For a generation of football fans, John Madden was the face of the NFL. He was the visible game analyst for CBS, Fox and later on Monday Night Football. He routinely called the biggest games of the year. His name was on the legendary video game. But before all that, he was an awfully good football coach himself—the highest winning percentage of any man who coached at least 100 games. That coaching run began with the 1969 Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders were already a winning organization. Jon Rauch had taken them to the Super Bowl in 1968, and then to the AFL title game in 1969. But Rauch was constantly clashing with owner/GM Al Davis, and the result was a divorce that saw Rauch move on to Buffalo. Madden was promoted to the head job.
We were still a year away from the merger that created the NFL as we know it today. So, even though the Super Bowl had come into existence in 1966, Oakland would still play its entire 14-game schedule in what was then a 10-team American Football League. The playoff format was simple—there was an East and West division. The top two in each division qualified, and there was a crossover, with #1 playing the #2 team from the opposite division.
The AFL of 1969 had three serious contenders. Joe Namath’s New York Jets were the defending Super Bowl champions, having shocked the world in their historic Super Bowl III upset of the Baltimore Colts that put the AFL on the map. The Kansas City Chiefs, who had reached Super Bowl I in ’66, were another. And then there was the Raiders.
Madden inherited an offense led by quarterback Daryle Lamonica. He was known as “The Mad Bomber” for the downfield passing game. While the characterization was fair, it’s also fair to point out that his 52% completion rate was second in the AFL and his 7.8 yards-per-attempt was fairly normal. Lamonica threw 34 touchdown passes against 25 interceptions. While he was in the lower half of the AFL for throwing picks, that number was still much more within the norm than it is today. All in all, Daryle Lamonica ended up as the 1969 AFL MVP winner.
Lamonica’s receivers were a good balance of short and deep targets. Warren Wells could stretch the field. He racked up 1,260 yards receiving at an amazing 26.8 yards-per-catch. Fred Biletnikoff worked the underneath game and led the Raiders with 54 catches. Tight end Billy Cannon, a collegiate hero at LSU ten years earlier, was steady. The running game was a balanced troika of Charlie Smith, Hewritt Dixon and Pete Banaszak.
Oakland was tough in the trenches. Across the offensive front, center Jim Otto, guard Gene Upshaw and tackle Harry Schun were all considered the AFL’s best. On defense, end Ike Lassiter recorded 15 sacks and tackle Tom Keating added twelve more. The back seven was anchored by the greater corner, Willie Brown, and ballhawking free safety Dave Grayson who picked off eight passes.
All in all, the Raiders did everything well. They would lead the AFL in points scored and finished second in points allowed.
Oakland opened the season at home against the Houston Oilers. Smith ran for a pair of first-quarter touchdowns, and it looked like Madden’s debut might be easy. Then Houston began chipping away and took a 17-14 lead by the fourth quarter. Lamonica answered by going up top for a 64-yard touchdown pass to Wells. Madden had a 21-17 win.
The following Saturday, the Raiders were a hefty (-16) favorite against a Miami Dolphins team that had yet to make its mark. A 76-yard Pick-6 from Grayson helped build a 17-7 lead. But Oakland was killing themselves with penalties—156 yards worth in all. Miami rallied to tie it 17-17. But once again, the Raiders came through late. Veteran kicker George Blanda hit a 46-yard field goal in the fourth quarter for a 20-17 win.
A road trip to play the Boston Patriots, as they were called prior to 1971, started poorly. Oakland dug themselves a 13-0 hole. Then Lamonica opened up. He threw four touchdown passes, including two to Wells from 28 and 55 yards. The deep passing game was augmented by rushing dominance that produced a 210-52 edge in yardage. The Raiders pulled away to win 38-23.
The schedule format required that each team play one opponent from the other division twice. It was a break for Oakland that Miami was that team. But it was a break that the Raiders did not fully take advantage of. They went to South Beach and failed to run the ball and failed to protect Lamonica. Biletnikoff still caught nine passes for 119 yards and the Raiders escaped with a 20-20 tie. But in a Western Division race that would be tough, the failure to get a win would loom large later in the season.
Lamonica answered by going to Denver and going 19/37 for 253 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. Oakland beat a bad team 24-14. They came home to host Buffalo and their old head coach in Rauch. After the discord between the two, it must have been sweet revenge for Al Davis. Lamonica not only threw six touchdown passes, he threw them all in the first half! Oakland led 42-0 and won 50-21.
Oakland was 5-0-1. They, along with Kansas City, were in firm control for the two playoff spots out of the West. San Diego had a respectable team, but the Raiders went to SoCal and played a good all-around game. Banaszak ran for 123 yards. Lamonica was a sharp 19/26 for 237 yards and three touchdowns. The final was 24-12 and any doubt that the Raiders and Chiefs were both playoff-bound was gone.
The Raiders had a letdown on the road against a bad Cincinnati team. Lamonica threw five interceptions, and the 31-17 loss is deceptively close—Oakland actually trailed 31-3. They came back home and played one more ho-hum quarter, being tied 7-7 with Denver. Then the Raiders returned to form. Lamonica threw three more TD passes, all to Biletnikoff. Oakland blew the game open in the second quarter and won 41-10.
A home game with San Diego was a tough battle. The Raiders trailed 16-14 in the fourth quarter, with each team having scored a defensive touchdown. It was time for the Mad Bomber—an 80-yard touchdown strike to Wells won the game 21-16.
Oakland was 8-1-1, but Kansas City was 9-1. The hiccups against the Dolphins and Bengals were costly in an era where parity was not what it is today. The fight for homefield advantage was on, and the two-head-to-head games would take place in the season’s final four weeks.
A road trip to Kansas City on November 23 would start the stretch drive. The Raiders trailed 14-3 early in the game. Strong safety George Atkinson made the game-changing play, a 22-yard Pick-6 that got Oakland back in it. They nudged out to a 20-17 lead. With the Chiefs driving in the third quarter, linebacker Dan Connors picked off another pass and raced 75 yards to the house. On an afternoon when the Raiders were outgained 436-262, they forced seven turnovers, and won 27-24.
Another big road game, this one against Namath and the Jets was next. It proved to be the Lamonica-to-Wells show. The latter caught five balls and they went for 152 yards. Lamonica finished 19/28 for 333 yards. The Jets would win the East easily, but this result ensured the West champion would have the league’s top record overall.
Cincinnati had been placed in the Western Division—with baseball’s Reds also in the West, it makes you wonder what the state of geography was like in America’s schools back then. So, the Raiders got a chance at revenge on the Bengals. Lamonica threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Wells. Shorter TD passes of 16 yards each, one to Wells and another to Biletnikoff were coming. Thef final was 37-17.
Oakland was 11-1-1. Kansas City was 11-2. Their head-to-head meeting in the finale would settle the division. This was no small thing—the loser would face a cross-country trip to play Namath and the Jets. The winner would get to stay home and host the Oilers, who finished 6-6-2.
It was a rainy day in the Bay Area and both offenses bogged down. Neither team could run the ball. Kansas City’s great quarterback, Len Dawson, only completed two passes. But Lamonica found a way to make some plays. He went 11/20 for 188 yards. That was the difference in a 10-6 win that ensured the road to the Super Bowl would come through Oakland.
Madden’s first playoff game was a smashing success. Lamonica threw an early touchdown pass to Biletnikoff. The Mad Bomber threw four touchdowns in the first half and six on the afternoon. Atkinson had a Pick-6 and Oakland outrushed Houston 110-28. It was one long party and the Raiders won 56-7.
Kansas City had gotten it down out in New York, so there would be a Round 3 of Raiders-Chiefs for the Super Bowl ticket. Smith ran for an early touchdown and Oakland led it 7-0 after the first quarter.
But that was the last happy moment of an otherwise magnificent season. Lamonica went 17-for-45. The erraticism wasn’t the problem—not in the context of how football was played in this era. But the fact those completions only generated 191 yards was a problem. He also threw four interceptions. The Oakland defense covered for that by recovering four fumbles. But KC executed on their chances to score, while the great Blanda missed three field goals. Kansas City tied the game by halftime, led 14-7 after three quarters and got a lock-up field goal in the final period to win 17-7.
It was a tough ending and one that Madden would become all too familiar with. He coached the Raiders through 1978. In that time period, he made six AFC/AFL championship games, including this one, and went 1-5. Of course, you can look at it another way—he won six divisional round playoff games in a coming decade where the AFC would produce some historically great teams. And that one year he did win the AFC title was 1976—when he capped it off by winning it all. A new era got underway in Oakland in 1969.