The Raiders were one of the league’s perennial successes. They had reached the playoffs seven of the last eight years–in an era when only four teams per conference qualified for the postseason. More often than not, they advanced in the playoffs. But with a Super Bowl defeat in 1967, and six AFL/AFC Championship Game losses, they had never won a title. In ways that were mostly good, but also disappointing, the 1975 Oakland Raiders season was more of the same.
Ken Stabler was at quarterback and the 30-year lefthander was among the league’s elite in completion percentage (58%) and yards-per-attempt (7.8). The downfield passing game did leave Oakland susceptible to mistakes. Even allowing that all quarterbacks in this era threw a lot more interceptions than we see today, Stabler’s 8.2 interception rate ranked 21st out of 22 qualifying QBs.
A pair of Hall of Fame receivers were on the outside. Cliff Branch was the deep threat, and with 51 catches for 893 yards, he was an All-Pro in 1975. Fred Biletnikoff worked underneath and caught 43 balls for nearly 600 yards.
The success of the running game was keyed by the great left side of offensive tackle Art Shell and guard Gene Upshaw. Both Hall of Famers had Pro Bowl seasons. A balanced running game saw one Colgate product (Mark van Eeghen) start to take carries away from another (Marv Hubbard). Pete Banaszak, Clarence Davis, and Jess Phillips were also a part of the backfield rotation.
It all added up to a well-balanced offense that ranked fourth in the NFL for points scored.
The defense ranked seventh in points allowed and was led by Pro Bowlers in linebacker Phil Villapiano and free safety Jack Tatum. Oakland’s defense had playmakers up front, with Otis Sistrunk, Horace Jones, and Tony Cline combining for 37 ½ sacks. And they had ballhawks in the secondary, led by corner Skip Thomas who intercepted six passes.
Oakland had won a historic divisional round playoff game against the Miami Dolphins in 1974, and the NFL decided to make a rematch the Monday Night opener. Playing on the road, the Raiders came out firing. Banaszak ran for a couple short TDs and Oakland led 17-0. Each team turned the ball over five times, and it never got close after that in a 31-21 win.
The Raiders were a solid 10 ½ point favorite when they went to Baltimore. But this would be a year the Colts made sharp improvement and became a contender. Oakland fell behind 10-0 early. They cut the lead to 13-10 by halftime. In the third quarter, Stabler flipped a four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dave Casper. With a 143-77 advantage in rush yardage, the Raiders began to pull away, and they won 31-20.
A rainy day in San Diego made a game with the lowly Chargers more interesting that it might otherwise have been. Neither team could move the ball. The Oakland defense held a young San Diego quarterback named Dan Fouts to just three completions, intercepted him twice, and sacked him five times. It was enough to get out of town with a 6-0 win.
The Raiders were both flat and sloppy in Kansas City. Against a bad Chiefs team, Oakland was outrushed 224-91, and turned it over six times. They got hammered 42-10 for their first defeat. And in a road trip to Cincinnati, another rainy day slowed the offense. Both Stabler, and Bengal counterpart Ken Anderson threw four interceptions. But one of Stabler’s got taken to the house, and that was the difference in a 14-10 loss.
You may have noticed that we’re five games into this narrative and Oakland has yet to play at home. Extended road trips to open the season weren’t unusual for the Raiders, but a home opener on October 26 was still pretty extreme. In the rematch with San Diego, Stabler was sharp, going 13/20 for 171 yards. Branch caught five of those passes for 95 yards. One of them was a 45-yard touchdown strike in the third quarter that broke the game open, and Oakland won 25-0.
The Raiders were 4-2, and the Broncos came to town at 3-3 for a significant AFC West game. Oakland trailed 17-7 in the third quarter. It was at this point that the division race turned for good. Stabler threw a 21-yard TD pass to Biletnikoff and a 16-yard scoring pass to Branch to get a 21-17 lead. The avalanche hit in the fourth quarter with three more touchdowns. Instead of being tied for the division lead, the 42-17 win put Oakland two games clear of the field. And it never got close again.
We were also at the halfway point of what was then a 14-game regular season schedule. The Raider offense, clearly enjoying being back at home, kept humming against a terrible New Orleans Saints team. Stabler went 16/23 for 232 yards. A balanced running game produced a 260-95 edge in rush yardage. The final was 48-10.
Lowly Cleveland came to town as the next victim. This one was tight into the third quarter, tied 17-all. Stabler then went to Biletnikoff for 15-yard touchdown pass and tossed a 31-yard TD pass to Davis. Stabler finished 16/25 for 220 yards. Davis ran for 120 yards and sealed the 38-17 win with a 26-yard TD run in the fourth quarter.
A high-profile late afternoon game awaited in Washington. While the Redskins would miss the playoffs in 1975, they were a perennial contender in this era that stayed in the hunt to the very end. Stabler went 20/32 for 243 yards, with Biletnikoff catching nine balls for 113 yards. In front of the national audience, Oakland built a 20-9 lead. But they also lost three fumbles. The Redskins rallied to tie it 23-23 and force overtime. But the Raiders got a field goal and escaped D.C. with a thrilling 26-23 win.
With four weeks to go, Oakland was 8-2. In the race for playoff seeding, the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers were 9-1, and being chased by 8-2 Cincinnati in the division then known as the AFC Central. The AFC East had 7-3 Miami and 6-4 Baltimore fighting it out (the South didn’t come into existence until 2002). The Raiders, with their head-to-head wins over the Dolphins and Colts, were in good position to at least get the 2-seed and host one playoff game. But they could go anywhere from 1 to 3 as we hit the stretch drive.
On a road trip to play the subpar Atlanta Falcons, the Stabler-to-Branch connection came out on fire—touchdown passes from 40 yards, 27 yards, and 11 yards in the first quarter alone. But the defense was having an off-day and it was only 21-13 at the quarter. Then Stabler threw a Pick-6 and we had a ballgame. Oakland was still running the ball well—Banaszak went for 116 yards, van Eeghen added 82, while Davis chipped in 79. For the second straight week, the Raiders went to overtime, and for the second straight week they won. The final was 37-34.
The defense redeemed themselves on Monday Night home against Denver. Safety Charlie Phillips intercepted three passes to key a 17-10 win. Oakland was 10-2, while all of their rivals for playoff position had also held serve the last two weeks.
Pittsburgh had the tiebreaker for the 1-seed, and they won a Saturday game over Cincinnati in the regular season’s penultimate week to sew it up. On Sunday, in a game that kicked off two hours prior to the Raiders’ home date with the Houston Oilers, Baltimore won a big AFC East showdown with Miami. The consequence of that was that Oakland clinched the 2-seed. Whether that resulted in the Raiders first building up a 26-17 lead over a good Oiler team, but then losing 27-26 is subject for speculation. But it didn’t matter. Oakland would host a divisional round game in the AFC playoffs.
A home date with Kansas City was now for tune-up purposes. Stabler went 11/12 for 134 yards. The running game spread the wealth in producing 246 yards on the ground. Banaszak’s short TD run was the clincher in a 28-20 win. The Raiders closed the season at 11-3.
Cincinnati edged Miami for the wild-card spot, and there was a rule in place that said teams from the same division could not meet prior to the conference championship game. The Raiders would host the Bengals in the final game of Divisional Round Weekend for the right to go to Pittsburgh.
Oakland got a field goal and took a 3-0 first quarter lead. In the second quarter, Stabler threw TD passes to veteran wide receiver Mike Siani and tight end Bob Moore, sandwiched around a Cincinnati touchdown. The Raiders were in control at the half, up 17-7.
A six-yard touchdown run from Banaszak extended the lead to 24-7. Oakland would win the rush yardage battle 173-97. Stabler went 17/23 for 199 yards. When he flipped a two-yard scoring pass to Casper in the fourth quarter, the lead was 31-14. It looked over.
But the Cincinnati offense, coordinated by a future legend named Bill Walsh, stormed back. The Bengals scored two touchdowns. And with just over four minutes to play. Banaszak fumbled and lost the ball on his own 37-yard line. Disaster loomed.
The Oakland defense stood tall in the unforgiving minute, getting a sack and pushing Cincinnati out of field goal range.. They got the ball back. With 0:50 left, the Raiders had to get a punt away. The Bengals came after it…and were called for roughing the kicker. The 31-28 win was finally sealed.
It was on to Pittsburgh for an AFC Championship Game rematch. After some rainy weather, Oakland arrived to find that the artificial turf at old Three Rivers Stadium was a sheet of ice. The Raiders were furious and believed the tarp had been left off intentionally to slow Oakland’s more wide-open offense. Whatever the reason, it worked. In a sloppy game, both teams combined to turn it over 12 times. The Raiders trailed 16-10. Branch caught a pass on the 15-yard line late in the game. But he couldn’t get out of bounds, there were no timeouts left and it ended right there.
Getting this far but not finishing the job was getting to be old, and Oakland carried the bitterness into the offseason. The good news? Their redemption was almost here. In 1976, the Raiders went 13-1, got their revenge on the Steelers in the playoffs, and won the Super Bowl.