The 1984 Los Angeles Raiders were coming off a Super Bowl win and for a half-season it looked like they might pull off a repeat. But they were in a tough division and slipped to a wild-card, then to a quick playoff exit.
Marcus Allen had electrified the nation with his Super Bowl performance in January and he came back with a strong season in his third year in the league. Allen rushed for over 1,100 yards and made the Pro Bowl. Tight end Todd Christensen joined him as a Pro Bowler, and the two were Los Angeles’ leading receivers. Christensen caught 80 passes for just over a 1,000 yards, while Allen caught 64 balls for 758 yards.
As good as Allen and Christensen were, the fact a tight end and running back are your top two pass catchers points to some issues at receiver and at quarterback. Malcolm Barnwell led all receivers with 45 catches for 851 yards, and the other wideout of note was Dokie Williams. He was a good field-stretcher, but caught just 22 passes.
Quarterback was a flashpoint at this era in Raiders history, even during the Super Bowl run. Head coach Tom Flores was in the corner of veteran Jim Plunkett, who had led the championship drive both last year and in 1980. Owner Al Davis was behind the up-and-comer Marc Wilson.
Plunkett’s rings, and the fact he was injury-prone, usually settled everything, for or against. But the controversy lingered and it was Wilson who started ten games in 1984.
The Los Angeles offense still ranked ninth in the NFL in points scored and the defense was even better, ranking fourth. Three players made 1st-team All-Pro: Howie Long, the 24-year-old defensive end and future TV analyst, recorded 12 sacks. Outside linebacker Rod Martin racked up 11 more sacks, and corner Mike Haynes intercepted six passes.
The cornerback duo of Haynes and Lester Hayes had dominated opponents down the stretch in 1983, and with Hayes also making the Pro Bowl, it was working again. Another Pro Bowler, free safety Vann McElroy, rounded out a brilliant secondary.
Los Angeles opened the regular season at a very bad Houston Oilers team (the future Tennessee Titans), whose main selling point was the NFL debut of Warren Moon. The Raiders were sluggish, down 7-0 at the half in the late afternoon start before taking over and winning 24-14. They followed a similar pattern in beating the mediocre Green Bay Packers at home. A 7-7 halftime tie turned into a 28-7 win behind 81 rushing yards from Allen.
A road trip to Kansas City, another non-playoff team that would finish the year 8-8, produced another slow start. Plunkett threw a Pick-6, one of four interceptions on the day and dug a 13-0 hole. Plunket also threw for 313 yards though, hooking up eight times with Barnwell for 129 of those yards and the Raiders rallied for a 22-20 win.
Los Angeles made their first Monday Night appearance against mediocre San Diego and for the fourth straight week fell behind. This time, the deficit stretched into the fourth quarter when another Plunkett Pick-6 had them in a 30-20 deficit. Plunkett was mentally tough though, and he finished the night 24/33 for 363 yards. Christensen caught eight passes for 120 yards. The Raiders pulled out a 33-30 win on a touchdown pass to Allen.
No one can argue with a 4-0 record, but four straight games of having to come from behind against mediocre-to-poor competition spells trouble when it’s time to face really good teams. And the Denver Broncos, in John Elway’s second year, were just such a team. Los Angeles went to old Mile High Stadium, was outrushed 231-70, held the ball only 24 minutes and lost 16-13.
Another good opponent awaited in the Seattle Seahawks. Prior to the NFL’s 2002 realignment, Seattle was an AFC West team, along with the division’s four current occupants. Plunkett, after misfiring on his first four passes, was knocked out and Wilson came into the game.
He went 12/19 for 309 yards and no interceptions. With the score tied 14-14, Wilson and Allen hooked up on a 58-yard touchdown pass, and then Martin’s 14-yard interception return clinched the season’s first really good win, 28-14 at home.
Los Angeles resumed its play-down-to-the-competition form when then lowly Minnesota Vikings came to the Coliseum. The Raiders trailed 20-13, with Allen being held in check. Wilson went 21/38 for 268 yards and ten fourth quarter points avoided embarrassment, 23-20.
Wilson got mixed up in a passing war the following week in San Diego with the great Dan Fouts. Wilson threw for 332 yards, while Fouts went for 410. But Wilson only threw one interception while Fouts threw three. Wilson threw five touchdowns to Fouts’ three. And the Raiders won 44-37.
The final Sunday of October brought a showdown of two 7-1 teams, when the Broncos made their return visit to the Coliseum. Elway was out and when Rod Martin sacked backup Gary Kubiak in the end zone for a safety, followed by a Wilson-to-Allen touchdown pass, the Raiders looked in good shape with a 12-0 lead.
What are the odds a backup quarterback would lead a comeback against this defense, particularly when the game went to the fourth quarter still at 19-6? The problem was that Wilson threw three interceptions, the team lost four fumbles and the defense gave up 182 rush yards. Kubiak threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. A botched PAT on the first kept the Raiders alive in a 19-19 game, but they lost in overtime.
The loss was disheartening, but the problems were just starting. A road trip at Chicago produced the worst performance of the season. The Raiders allowed nine sacks to the up-and-coming defense led by coordinator Buddy Ryan. They were outrushed 175-75 and they turned the ball over five times. The Bears beat them 17-6.
A Monday Night visit to Seattle completed the three-game losing streak. The Raiders played very well defensively, containing the potent Seahawk passing game holding its great receiver, Steve Largent, to a single catch for six yards. The Raiders won the rushing battle, 141-85, but six turnovers were too much to overcome in a 17-14 loss.
Los Angeles was slipping behind Denver and Seattle for the AFC West title, while New England was right with them for the final wild-card spot in the playoffs. The Raiders needed a win to restore order and they got it at home against Kansas City. An early Chiefs drive ended with Martin recovering a fumble and going 77 yards the other way for a touchdown. Allen ran for 95 yards, keying a 219-20 ground edge and Los Angeles won 17-7.
The Raiders were 8-4 and with the Broncos at 11-1, plus holding the tiebreaker on Los Angeles, the division title was gone. The Seahawks were 10-2. The Patriots were also 8-4, as the season hit its final turn.
New England lost in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day and Los Angeles took advantage of a weak Indianapolis opponent at home on Sunday. Allen ran for 110 yards in the 21-7 win. Now it was time for a battle with Dan Marino’s high-powered Miami Dolphins in the Orange Bowl, a game that would be shown to a national audience in the late Sunday afternoon window.
The Raiders and Dolphins had been the 1-2 seeds respectively in the AFC each of the last two years, but never met in the AFC Championship Game. Los Angeles was upset in 1982, Miami in 1983. Marino was on his way to an MVP season and had the Dolphins driving early, when Haynes intercepted a pass on the 3-yard line and 97 yards later the great corner was in the opposite end zone.
It was the first big play of a day that would see a lot of them on both sides. Haynes intercepted another Marino pass, returning this one 54 yards. Marino had more than his share of moments, throwing for 470 yards and the Raiders trailed 27-24 going into the fourth quarter.
Allen gave the Raiders the running attack the Dolphins lacked, carrying 20 times for 155 yards. Wilson threw a big 75-yard touchdown strike to Williams and Los Angeles took over the fourth quarter in a 45-34 win. In a year that was up-and-down, the Raiders looked the part of proud champions on this afternoon in the Orange Bowl.
Adding to the joy was that New England had lost. With two games to go, the Raiders needed only a win or a Patriot defeat to wrap up a return to the postseason.
By the time Los Angeles took the field on Monday Night in Detroit, the playoffs were clinched. The Lions were a bad team, having lost their great running back, Billy Sims, to a career-ending injury. The Raiders played sluggishly, but the opponent wasn’t good enough to capitalize. Los Angeles led 10-3 in the fourth quarter, when a punt return for a touchdown by Cleo Montgomery, followed by a 73-yard Plunkett-to-Allen pass left the final 24-3.
The playoff format of the time was three division winners and two wild-cards, what major league baseball uses today. Los Angeles might have been stuck in the wild-card game, but hosting was still a possibility. They were a game back of Denver and Seattle, who were going head-to-head in the season finale. The Raiders had the tiebreaker on the Seahawks, so if Seattle lost, Los Angeles could earn homefield for the wild-card game.
Seattle did lose and that game was on Saturday, so Los Angeles played their home game with Pittsburgh knowing the playoff opponent and stakes. Only you couldn’t tell it by the Raider performance. They committed ten penalties, ran the ball for just 57 yards and didn’t score until the fourth quarter. Plunkett and Wilson were both equally inept.
In fairness, the Steeler team they were playing was desperate, in a win-or-go-home spot for a division title. But they were also 8-7 coming into the game and a team the Raiders had crushed on this very field in the previous year’s second-round playoff game. The 13-7 loss was a bitter pill and sent Los Angeles north for the wild-card game.
The previous year had seen the Raiders dismantle the Seahawks in the AFC Championship Game. Los Angeles looked even worse offensively in this game than they had against Pittsburgh. The Raiders crossed midfield just three times. The defense again kept them in the game and when Plunkett threw a 46-yard TD pass to Allen in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 13-7, there was a flicker of hope. But Los Angeles was never a real threat to win this game.
The Raider season had ended with consecutive 13-7 losses to the teams they had eliminated from the AFC playoffs the prior January. Perhaps it was a sadly fitting way to come full circle.
1984 was the end for Plunkett, as the Raiders went with Wilson. They were a good team in 1985, earning the #1 seed in the AFC, before a bitter playoff loss to the Patriots ended that dream. It would be 1990, under a new coach in Art Shell, before the franchise again won a postseason game.