1976 Oakland Raiders: John Madden Finally Wins The Biggest One

The 1976 Oakland Raiders came into the season as the proto-type of a team that couldn’t win the big one. The franchise reached the second Super Bowl in 1967 before losing to the Green Bay Packers. One year later they dropped the AFL title game to Joe Namath and the New York Jets. Head coach Jon Rauch stepped down and turned the reins over to his young assistant, John Madden. The winning continued—as did the frustration.

Madden’s Raiders saw their season stop in the AFL/AFC Championship Game in 1969 and 1970. They lost a controversial last-play crusher in the divisional round at Pittsburgh in 1972. They lost an AFC Championship Game to the mighty Miami Dolphins in 1973. And they lost consecutive AFC title games to the great Pittsburgh Steeler teams in 1974 and 1975.

Even in the relatively calmer media climate of the 1970s, the “can’t win the big one” tag was being hung on Madden and quarterback Ken Stabler. We can only imagine how intense the media shouting would be today.

One way to have a breakthrough year is for a collection of Hall of Fame players to all have great seasons simultaneously. That’s what happened with the Raider passing game. Stabler’s 67 percent completion rate and 9.4 yards-per-attempt were each the best in the league. His 27/17 TD-INT ratio and 5.8 percent interception rate are poor by today’s standards. But in the world of 1976, the interceptions were merely subpar, with his rate ranking 19th among starting quarterbacks. Stabler got another Pro Bowl ticket.

Wide receiver Cliff Branch caught 46 passes, and with 1,111 total yards, his yards-per-catch was an amazing 24.2. Dave Casper caught 53 balls from his tight end spot. Branch and Casper were both named All-Pro. Fred Biletnikoff caught 43 passes, as a possession receiver working underneath.

The running game was led by Mark van Eghen, who rolled up over 1,000 yards. Clarence Davis chipped in over 500. The offensive line was anchored by the great left tackle-guard combo of Gene Upshaw and Art Shell. When you added it all up, the Raider offense ranked 4th in the league for points scored.

Oakland’s defense only had one Pro Bowler, outside linebacker Phil Villapiano. But they had several playmakers. Defensive end Otis Sistrunk produced 11 sacks. John Matuszak added 9 ½ more. Ted Hendricks was a disruptive force at outside linebacker. Jack Tatum was a ferocious hitter from his free safety spot. Willie Brown, the proud 36-year-old veteran, was still getting it done at corner. The Raider defense wasn’t great, but they still ranked 12th in what was then a 28-team league.

Oakland just needed to prove it could beat Pittsburgh, and the opening game pitted the two rivals against each other. In our own day, this would be a Thursday night affair in the Steel City, but back then it was a normal Sunday afternoon game and scheduled in Oakland. The Raiders trailed 21-7 at the start of the fourth quarter and 28-14 with five minutes to go, but Stabler rallied the troops.

The final quarter saw him throw for two touchdowns, run for one more and the Raiders got a late field goal to win 31-28. Stabler finished with 342 yards passing, enough to offset his four interceptions. Oakland not only had a win over its conference rival, but they were at least 1-0 as they started a five-game stretch that would be all on the road.

Stabler was sharp on Monday Night against a bad Kansas City Chiefs team. He went 22/28 for 224 yards. The Raiders outrushed the Chiefs 211-115, and built a 24-7 lead. Then, Stabler got hurt. Oakland’s offense bogged down. Kansas City scored twice, but the Raiders hung on to win 24-21.

Even so, Stabler had to miss the Week 3 trip to Houston. A game with the subpar Oilers would become tougher than it otherwise might have been. But backup Mike Rae filled in admirably, going 13/22 for 170 yards. The defense held Houston to 39 yards rushing, and Oakland got out of town with a 14-13 win.

Stabler returned the following week in New England. But the Raiders were awful. They were crushed on the ground, getting outrushed 296-114. They turned it over four times. And they took it on the chin in a 48-17 rout. At the time, it looked like Oakland had been crushed by a mediocre team. But, as it turned out, they hadn’t see the last of the Patriots.

A trip to San Diego continued the road trip, and the Raiders struggled with a mediocre opponent. They were tied 7-7 in the second quarter. Stabler went up top to Branch from 74 yards. Then, they trailed 17-14 in the fourth quarter. Stabler again found Branch, this time from 41 yards out. Stabler finished 20/26 for 339 yards and the Raiders were able to win, 27-17.

Denver was the last stop on these marathon road trips that were strangely commonplace for Oakland in this era. The Broncos proved to be the top challenger in the AFC West, and this was a battle. The Raiders trailed 10-3 at the half. The Stabler-to-Branch combo came through again, a 46-yard scoring strike to tie it up in the third quarter. Oakland ultimately won 17-10.

The Raiders weren’t looking dominant, but they were 5-1, and in an era where the schedule was only 14 games, there were just two more road dates remaining. Opportunity was right in front of them.

On a home date with lowly Green Bay, Stabler threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Casper, an 88-yard strike to Branch and a 10-yard toss to Biletnikoff. It was enough to win, but the kicking game was an adventure. Fred Seinfort missed two extra points, got hurt and was placed on injured reserve. Punter Ray Guy missed the third PAT. The result was a weird 18-14 final.

Errol Mann was brought in as the new kicker for the rematch with Denver. He hit a couple field goals and the game was tied 6-6 in the fourth quarter. The Raider pass rush was unleashed and would finish with ten sacks. Stabler broke the tie with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Biletnikoff. A Davis touchdown run was the clincher—although another missed PAT left the final at 19-6.

On a road trip to face mediocre Chicago, Stabler went 11/17 for 234 yards and no mistakes. Branch caught five balls for 163 yards. The biggest was a 49-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that turned a 27-21 deficit into a 28-27 win. Ironically, it was a victory made possible because Mann hit all four extra points, while Chicago missed one.

Kansas City made their return trip to Oakland. In a strange coincidence, the Raiders again won the rush yardage battle by exactly 211-115. They won the football game 21-10. The running game continued to roll in the season’s final road game at Philadelphia. The Raiders pounded out 250 yards on the ground, 133 from van Eghen. They beat a bad Eagles team 26-7.

At 10-1, Oakland had clinched the AFC West, but there was still a lot to play for. The Baltimore Colts and Cincinnati Bengals were both 9-2, and the Colts had a leg up in the tiebreaker.

The Raiders hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were winless in their first year of existence. Oakland kept them that way by sacking quarterback Steve Spurrier five times and getting a 15/23 for 245 yards performance from Stabler. After the first quarter ended with the game tied 7-7, the Raiders coasted to a 49-16 win.

Cincinnati lost, so that assured Oakland of at least the 2-seed in what was then just a four-team AFC playoff bracket. They would get to play at least the Divisional Round at home. The Raiders were now hosting the Bengals for Monday Night Football in the penultimate week.

Pittsburgh, after an injury to quarterback Terry Bradshaw, and an awful start to the season ,was coming on strong. They were a game back of Cincinnati and held the tiebreaker. But there was only one wild-card available and New England had a hold on that.

All of which is to say that there was more than a little speculation that the Raiders might just hold their fire in this one—effectively knock the Steelers out of the playoffs, by taking their foot off the gas against the Bengals. The fact the Colts had lost the prior Saturday meant Oakland had a loss to give in the push for the 1-seed.

But the Raiders believed in both themselves and the integrity of the game. They played to win on Monday Night and that’s what they did. Stabler threw two TD passes to Stabler in the first quarter to get the early lead. Oakland rushed for 228 yards. They kept Cincy at arm’s length the rest of the night and won 35-20.

With everything now sewn up, Rae got the start for the finale with the Chargers. The Raider defense held a young Dan Fouts to 82 yards passing in a 24-0 shutout win. They had wrapped up the season at 13-1. But none of those were the wins that Oakland really wanted.

The playoff road would start with a change to avenge their lone loss. The Patriots came west for a late Saturday afternoon divisional round game. And the feisty wild-card would continue to show they were a tough matchup for the Raiders.

New England scored first and led 7-3 after a quarter. Stabler found Biletnikoff for a 31-yard touchdown pass and Oakland took a 10-7 lead into the locker room. But the Raiders couldn’t run the ball and they were having a tough time stopping the run. The Patriots drove for a pair of third-quarter touchdowns. A nightmare was unfolding for Oakland fans. They trailed 21-10 and their dream season was in serious jeopardy.

Stabler was playing well though, finishing 19/32 for 233 yards. Biletnikoff finished with nine catches for 137 of those yards. Oakland rallied and cut the lead to 21-17. Then they got help on two controversial calls.

A big incompletion stopped a Patriot drive to run out the clock, when New England felt tight end Russ Francis was interfered with. Stabler would get a chance to win the game. And he drove the Raiders down the field.

A big sack forced Oakland into a 3rd-and-18 from the Patriot 28-yard line. Stabler dropped back. He threw an incomplete pass. But there was a flag on the field—roughing the passer on defensive tackle Sugar Bear Hamilton. New England was furious with the call. Given a reprieve, Stabler finished the drive by running in from a yard out. The Raiders survived, 24-21.

The stage was set for the third straight Oakland-Pittsburgh AFC Championship Game. The Steelers had taken their regular season surge into the playoffs and crushed the Colts, 40-14. Pittsburgh’s defense was dominating people. Regard for the two-time defending champs was so high that this one-loss Raider team was a four-point underdog on their home field.

But Pittsburgh was also missing their running backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. And Oakland, having survived their scare, was ready to elevate their own game. A first-quarter field goal from Mann gave them the lead, and then Davis ran in for a touchdown to make it 10-0.

The Steelers cut it to 10-7, but a short TD pass from Stabler pushed the lead back out to 17-7. Oakland was able to run the ball against the Steel Curtain, producing 157 yards on the ground. Bradshaw, forced into bad situations, was held to 14/35 for 176 yards. Stabler tossed another short touchdown pass in the third quarter. And Oakland finally overcame their nemesis, 24-7.

This year’s Super Bowl would be the first time a professional football game of any kind was played in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl. The last hurdle for Oakland was the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikes had their own issues with “winning the big one,” having lost the Super Bowl in 1969, 1973 and 1974. A monkey was coming off somebody’s back in this game.

Oakland had special teams problems in the first quarter. Mann missed a short field goal. A blocked punt near their own goal line could have been disastrous, but the defense stepped up and forced a fumble. It allowed the Raiders to get out of the opening period with the game still scoreless. And in the second quarter, they took over.

Mann got another chance at a chippie field goal and hit it. Stabler threw a short TD pass to Casper, and running back Pete Banaszak scored. Another missed extra point kept it 16-0, but Oakland was in firm control. They were dominating the line of scrimmage, to the tune of a 266-97 edge in rush yardage.

A third-quarter field goal was followed by a Viking touchdown. At 19-7, the Raiders responded by driving down for another score. Oakland forced three turnovers and committed none. One of those turnovers came when Brown intercepted a pass and brought it 75 yards to the house. It was 32-7, and even another missed PAT wasn’t going to dampen the celebration. This one was all but over, and it ended 32-14.

The ability of the Raiders to run the ball against a defense with a well-earned reputation was again the story, just as it had been in the AFC Championship Game. Davis ran 16 times for 137 yards. I’m still not sure how he was passed over for game MVP in favor of Biletnikoff, who caught four passes for 79 yards. Even allowing that those numbers are more impressive in the mid-1970s than they would be in today’s environment, they weren’t overwhelming. Davis deserved the award.

But what was most deserved, was that the “can’t win the big one tag”—rarely fair in any circumstances—could finally be lifted. John Madden and the 1976 Oakland Raiders had won it all.