, battles that will live on forever in the minds of football diehards.
It was to the point where Madden needed to approach Stabler and come up with a plan to make sure he got checked out.
“We used to have a thing. Kenny Stabler never went into the training room. And he didn’t want any of his teammates to ever see him getting treatment. He never went in the training room. He wouldn’t be seen in there, he wouldn’t step in there. So, I thought, well this is ridiculous because he would take a little beating during these games too, and he needed treatment.”
“So I would talk to him about it and he just didn’t want to go in the training room. So I said, well you know, let’s do it at night, so you know when everyone leaves. And you know George Anderson our trainer would come back at like nine o’clock at night and that’s when he got his treatment. But, he didn’t want any of his teammates to ever see him in the training room getting treatment.”
Madden mentioned that as something that Stabler would carry through his life. Which explains why, even in the era of instant information sharing and overly-invasive media, Stabler’s short bout with colon cancer was kept a secret until after he’d passed away.
Madden, his coach for nine of his 10 seasons with the Raiders, had no idea that the should-be Hall of Fame quarterback was so close to death.
It’s easy to hypothesize Stabler might have thought it was impolite to bother others with the woes of one man. It’s equally easy to wonder whether it was mere Alabama pride that enforced the secrecy.
Stabler was as caring to others as any football player, or person, could ever be according to Madden, who said:
“He was always, always ready to help in any way he could. And, when he would go out he was always polite. I mean he was a real southern gentleman, you know. We would have post game parties and he would be around and he’d make a point to talk to all the coaches, all the coach’s wives, and treat them like they were really something. He really treated people with respect and then, the other side of him, he enjoyed life.”
When a situation was more serious, Stabler was ready to meet it head on with the same intensity.
Which is why, in crunch time, with the season on the line, Stabler was probably the best two-minute-drill quarterback of all time.
Madden said that there is nobody he’d rather have under center in such situations than Stabler, and cited a unique trait that Stabler carried:
“He would make himself taller in the pocket. There’s some guys that tend to make themselves smaller in the pocket, Kenny Stabler would go back and then he would rise. You just think, ‘that’s the way he played.’ The bigger the situation I’m going to get back, I’m going to get to the head of my drop and I’m going to step and I’m going to rise and then I’m going to rise to the occasion, and that’s what he did.”
For those old enough to clearly remember Stabler’s career, many retired by now and enjoying their time at the driving range or resting on the couch with a cold brew watching daytime television, Stabler was the man.
He was “it.” He had traits that nobody else did. Not even the greats. He led one of the best teams, stretching four seasons, that organized football has ever seen. And against the best competition that football has ever seen. With rules, or the lack thereof, that make today’s NFL seem more like group therapy.
The era that Stabler played in was no holds barred. Clotheslines and cheap shots, with a lineman’s foot separating mud and an opponent’s helmet when the referees weren’t looking, and broken noses a minor injury.
Stabler will live on in their stories of sun-drenched days spent at the Oakland coliseum. During the era of the bad boy Raiders, led by a southern gentleman so selfless that he’d fight being seen speaking with a team doctor.
Right on top of the top of the coliseum’s Western lights. Above section 317, at the 50-yard line. Looking for the next move, helping his team win.
“Ken Stabler has to be right on top. He was just, of all the people you coach, and I coached a lot of great ones and a lot of Hall of Famers, he’s one of the guys that is really at the top of the class.”
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.