John Madden, an icon of football and the pit boss of the rollicking Oakland Raiders teams of the 1970s, always wanted the ball in Kenny Stabler’s capable hands.
“I’ve often said, if I had one drive to win a game to this day, and I had a quarterback to pick, I would pick Kenny,” Madden said in a statement following Stabler’s death this week.
Stabler was 69 when he succumbed to colon cancer. His brain and spinal cord were donated to Boston University for research, but the organs he most heavily relied on during his time as one of the best players of his generation were his heart and his guts.
“When you think about the Raiders,” Madden said, “you think about Ken Stabler.”
In many ways, Stabler, a true NFL gunslinger with ice running through his veins, was the perfect field general of those badass Raiders teams. Make no mistake: In football history, Madden’s misfits are among the meanest to ever play the game. They were a ragtag group of goons and castoffs who found a home with the Silver and Black. Stabler, who drank and partied as hard as he played, liked fast women and faster boats, who studied his playbook “by the light of a nightclub jukebox,” was emblematic of those tough teams.
“He knows everything there is to know on a football field,” Raiders tight end Dave Casper was quoted as saying in The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football. “But when they give him his game plan on Wednesday he probably takes it and throws it in the wastebasket. No one ever suspected how little he knew about the game plan on a particular week.”
But beyond his coolness under pressure and his moxie under center, his willingness to gamble and “win the hard way,” Stabler helped to revolutionize the quarterback position with his legs and feet. A talented left-handed passer, Stabler separated himself from other quarterbacks with his ability to escape trouble and run for yardage. Generations before NFL QBs became sleeker athletes who could take off and run when the play fell apart, “The Snake” helped to change the position before mobile quarterbacks became a thing.
During his decade with the Raiders, Stabler completed better than 60 percent of his passes and led the league in touchdowns twice. He was named NFL MVP in 1974 and guided Oakland to a Super Bowl title in 1977. Remarkably, Stabler is the only QB who started and won a Super Bowl in the 70s who was never enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“The Raiders are deeply saddened by the passing of the great Ken Stabler,” Oakland owner Mark Davis said in a statement. “He was a cherished member of the Raider family and personified what it means to be a Raider. He wore the Silver and Black with Pride and Poise and will continue to live in the hearts of Raider fans everywhere. Our sincerest thoughts and prayers go out to Kenny’s family.”
Stabler was an escape artist. He was slippery and had an uncanny ability to find ways to win, even if it meant fumbling on purpose. With 23 fourth-quarter or OT comebacks on his resume, pulling wins out of thin air was something he and the Raiders did a lot during his tenure in Oakland. The Raiders won 81 regular-season and playoff games under Stabler.
A flamboyant free spirit, Stabler often produced those wins in memorable, historic ways.
Just moments before the Pittsburgh Steelers incredibly won a playoff game in 1972 behind the Immaculate Reception, Stabler had given the Raiders a 7-6 lead with just over a minute left. He ran 30 yards for the apparent game-winner, but the run was not enough to stifle the developing Pittsburgh dynasty.
But he did end the Miami Dolphins run two years later in 1974 with one of the most famous plays in NFL history. Known as the “Sea of Hands” play, Stabler knocked the Dolphins out of the playoffs and ended their bid for a third straight trip to the Super Bowl when his prayer was caught by RB Clarence Davis in the endzone.
The play was classic Stabler: Time ticking down. Less than a minute left. Uniform rumpled and dirty. Trailing the Dolphins by five. He scrambled right. Then left. And while he was being hauled to the ground, Stabler managed to get the pass off to win the game.
He was Brett Favre before Favre made a career out of gunslinging wins. He was Steve Young before the left-handed Young emerged as one of the greatest running/passing QBs ever. Stabler was a winner in the mold of the hard-partying Joe Namath, a fellow cannon-armed Alabama alum. Crimson Tide head coach Bear Bryant famously threw Stabler off the team once for blowing curfew.
So Stabler was a lot of things. Mostly though, he was a Raider through and through.
“The autumn wind is a Raider, pillaging just for fun,” John Facenda says in the legendary NFL Films tribute to the Silver and Black, which could just as easily describe the quarterback. “He’ll knock you ’round and upside-down, and laugh when he’s conquered and won.”