John Madden was in his third year on the Oakland sidelines and the first two years had gone well. There was disappointment to be sure, but in both 1969 and 1970, the Raiders had come within one game of the Super Bowl. For much of the season, the 1971 Oakland Raiders appeared to be cut from the same mold. But a late collapse left them out of the postseason.
The Raider offense had Pro Bowl players in the skill positions. Running back Marv Hubbard ran for 867 yards in what was then a 14-game schedule and averaged nearly five a pop. Wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff caught 61 passes for 929 yards—excellent season-long numbers for this run-centric era. The young tight end Raymond Chester was a reliable target who could stretch the field, averaging better than 15 yards-per-catch.
Oakland’s offensive line had a pair of Pro Bowlers in center Jim Otto and tackle Bob Brown. They had rising stars in guard Art Shell and tackle Gene Upshaw, both of whom were headed for the Hall of Fame.
The Raider offense was so good that they produced in spite of rather pedestrian numbers from quarterback Daryle Lamonica. His 49 percent completion rate ranked 16th among the 21 QBs who threw enough passes to qualify. Renowned as “The Mad Bomber”, he only averaged 7.1 yards-per-attempt, which ranked 11th. And with a 16/16 TD-INT ratio, he ranked 16th in interception percentage.
But even considering all this, the Oakland offense still scored the second-most points in the league, trailing only the eventual Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. That covered a mediocre defense that ranked 14th in a 26-team league for points allowed. Other than the great Willie Brown, one of the league’s top corners, the Raider defense struggled in 1971.
Oakland opened the season at New England. It was a historic game for the Patriots—their first with the name “New England” rather than “Boston”, and their first in what was then named Schaefer Stadium. In an irony of history, the Raiders also played the last game in this building—a certain playoff game following the 2001 season that ended with the “Tuck Rule” play.
On this day, Oakland played poorly. They led 6-0 in the third quarter, but lost three fumbles, and eventually lost the game 20-6. The offense was similarly sluggish into the second half in Week 2 at San Diego, leading 6-0. This time, Lamonica opened up. He hit Biletnikoff from 36 yards out, again from 13 and the Raiders pulled away to a 34-0 win, evening their record at 1-1.
A Monday Night Football date at Cleveland, a team that would eventually make the playoffs, was next. Oakland continued their pattern of slow starts, digging a 14-0 hole by the second quarter and still trailing 20-10 into the third quarter. But Hubbard rushed for 103 yards. Lamonica went 11/21 for 184 yards. A 13-yard TD pass to Chester and a short touchdown run by Clarence Davis gave the Raiders the lead, and they pulled away to a 34-20 win.
What are the odds that in a 14-game schedule, your first four would be on the road? That was what Oakland was dealing with when they went to Denver. They trailed a bad Bronco team 9-6 at the half, and Madden decided to give his young quarterback, Ken Stabler, a shot at giving the offense a spark.
The lefthander who eventually became known as “The Snake” ran for one score and threw for another. Defensive back Jimmy Warren brought an interception 55 yards to the house. With a 27-16 win, the Raiders completed this road swing at 3-1 and were set up for another big year.
Stabler got the start for the home opener against mediocre Philadelphia. But the Oakland offense struggled again, falling behind 10-0 in a game they were a (-18) favorite. Lamonica was summoned. He threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Biletnikoff, who caught eight balls for 148 yards. Another second half explosion gave the Raiders a 34-10 win and gave Lamonica his job back.
After a season of slow starts and strong finishes, Oakland flipped the script at home against a bad Cincinnati Bengals team. A 17-0 lead turned into a 27-24 deficit in the fourth quarter. What the Raiders were doing was running the football—over 200 yards on the ground as a team—and Hubbard would run in for the touchdown that produced a 31-27 triumph.
At 5-1, Oakland was set up for a big home showdown with the 5-1 Kansas City Chiefs. First place in the AFC West was on the line and the oddsmakers saw this game as a pick’em. The Raiders trailed 20-10 in the fourth quarter. In a finish almost identical to what happened in 1970, Madden called on his great veteran backup quarterback George Blanda, who doubled as the team’s placekicker. As he had done in ’70, Blanda rallied the Raiders to a 20-20 tie. In this era before overtime, that’s where it ended, and the AFC West race stayed tied.
Lamonica was back in the saddle against a subpar New Orleans Saints team on the road. With TD passes of 42 and 20 yards to Biletnikoff, Lamonica had his team with a 21-7 lead in the fourth quarter. But the defensive struggles came home to roost today. Another tie game was the result, this one 21-21. If playing the Chiefs at home to a tie was a modest disappointment, a tie against a bad team was a disaster.
Oakland needed to get things turned around against the lowly Houston Oilers and they did. A wide receiver named Drew Buie caught two touchdown passes in his entire NFL career. Both of them came on this November 14 day, from 63 yards and 25 yards respectively. The Raiders led 41-0 by the third quarter and won 41-21.
San Diego was a mediocre team and not in serious contention. But the Chargers came to Oakland and took a 24-10 lead by halftime. But Lamonica was playing one of his most efficient games of the season. He went 16/26 for 190 yards, three touchdowns and zero picks. The Raiders stormed ahead to a 34-24 lead and hung on to win 34-33.
There were four games left. Oakland’s record was 7-1-2, which put them narrowly ahead of Kansas City, who was 7-2-1. There was only one wild-card playoff spot in this era, and the Baltimore Colts were 7-3. The Raiders had games coming up against both teams in the stretch drive.
The Colts came west for a rematch of the previous year’s AFC Championship Game. The result was a disaster. Oakland got hammered in the trenches, outrushed 210-65. Lamonica was intercepted four times. Blanda came off the bench and threw two more picks. The end result was a 37-14 loss.
Losing to Baltimore put Oakland in a difficult bind for the wild-card, but Kansas City had also lost. The AFC West race was still hot. But the Raiders continued to struggle. They went to Atlanta, where the Falcons were decent, but nothing special. It was a sloppy game, with each team losing five fumbles. Oakland returned one of those for the game’s first touchdown, and Hubbard rushed for 143 yards. But Lamonica played poorly, 12/31 for 130 yards. Oakland lost 24-13.
There was still hope. The Raiders were 7-3-2. The Chiefs were 8-3-1. It was time to go to Kansas City. Win, and Oakland could move into first place, with only a home game against Denver left. Lose, and Raider playoff hopes were finished.
Oddsmakers weren’t optimistic and they made Oakland a (+4) underdog. The Raiders fell behind 10-0. Hubbard ran in from a yard out to make it a game. They later trailed 13-7. Hubbard again ran in from a yard out. Oakland had a 14-13 lead. But even though Madden tried both Lamonica and Blanda, he couldn’t get a passing game going. The Chiefs kicked a field goal, won 16-14 and Oakland would be home for the postseason.
There was still the matter of closing the year out. Lamonica threw a 67-yard touchdown pass to Chester to get the scoring going in the finale against the Broncos. While Lamonica also threw three picks, it didn’t prevent Oakland from salvaging some pride with a 21-13 win. They finished the year at 8-4-2.
By the standards of today, the Raiders would have been the second wild-card. Even by the standards of 1970, their winning percentage matched that of AFC Central champ Cleveland, who had finished 9-5, and the Raiders beat the Browns head-to-head. But those standards aren’t the ones that mattered. 1971 was a disappointment in Oakland.
The good news is that this was just a blip on the radar. Oakland bounced back and made the postseason each of the next six seasons under Madden. They played in five more AFC Championship Games. And in 1976, they won it all.