The 1985 Los Angeles Raiders produced the league’s MVP and looked primed to make a run and at least get to the Super Bowl. Then some inopportune mistakes undid it all and marked the practical end of the Tom Flores era in franchise history.
Marcus Allen was in his fourth year in the league and already had a Super Bowl MVP trophy on his shelf, following the 1983 season. In ’85, Allen was at his best. He ran for 1,759 yards. His 67 receptions were second on the team and he was at his best when the Raiders came thundering down the stretch in the AFC West race. Allen won the MVP award.
The steadiness of the running game was necessary, because there was inconsistency at quarterback. Early in the season, Marc Wilson took the reins from Jim Plunkett for good, but Wilson—a favorite of owner Al Davis—often struggled. He completed a bit less than 50 percent of his passes, only managed 6.7 yards-per-attempt and had a TD-INT ratio of 16/21. Even in an era when passing stats weren’t gaudy, this represented mediocrity.
Wilson was bailed out by Allen and the presence of Todd Christensen, the best tight end in the NFL, who caught 82 passes for 987 yards. The defense was more than capable of pulling its weight, led by Howie Long, a 1st-team All-NFL defensive end, and nose tackle Bill Pickel who had 12 ½ sacks.
The linebacking spots were in good hands, with Matt Millen on the inside and Rod Martin on the outside. And the corners still had the great Mike Haynes at one spot, now 32-years-old, but still a 1st-team All-NFL performer, and another great, Lester Hayes, age 30 on the other side. The Raiders weren’t a perfect team, but they were still awfully tough to beat.
Los Angeles hosted the New York Jets to open the year. The Raider defensive front was smothering, getting ten sacks. Sean Jones recorded three coming off the edge and Lyle Alzado had two more coming up the middle. With the Jets coming off consecutive losing seasons the 31-0 thrashing didn’t seem like a big deal, but it turned out that New York would prove to be a playoff team in 1985.
Plunkett was the starter to open the season, but the next two weeks put an end to that. On a Thursday night, the Raiders lost 36-20 at a bad Kansas City team. Then Los Angeles came home and were pummeled 34-10 by the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers. Plunkett was not at fault in either case—he was a combined 57/82 for 561 yards in the two games and the running attack was non-existent. But he was injured and with the owner in Wilson’s corner, there was no looking back.
A visit to Foxboro to play the Patriots had become almost a must-win and the Raiders trailed 20-14. It wasn’t Wilson that delivered them—it was defensive scoring. Alzado recovered a fumble in the end zone. Sam Seale and Hayes each brought interceptions to the house and Los Angeles got a 35-20 win. But they hadn’t seen the last of this New England team.
There was nothing in Allen’s season thus far that suggested an MVP run. He got it going with a 126 yards when Kansas City made their return trip west. Wilson also played well, 18/29 for 241 yards and no mistakes in a 19-10 win. Allen then ran for 107 yards in a 23-13 win over the New Orleans Saints, completing a two-week run over weak teams that got Los Angeles back on track.
The Cleveland Browns would make the playoffs in 1985, albeit at 8-8, and the Raiders trailed 20-14 in the fourth quarter of their visit to the Dawg Pound. In spite of thirteen penalties, LA finally pulled it out, as Wilson hit Christensen on an 8-yard touchdown pass to win the game. Los Angeles came home to face mediocre San Diego on the Monday Night stage and kept the winning going. They controlled the line of scrimmage, stopping the run and getting 111 yards from Allen in a 34-21 win.
Each of the previous two years the Raiders had met the Seattle Seahawks, an AFC West rival prior to 2002, in the postseason. Los Angeles ripped Seattle in the 1983 AFC Championship Game. The Seahawks returned the favor in the previous year’s wild-card game. With both teams in the hunt, this November 3 game in the Kingdome was a big one, but Wilson was a disaster.
He threw four interceptions, the Raiders gave up a special teams touchdown and they lost the game 33-3. Wilson played much better in a home game against the Chargers, going 18/32 for 297 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But San Diego’s Dan Fouts was even better, going 26/41 for 436 yards and four touchdowns. The Raiders had leads of 20-13, 27-20 and 34-27, but Fouts kept coming back and LA ultimately fell in overtime 40-34.
Los Angeles stood at 6-4, tied with Seattle for second in the AFC West and trailing Denver by a game. San Diego was also lurking at 5-5, so there wasn’t any room for error. Allen began to take matters into his own hands. He ran for 135 yards and caught six passes against Cincinnati, including the game’s only touchdown in a 13-6 home win. The Seahawks and Chargers both lost. And even though the Broncos won, the Raiders still had two games in the next three weeks against their hated rival.
Denver came to the L.A. Coliseum and by rights should have been able to get out with a win. Wilson threw three interceptions, while John Elway had a pretty good game. But the Raiders had Marcus Allen, who ran for 173 yards and Los Angeles got a 31-28 win in overtime that pulled them into a tie for first with four games left.
The Raiders opened the month of December with a 34-24 win at woeful Atlanta. They trailed 17-13 at the half, but got three consecutive touchdowns, with Allen running for 156 yards and Christensen catching seven passes for over 100 yards. It set up another big battle with the Broncos, this one in Mile High Stadium, with both teams at 9-4.
Denver came out rolling and took a 14-0 lead at the half. Wilson would throw four interceptions and generate just 93 yards in the air. Once again, it was Allen—with a lot of help from the defense—that came to the rescue. The running back went for 135 yards. Elway was forced into three interceptions. Los Angeles pulled even and once again managed an overtime win, 17-14. It concluded as unforgettable a sequence of games as there’s even been in the Raiders-Broncos rivalry.
The win came LA firm command in the AFC West. Seattle and San Diego had both faded from playoff contention altogether. Los Angeles had a one-game lead on Denver with two to play, and the tiebreaker belonged to the Raiders. They put the AFC West on ice at home against Seattle, with Allen running for 109 yards, the defense shutting down Seahawk counterpart Curt Warner and winning 13-3.
Los Angeles had at least the 2-seed wrapped up, but Miami was still in pursuit of the 1-seed. The Dolphins won on the final Sunday of the season, so the Raiders needed to win their finale, a local battle on Monday Night with the Los Angeles Rams. The game would be played in Anaheim, then the home city for the Rams.
MNF featured the two best running backs in football, with Allen and the Rams’ Eric Dickerson. The Rams were a good team who had clinched the NFC West. But they also had nothing to play for, being locked into the 2-seed in the NFC.
Both defenses played great football and the score was tied 6-6 after three quarters. Dickerson ran for 98 yards. But Allen did it again—he carried 24 times for 123 yards. It was ninth straight game of 100-plus yards and Los Angeles won 13-6.
The playoffs beckoned. Everyone knew the Chicago Bears in the NFC, with their historically great defense, were the top-heavy favorites to win it all. But the public salivated at either the nasty Raiders, with their silver-n-black tradition, or Dan Marino and the Dolphins, as the Super Bowl foil. At the very least, a Raiders-Dolphins AFC Championship battle was looked forward to—the teams had been the 1-2 seeds in three of the last four years and in the playoffs together all four seasons, but never played.
All those possibilities were just one part of what made the ultimate demise of this season so disappointing.
New England won the wild-card game and came west as a 5 ½ point underdog. The Raiders spotted the Patriots an early touchdown, but came roaring back, ripping off 17 straight points and taking a 17-7 lead. But before the first half was out, the Patriots scored 10 consecutive points of their own. A wild second-quarter was concluded with LA got a field goal and took a 20-17 lead into the locker room.
Allen did what Allen does, and that’s roll up 121 yards. But the Patriots had an answer in Craig James, who rushed for 104. And the New England defense was not letting Allen get free on pass plays, where he caught just three balls for eight yards. It put more pressure on Wilson, and he wasn’t up to the task, throwing three interceptions.
Lest we put it all on the quarterback, the Raiders didn’t play well collectively. They turned it over six times overall and the costliest came on the kickoff after the Patriots tied the score 20-20. The kick was fumbled, and squirted into the end zone and New England recovered. Wilson’s offense never made a real threat after that and the season ended 27-20. The Patriots went on to upset the Dolphins the next week before turning into fodder for the Bears in the Super Bowl.
The 1985 season marked the end of the early 1980s excellence of the Raiders. Under Flores, they reached the playoffs five times in the six seasons from 1980-85, had been the AFC’s #1 seed three times and won a Super Bowl. Flores only coached two more seasons with the Raiders and they wouldn’t make it back to the postseason until 1990, when Art Shell was at the helm. An era ended on a late Sunday afternoon against the Patriots.