For over two decades the Raider organization had been synonymous with excellence. It was even the organization motto—whether the team was in Oakland or Los Angeles there was a “Commitment To Excellence.” And they backed it up on the field. For the 21-year period from 1965-85, the Raiders had twenty winning seasons, fifteen playoff trips, four AFC crowns and three Super Bowl trophies. The 1986 Los Angeles Raiders spent three-fourths of the season ready to add to that legacy. A late collapse ended the run and foreshadowed darker times ahead.
Jim Plunkett had led to the Raiders to their Super Bowl victories in 1980 and 1983, but the 39-year-old quarterback had never been a favorite of owner/GM Al Davis. Marc Wilson was the quarterback during the team’s 1985 push to the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs, but was also a big reason the Raiders suffered a disappointing early exit.
Each quarterback ended up starting eight games in 1986. Plunkett’s numbers were clearly the superior of the two. While completion percentages were relatively even (54-53% edge for Wilson), Plunkett enjoyed a solid edge in yards-per-attempt (7.9 to 7.2) and was decisively better on the TD/INT ratio (14-9 compared to Wilson’s 12-15).
In 1985 it hadn’t mattered, because the quarterback’s principal job that year had been to give the football to Marcus Allen. The Hall of Fame running back had his best year in ’85 and won the MVP award. 1986, not so much. Injuries kept him out of six games. He finished with 759 yards rushing at a meager 3.6 yards-per-rush.
Even with his running less than productive, Allen was still a valuable receiver out of the backfield, catching 46 passes. That, combined with his reputation, put him in the Pro Bowl again. Todd Christensen was a Pro Bowler at tight end, catching 95 passes for 1,153 yards. Christensen was as reliable a target underneath as there was in the NFL.
Al Davis loved the deep ball and there were some speedsters on the outside. Dokie Williams was the primary wide receiver, catching 43 balls for over 840 yards. Jessie Hester only caught 23 passes, but turned them into 632 yards. Rod Barksdale was a third target and his 18 catches produced 434 yards.
Where the Raiders had problems was the offensive line. Don Mosebar was still a Pro Bowler at center, but this was a group starting to age. Allen wasn’t the only running back having problems finding room to move. Napoleon McCallum was the change of pace back and he also averaged less than four yards a pop.
Overall, while the offense had weapons, the quarterback uncertainty and Allen’s injuries meant they were only 16th in a 28-team league in points scored.
The defense was also below average, ranking 19th in points allowed, but they had playmakers. Howie Long was a Pro Bowler with 7 ½ sacks. Sean Jones, a young 24-year-old pass rusher with a bright future ahead of him got home 15 ½ times. Even Bill Pickel, the nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme, rang up 11 ½ sacks. That’s an awfully good pass rush for any front, much less a 3-4 defensive line that presumably relies more on the outside linebackers.
But there wasn’t production coming from the linebackers. The Raiders still had holdovers Rod Martin and Matt Millen from the Super Bowl teams, but there were no Pro Bowlers and no individual defensive numbers that stand out.
The secondary still got good play from veteran Pro Bowl corner Mike Haynes. The other corner was Lester Hayes, a former Defensive Player of the Year, but starting to decline. Free safety Vann McElroy was a playmaker, with seven interceptions.
Los Angeles opened its season at Denver. In 1985, the Raiders and Broncos had played two great games down the stretch. LA won both to deny a young John Elway home a playoff trip. And the Raiders jumped out quickly in the opening game of 1986. Wilson threw touchdown passes to Christensen and Allen, they took a 19-7 lead and it was as though as nothing had changed.
Allen went over 100 yards both rushing and receiving and the Raiders still led 36-28 in the fourth quarter. There was no two-point conversion prior to 1996. But Elway carved up the LA secondary, the offense bogged down in the fourth quarter and the Raiders lost a tough 38-36 decision.
Another road trip awaited, this one to a perennial contender in the Washington Redskins of Joe Gibbs. After losing a shootout in Denver, the Raiders lost a defensive war in D.C. Wilson threw three interceptions and was sacked five times, negating another 100-yard game from Allen. The secondary again gave up big plays in the passing game and again led a fourth-quarter lead get away—albeit this one was only 6-3, but the Raiders lost it 10-6.
Plunkett got the start against the New York Giants, but the offensive woes continued against Bill Parcells, Lawrence Taylor & Co. This time Allen couldn’t even get the running game going. The Raiders’ streak without a touchdown extended to nine quarters and they lost 14-9.
We have to note that these three opponents—the Broncos, Redskins and Giants—would be the three of the four best teams in the NFL for 1986 (and the fourth, the Cleveland Browns, is still ahead on the schedule). But 0-3 is still 0-3 and unacceptable for what the Raider organization used to be.
A bad San Diego Chargers team came into the Los Angeles Coliseum and when the Raiders dug a 13-0 hole, the season seemed ready for an early conclusion. Wilson wasn’t getting any protection and got sacked eight times. But he also rallied the troops. The quarterback ended up 19/28 for 314 yards. He found Christensen underneath, eight times for 105 yards. Wilson went over the top to Williams, who had eight more catches for 143 yards. And the Raiders saved their season with a 17-13 win.
Los Angeles traveled to Kansas City for another divisional game and again dug themselves a hole, this time 17-0. Plunkett came off the bench and delivered an 8/10 for 108 yards performance. Williams again stretched the field with six catches for 90 yards. Plunkett’s 18-yard TD pass to Hester in the third quarter gave the Raiders a 21-17 lead and they won 24-17.
The Seattle Seahawks were an AFC West team prior to the realignment of 2002 and they were a pretty good one, usually in contention for the playoffs during the 1980s and this year would be no exception. Their trip to the Coliseum was a tough, hard-fought game. But Plunkett tossed a nine-yard TD pass to Williams in the first quarter, hit Hester on a 49-yard scoring strike in the second quarter and the defense made it stand up in a 14-10 win.
Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins were a team with a similar profile to the Raiders—a steady playoff team through the 1970s and the first part of the 1980s. And like the Raiders, 1986 was going to bring an end to that string. On October 19 though, no one knew that for either team, so LA’s visit to the old Orange Bowl was a big game.
The Raiders met the challenge. Allen ran for 96 yards. Wilson was efficient, 11/19 for 116 yards and no mistakes. Los Angeles built up leads of 23-7 and 30-14, then hung on to win 30-28.
They were back over .500 at 4-3 and a road trip to face a bad Houston Oilers team was next. Wilson was erratic, completing just 16/34 passes. But he was also explosive. Wilson threw for 230 passing yards and four touchdowns, three of them to Christensen. Hester had four catches for 91 yards. The defense sacked Warren Moon six times, with six different players getting home. With a 28-17 win, the Raiders were 5-3 and the losses of September were a long way in the rearview mirror.
Elway and the Broncos were having a big year, out to a 7-1 start and they came into the Coliseum for the first Sunday of November. If the Raiders were going to have any shot at winning the AFC West, they had to have this one. A loss would put them three games back and also give Denver the tiebreaker.
The Raiders did a lot of things well. Wilson went 25/47 for 367 yards. Christensen had a huge game, eleven catches for 158 yards. LA outgained Denver 407-246. But…they also turned the ball over six times to just once for the Broncos. Elway was the picture of efficiency, going 11/21 for 141 yards. That was the difference in a 21-10 loss.
Los Angeles had no time to lick their wounds. A road trip to Dallas in the late Sunday afternoon TV window was coming up. The Cowboys were coming in at 6-3, in the hunt with the Redskins and Giants in the NFC East.
Wilson struggled, going 4/14 for 37 yards and head coach Tom Flores went to the bullpen for Plunkett. The Raider defense kept them in the game. They picked off Dallas quarterback Steve Pelleur five times, two of them from McElroy. Plunkett settled the offense down, going 7/12 for 119 yards and no mistakes. And trailing 13-10 in the fourth quarter, the veteran QB hit Williams with a 40-yard TD strike that produced a 17-13 win.
Dallas, like Miami, would fall hard from the perch they had enjoyed through the 1970s and early 1980s. The Raiders were still in the hunt.
And that hunt got stronger the next week with a big win over the Browns, who were en route to the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Plunkett’s 46-yard TD pass to Williams helped the Raiders build a 17-0 lead. When Cleveland closed to within 17-14, Plunkett again found Williams, this time from 40 yards out. The defense forced Browns QB Bernie Kosar into an erratic 15/34 for 188-yard performance and LA got a big 27-14 win.
Thursday Night Football was a novel treat in 1986 and the Raiders paid a visit to San Diego four days later. LA blocked a punt to score one early touchdown and took a 14-0 lead. Hayes recovered a fumble and took it the house for another score and the lead was extended to 31-10 after three quarters. Christensen had another monster game, eleven catches for 173 yards. These Raiders looked every bit the part of a Super Bowl contender.
Then San Diego’s backup quarterback Mark Herrman, a Purdue product who never quite panned out in the pros, had his moment. He led a furious Chargers rally that scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns and forced overtime. With a collapse looming, Allen saved the day with a 28-yard touchdown jaunt in OT that sealed the 37-31 survival win.
Buddy Ryan brought the Philadelphia Eagles into the Coliseum on November 30. Although Ryan would turn the Eagles into a playoff contender, this was his first year in Philly and the team struggled to a 5-10-1 record. Los Angeles was a solid (-11) favorite.
They got a 70-yard punt return from Fulton Walker for one touchdown. While Plunkett was all over the place with his throws—16-for-42, he still produced 366 yards and found Hester on touchdown passes from 49 and 81 yard respectively. It should have been a done deal.
But the defense played poorly and it turned into a back-and-forth game. The Raiders again went overtime against a bad team and this time they couldn’t escape. A 33-27 loss ended the three-game winning streak.
Los Angeles was still 8-5 as the calendar turned to December and still in good position for the playoffs. While one of the two wild-card berths would surely go to the Jets-Patriots runner-up in the AFC East (both teams were 10-3), the Raiders were tied with the Cincinnati Bengals at 8-5 for the final spot. Within the AFC West, the Chiefs and Seahawks were giving chase at 7-6.
What the Raiders had going for them was that three of their losses had come against the NFC East. When it came to tiebreakers, they were a game ahead of the Chiefs and Seahawks in the loss column on divisional record and had a head-to-head win against each one. For the Bengals and the potential of a conference record tiebreaker (the first one used after head-to-head for teams not in the same division), the Raiders were 7-4, while the Bengals were 5-4.
In short, Los Angeles was still very much in control of its fate with three games to play and they were going to Seattle for a big Monday Night date. What’s more, the Sunday schedule had the Chiefs playing the Broncos and the Bengals visiting the Patriots. There was a great opportunity for the Raiders to solidify their hold on the postseason.
Maybe Sunday should have been a warning. The Chiefs and Bengals both won in upsets. And Monday Night was nothing short of a disaster for the silver-and-black. They were outrushed 183-40. Flores used not only Plunkett and Wilson, but third-stringer Rusty Hilger. None played well and all three threw an interception. The final was a humiliating 37-0.
There was still time to pick up the pieces. The Bengals still had a game with the Browns ahead of them (one they would lose) and the Raiders still controlled their fate against the two divisional rivals. But there was no getting around this—they had to win at home against the Chiefs on Sunday and oddsmakers rated them a (-6 ½) favorite.
Plunkett started and if there was ever any doubt that the underrated 39-year-old had finally reached the end of his string, this game was it. He threw four interceptions and the Raiders fell behind 17-0. They tried to rally, but lost 20-17. The door was slammed shut. They were officially out of the playoffs.
It was a stunning three-week fall from grace and the Raiders played the finale against the lowly Indianapolis Colts like a team that was mailing in the season. They didn’t run the ball, they didn’t stop the run, they blew a 17-3 lead and lost 30-24.
A season that at least appeared to have playoffs written all over it was over. Plunkett retired at season’s end and an era went with him. 1986 was the start of four straight years the Raiders would miss the playoffs and there were no winning seasons in that span.
There was a brief resurgence from 1990-93, with multiple playoff appearances and a trip to the AFC Championship Game. There was another high point from 2000-02, with three straight division titles and a Super Bowl appearance. But the Raiders have never been consistently good since then, they have never won a Super Bowl and they have certainly not been considered synonymous with excellence. 1986 was the end of an age.