Be it a love of silver and black, wearing bizarre costumes to games or probationary status, fans of the Oakland Raiders generally have a lot in common. However, there used to be a time when they were divided, and the lightning rod was the late quarterback Ken Stabler, who was just named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Around the time fictional wide receiver George Steele joins Oakland for his NFL cup of coffee in the early 1970s in the novel A COACH AT HEART, the Raiders were in a quarterback quandary. The old guard backed longtime starter Daryle Lamonica, an AFL mainstay who defined the era. He aimed deep, averaging 14-15 yards per completion, but because of it barely completed half his passes and threw quite a few interceptions.
The “Mad Bomber” had huge seasons in 1967-69, throwing for more than 200 yards a game (the benchmark in those days) and leading the Raiders to a three-year record of 36-4-1 — plus an appearance in Super Bowl II.
Time began marching on, though, and Stabler arrived in 1970 to provide the silver and black with a dynamic playmaker and brash persona. “The Snake” was accurate and could run. He wore long hair and a beard. The younger guys wanted Stabler.
The question of the day was Ginger vs. Mary Ann. Stabler vs. Lamonica was also a choice among football fans of the day.
Steele’s token and fictional appearance comes in 1972, when Lamonica started 13 games and Stabler just one — a loss. But The Snake saw action in all 14 regular season games, enough to toss 74 passes, and gave the offense a lift when needed. Such an occasion came in the Immaculate Reception playoff loss at upstart Pittsburgh, when Stabler scrambled for Oakland’s only points of the contest.
He also saw part-time action in 1971. By 1973, the roles were reversed, with Stabler starting 11 games and winning eight. With Lamonica into his 30s, the job was his. Beginning in 1974, the Raiders went four straight seasons with double-digit win totals, and routed Minnesota in the 1977 Super Bowl.
The Holy Roller play in 1978 against San Diego, as detailed in A COACH AT HEART, was vintage Stabler as he found a creative way to win a football game. But that’s also when things began to fall apart, as Raiders managing general partner Al Davis soured on the him. He was traded to Houston in 1979, and Oakland turned to a combination of Jim Plunkett — who also takes a starring role in the novel — and Marc Wilson, who will be mentioned in a sequel if I ever get time to write it.
In a recent article for CBSSports.com, writer Tom LaMarre, who covered the Raiders in the 1970s, calls Stabler perhaps the most popular of the team’s players ever. He’s right, even on a team with fan favorites like Marcus Allen, Tim Brown and Fred Biletnikoff.
And for the record: Mary Ann.
Seriously. Actress Dawn Wells is appearing at a San Diego conference oriented toward women in March and the publicity has her relatively current photo. Mary Ann.