After reaching the AFL/AFC championship game in his first two seasons, John Madden’s Raiders took a step back in 1971, when a late collapse cost them a playoff spot. The 1972 Oakland Raiders followed the opposite path—they surged down the stretch, returned to the postseason, and were only stopped by one of pro football’s most famous endings.
Madden had good quarterbacks, with an emphasis on the plural. Daryle Lamonica was his established starter, but young Ken Stabler was chomping at the bit for more action and 45-year-old George Blanda was still reliable. No one could get too comfortable behind center, but it was Lamonica who started 13 of what were then 14 regular season games. Lamonica’s 53 percent completion rate, 7.1 yards-per-attempt and 4.3 interception percentage all placed him in the upper one-fourth of starting quarterbacks.
Lamonica’s prime target was Hall of Fame wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, who caught 58 passes for over 800 yards and was an All-Pro selection. The young tight end, Raymond Chester, was a Pro Bowler. He caught 34 passes and at 16.9 yards-per-catch was a rare field-stretcher for his position. Mike Sinai was another deep threat, with 28 catches at 17.7 yards a pop. Charlie Smith was a safety valve out of the backfield, with 28 catches of his own.
Smith was a good runner, going for almost 700 yards. But the bread-and-butter of this offense was to give the football to fullback Marv Hubbard. The Pro Bowler not only rushed for 1,100 yards, he averaged a healthy five yards a carry. Hubbard was led by an offensive line that included the legendary left side of tackle Art Shell and guard Gene Upshaw, each starting to come into their own. Veteran center Jim Otto had a Pro Bowl year. This well-balanced Raider offense finished third in the NFL for points scored.
But Oakland didn’t miss the playoffs in 1971 because of any significant offensive shortcomings. They came up short because the defense had been subpar. That changed in ’72. While the Raiders didn’t have dynamic defensive talent, they had an All-Pro corner in Willie Brown, a good pass rusher in Horace Jones, and they finished 8th in the league for points allowed.
The rivalry between Oakland and the Pittsburgh Steelers would come to be a signature storyline for this entire era of pro football. That rivalry would get its first big chapter at the end of the season. Perhaps it’s fitting that It was also the city of Pittsburgh where this ’72 campaign began.
Stabler made his only start of the season and it didn’t go particularly well, as the Raiders fell behind 17-0. Lamonica came in and went 8/10 for 172 yards and threw a couple of touchdown passes to Sinai. Oakland made it close, but they lost 34-28. While this loss doesn’t look bad in retrospect, in the moment it was a defeat to a franchise that had yet to ever do anything significant.
The Raiders went on to Green Bay. Oakland again trailed a team that would eventually win its division, but this time it was only 14-10 at the half. With Hubbard rushing for 125 yards, Oakland was able to get control of the second half and win 20-14.
Lamonica got the home opener with the San Diego Chargers off to a good start, with touchdown passes to Chester and Hubbard. But the running game would be absent on this day, as would the rush defense. Lamonica wasn’t able to make big plays in the passing game. A bad Charger team rallied to tie it 17-17. With overtime still two years away from existence, that’s where this game ended.
A Monday Night visit to the lowly Houston Oilers was now even more urgent, as Oakland sat on a 1-1-1 record. The Raiders lost four fumbles, but they did most everything else right. Five different players intercepted passes. Lamonica went 12/26 for 166 yards and no mistakes. The rush yardage edge was a comfortable 164-90. Oakland cruised to a 34-0 victory.
They followed that up by coming home and beating a subpar Buffalo Bills team. Buffalo had a running back named O.J. Simpson who ran for 144 yards, and they took a 16-7 lead into the fourth quarter. But Oakland countered with 122 yards from Hubbard and 56 more from Clarence Davis. The Raiders scored three times in the final period, twice on runs from Davis, and won 28-16.
But Oakland couldn’t stay consistent. The Denver Broncos were not a good team, but they came to town and jumped out to a 24-3 lead. Madden called on Stabler, who led a strong rally to close to within 27-20. But Denver pushed back and beat the Raiders 30-23.
A third straight home game was against the Los Angeles Rams. While the Rams would soon become one of the 1970s’ best teams, this 1972 edition was mediocre. Lamonica was back in the saddle. He threw TD passes from 30 yards to Biletnikoff, 27 to Chester, and 31 to Sinai. Both Smith and Davis ran for touchdowns. And this was all before halftime. Oakland jumped out to a 35-0 lead and an easy afternoon ended with a 45-17 win.
The calendar flipped to November, and it was time for a visit to Kansas City. The Chiefs and Raiders had been sparring for several years now. Kansas City was the defending AFC West champs, and at 4-3, just a half-game back of Oakland. This late afternoon start would be for first place.
It didn’t go well for Madden and his team. They were outrushed 190-73 and dug themselves a 20-zip hole by the third quarter. In the effort to come back, Biletnikoff caught ten balls for 114 yards, but it still ended 27-14. Oakland was 4-3-1. In an era where they was only one wild-card per conference, the Raiders would miss the playoffs if the season ended here.
A road trip to play a competitive Cincinnati Bengals team now had significant urgency. And the Raiders played like it, particularly up front. They rolled up 293 yards on the ground, with Smith’s 146 being his season-high. Hubbard kicked in 98 yards. The Oakland defense stopped the run. That was the difference in a 20-14 win. The ground dominance went with the Raiders to Denver, with another massive edge led by Smith and Hubbard producing a 37-20 revenge win.
While Oakland was revitalizing themselves, Kansas City was sinking. The Chiefs had lost both games since the head-to-head matchup. With four weeks to play, the Raiders were 6-3-1, while K.C. was 5-5. With the AFC Central having two teams—the Steelers and Cleveland Browns—each at 7-3—the AFC West rivals had to assume there would be no wild-card fallback when they rematched in Oakland on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
The Raider running game and rush defense was feeling it, and that didn’t stop in this game. Smith ran for an early touchdown. A balanced rushing attack produced 255 yards, while the Chiefs could only muster 93. Lamonica threw second-quarter touchdown passes to both Biletnikoff and Chester. Oakland had this one blown open by halftime, at 23-3, and they closed out a 26-3 win.
They only needed one more win to clinch the division, and they got it a week later in San Diego. It wasn’t easy. The rush formula disappeared, and the Raiders lost rush yardage by a hefty 233-96 count. They trailed 19-14 in the fourth quarter. But Smith ran in from nine yards out to get the lead, and the 21-19 score stood up. Oakland was back on top of the AFC West.
Homefield advantage for the playoffs was not done on merit prior to 1975. The only concession to regular season performance was that the wild-card couldn’t play at home. Otherwise, the divisions used a pre-determined rotation for the 1-2-3 seeds. The AFC West champ was stuck with the 3-line this year, so there was nothing to play for the final two weeks.
Monday Night Football on the penultimate week saw the Raiders play an old rival—Joe Namath’s New York Jets—that woke up echoes of the late 1960s in the AFL. Namath threw for over 400 yards, but Oakland had better balance. Hubbard ran for 118 yards. Lamonica went 10/17 for 202 yards. And in the fourth quarter, he broke open a 17-16 game by hitting Chester with a 68-yard touchdown pass. The Raiders won 24-16. And they closed out a 10-3-1 season a week later by beating the lowly Chicago Bears 28-21, in a game where all three quarterbacks got playing time.
The playoffs were here, and Oakland was going back to where his journey had begun—in Pittsburgh—for an early Saturday afternoon kickoff that would open the Divisional Round.
Old Three Rivers Stadium, with its artificial turf, was sleet-covered on a bad weather day. Neither team could function much offensively. The problem is that the Raiders turned it over four times, compared to just once for the Steelers. Pittsburgh got a couple of field goals and led 6-0.
Madden gave the more mobile Stabler a chance to rally. The young lefty quarterback did just that. He raced down the sidelines for a 30-yard touchdown run with just over a minute to play. With a 7-6 lead, Oakland appeared ready to move to the AFC Championship Game and take a shot at the undefeated Miami Dolphins.
Pittsburgh was on their own 40-yard line with time for one more play. That play would be one for the ages. A pass was thrown to the middle of the field. Oakland safety Jack Tatum and Pittsburgh running back John Fuqua went up for the ball. It was batted on the air. Steeler running back Franco Harris grabbed the deflection right at his shoes and raced in for a touchdown.
In our own day, this would be an epic play, but not a controversial one. That wasn’t the case in 1972. There was a rule that once an offensive player touched a forward pass, the ball was dead. Had Fuqua caused the deflection—even in part—or was it all Tatum? Officials conferred. It was ruled that Tatum caused the deflection and the touchdown stood. Oakland’s season was over in a 13-7 loss.
The Raiders were furious then, and the passage of time has not diminished the grievance. They were upset with the call itself, as well as a belief that it was done based on fear of the Steeler crowd in an age where security was lax.
Oakland’s season was over, but the Madden era was just getting started. Stabler took over the offense the following year, and the Raiders started a run of five straight trips to the AFC Championship Game. They had four more playoff games with Pittsburgh ahead, each team winning twice. And in 1976, they won it all.