Ken Stabler created some of NFL's most memorable moments

ByJohnette Howard ESPN logo
Sunday, July 12, 2015

Back in the 1970s, swashbuckling quarterback Kenny "The Snake" Stabler once said the reason he fit in so perfectly with his hell-raising Oakland Raiders teams was he liked to study his game plans by the light of a honky-tonk jukebox. As Raiders coach John Madden remembered Friday, "He always had a twinkle in his eye, and a smile. ... There were times when he'd throw the ball low and he'd go, 'Low-ball thrower. Highball drinker. Huddle up. Let's go.'"

Since Stabler died at the age of 69 because of complications from colon cancer, much has been written and said about how he won a Super Bowl and a league MVP award and authored what many think is a wrongly overlooked Hall of Fame-worthy career.

What sometimes gets forgotten is that Stabler also had 23 career comebacks in the fourth quarter or overtime. And a lot of them were as memorable as anything John Elway or Joe Montana ever did.

"When you think of Kenny Stabler, he was involved in more games that had names than anyone," Madden pointed out with a soft laugh during a conference call with reporters.

"I always said if I had one drive where we had to make a drive to win the game, I'd have Kenny Stabler as my quarterback."

What made it more remarkable was Stabler called his own plays. Knee injuries reduced his mobility not long into his career, yet he often pulled out games in spectacular style by figuring out, sometimes even inventing on the spot, whatever it took.

There was the 1974 "Sea of Hands" playoff game, when Stabler threaded a pass to Raiders running back Clarence Davis for a touchdown to beat two-time defending champion Miami. Davis hung onto the ball despite three Dolphins pawing and digging at it.

There was the "Ghost to the Post" win against the Baltimore Colts in the '77 playoffs, when Stabler found tight end Dave Casper over the middle for 42 yards to set up the field goal that sent the game into overtime. Stabler hit Casper again for the winning touchdown in the second overtime.

There was the 1978 "Holy Roller" game against San Diego, when Stabler eluded a sack on the last play long enough to "fumble" the ball (or was it an intentional half-pitch, half-shot put?) toward fullback Pete Banaszak, who shoveled it ahead to Casper, who kicked it forward and fell on it in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

That play led to an NFL rule change after the season, hardly a first for the rough-and-tumble Raiders.

As Oakland linebacker Ted Hendricks later joked, "Because of us, there's the no-clothesline rule, the no-hitting-out-of-bounds rule, the no-fumbling-forward-in-the-last-two-minutes rule, the no-throwing-helmets rule and the no-Stickum rule.

"So you see," Hendricks added, "we're not all bad."

And don't forget that it was a dazzling play by Stabler that set the stage for one of the greatest "name" game moments in NFL history -- Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" against Oakland in the 1972 AFC playoffs.

Stabler was an unknown NFL commodity at the time, though he played his college ball for Bear Bryant at Alabama after Joe Namath left and even led the Crimson Tide to an undefeated season his junior year. After the Raiders drafted him in 1968, he spent his first two years as a pro warehoused with Spokane of the Continental Football League because Oakland already had Daryle Lamonica and George Blanda at quarterback. Stabler joined the Raiders in 1970 but rarely played his first three seasons.

Stabler came into the '72 game against the Steelers only because Lamonica got hurt late in the second half. Even before that, he wasn't moving the ball against the Steelers' soon-to-be legendary Steel Curtain defense.

But Stabler came into the game and dropped back to pass on third down in a formation that dictated the Steelers automatically blitz, as linebacker Andy Russell explained during the Steelers' 40th anniversary celebration of the game.

Stabler saw a little daylight to his left where a rookie defensive end didn't cover the spot Russell had just vacated -- then shocked the Steelers by scrambling 30 yards for a touchdown with 1:17 left to push the Raiders ahead 7-6. And that's what set up Pittsburgh's need for the miracle it got: Harris' shoe-top catch of a ball that ricocheted into the air when Raiders safety Jack Tatum collided with intended receiver Frenchy Fuqua.

"If Kenny didn't make the play that put us ahead in that game, then they don't ever make that famous play to win it," Madden said. "He was one of the greatest competitors ever.

"The hotter the game, the cooler he got."

Stabler was apparently the same about letting anyone know he was battling cancer since being diagnosed in February of this year.

"I was not aware that he had cancer -- that was a big part of the shock," Madden said. "Kenny was one of those guys, whatever you throw in front of him, it's not going to get him down. And then when you hear Kenny Stabler died, it's like a kick in the gut. ... He was a real Southern gentleman. ... A brilliant, brilliant quarterback with a brilliant football mind.

"Some guys tend to get smaller in the pocket," Madden added. "Kenny Stabler would rise up."

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