After a splendid rookie season as head coach in 1969, John Madden’s second year on the Raider sidelines didn’t go as smoothly. But the young coach had a veteran asset up his sleeve—the great George Blanda. The 43-year-old was still the regular placekicker and was now a backup quarterback. And for a few magical weeks, his kicking and his arm saved the season for the 1970 Oakland Raiders.
Recognition for Blanda shouldn’t come at the expense of first-string quarterback Daryle Lamonica. Known as “The Mad Bomber” for his love of the long pass, Lamonica had a Pro Bowl season. The Oakland offense was fueled by Pro Bowl talent at the skill positions. Warren Wells was the deep threat, who averaged 21.7 yards-per-catch. Fred Biletnikoff’s 17.1 yards-per-catch was pretty impressive in its own right, although in this offense, he was the possession receiver. Rookie tight end Raymond Chester also made the Pro Bowl.
Hewritt Dixon ran for over 800 yards and was a Pro Bowler himself. He ran behind a decorated line that included Hall of Fame left guard Gene Upshaw, All-Pro center Jim Otto and Pro Bowl right tackle Harry Schuh. All told, the Raider offense ranked ninth in the 26-team NFL for points scored.
This was the first year the AFL, where Oakland came from, merged with the NFL. Even though the AFL had won the last two Super Bowls, and its best teams would soon dominate the 1970s, it’s still probably fair to say there was a gap as far as talent depth. Thus, a Raider defense that had been one of the AFL’s best, only ranked 19th in the new-look NFL. And that made this season’s road to the playoffs a little rockier than the prior ones.
Oakland opened up on the road at Cincinnati. The Bengals had been a bad team in their early years, but would fight their way into the playoffs this year. The Raiders were the first to learn that was a new and better Cincinnati football team. Oakland was outrushed 247-48, and a game that was tied 21-21 in the third quarter turned into a 31-21 defeat.
Lamonica and Wells got connected the following week in San Diego, with the latter catching seven balls for 127 yards. The Raiders built a 27-13 lead. But fourteen penalties would add up, and for the second week in a row, the defense had fourth quarter letdown. The Chargers rallied to force a 27-27 tie.
Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins were another franchise that was just coming into their own and would make the postseason for the first time in 1970. On a Saturday night in South Beach, Lamonica threw four interceptions and Oakland lost 20-13.
While the early schedule had seen three straight road games, the Raiders were still staring at an 0-2-1 record—what’s more, the regular season was only 14 games long and just four teams per conference made the playoffs. All of which is to say that the moment for urgency had arrived.
The Raiders weren’t playing with much urgency in the home opener against Denver, trailing 17-7 in the second quarter. Finally, the season turned for the better. Lamonica hit Wells on touchdown passes of 32 and 60 yards to get a 21-17 lead. Trailing 23-21 in the fourth quarter, the pair did it one more time—a 20-yard TD connection for the lead, and Oakland ultimately won 35-23.
The Washington Redskins came west for Monday Night Football, an innovation that came into being along with the merger. The ground game got going behind Dixon, who carried 18 times for 164 yards. A decisive edge in rush yardage helped the Raiders pull away for a 34-20 win.
Oakland was 2-2-1 and getting back into the mix. It was time for the Legend of George Blanda to get its latest chapter.
Perhaps it’s fitting that it all started against Pittsburgh. While the Steelers weren’t very good, in just two years’ time, these two franchises would start one of the most storied rivalries in all of sports. Lamonica had to leave the game early. Blanda came off the bench to go 7/12 for 148 yards. A young Terry Bradshaw threw four interceptions and the Raiders won 31-14.
Lamonica was back in the lineup for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff in Kansas City. The Chiefs were the Raiders’ key rivals in the AFC West. A pair of early TD passes to Chester gave Oakland a 14-0 lead. Kansas City chipped away and took a 17-14 lead. With three seconds left, Oakland got into field goal range. Blanda booted a 48-yarder. In this era before overtime existed in the NFL, it was enough to get out of town with a 17-17 tie. And escaping with a tie would loom large in Oakland’s favor by year’s end.
A home game with mediocre Cleveland saw Oakland trailing 20-13. Blanda came off the bench. He promptly threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Wells to tie the game. A late drive gave the old pro another chance at a long field goal, again with three seconds left. This one was from 52 yards. Blanda nailed it for a 23-20 win.
It was more of the same in Denver. Lamonica started. When the Raiders trailed 19-17 in the fourth quarter, Blanda was summoned. He threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Biletnikoff in the game’s closing minutes to pull out the 24-19 win.
Lamonica played well at home against San Diego, going 14/23 for 213 yards and no mistakes. The Chargers stayed right with the Raiders, and it was tied 17-17. It was time for Blanda to do it again with his leg. This time it was a short field goal in the final seconds. Oakland had gone 4-0-1 over the last five weeks. Without Blanda, who knows how many (if any) of those games they would have won.
Blanda couldn’t save his team on their Thanksgiving Day trip to Detroit and old Tiger Stadium. Lamonica threw a pair of early touchdown passes to Biletnikoff and built a 14-0 lead. But the Raiders were beaten in the trenches, outrushed 262-100 and the Lions took the game over and won 28-14.
The calendar flipped to December and there were three games left. Oakland was 6-3-2, tied with Kansas City for the AFC West lead. There was only one wild-card spot available. Miami was 7-4, which amounts to being tied with a 6-3-2 team, but the Dolphins had the head-to-head win over the Raiders. With a home game still left against the Chiefs, the division title was the best shot.
Oakland traveled to old Shea Stadium to face the lowly New York Jets, who had to play most of the season without the injured Joe Namath. The Raiders didn’t play well, again being decisively outrushed and they trailed 13-7 in the fourth quarter. The Mad Bomber bailed his team out with a 33-yard scoring toss to Wells for the narrow escape.
Kansas City answered with a win, so the showdown was set. Oakland salvaging a tie in the prior meeting ensured that the winner of this game would have both sole possession of first place and control of the tiebreaker. Which, since there was only one game left after this, made the Week 13 battle a winner-take-all fight for the AFC West.
On a late Saturday afternoon, the defenses were in control early. But Blanda knocked through a couple of field goals and the Raiders had a 6-3 lead at halftime. And this time, the running game was finally clicking. A balanced attack would outrush Kansas City 204-62 and ultimately wore the Chiefs down. A short TD run by Marv Hubbard put the Raiders in control and a 36-yard touchdown pass from Lamonica to Biletnikoff all but sealed it. The final was 20-6 and Oakland was going back to the postseason.
The playoff seedings in the NFL were done on a pre-determined rotation basis through 1974, so there was nothing more to play for. Oakland looked like a team with nothing on the line against a good San Francisco 49ers team and MVP quarterback John Brodie. The Raiders lost the finale 38-7 and went into the postseason at 8-4-2.
A revenge date with Miami two days after Christmas would be the final game of Divisional Round play. The fact the Raiders had postseason experience and the Dolphins did not clearly impacted public perception—even though Miami finished 10-4 and had beaten Oakland head-to-head, the Raiders were still installed as a healthy six-point home favorite.
The first quarter went by scoreless, and the Dolphins took a 7-0 lead. Lamonica found Biletnikoff on a 22-yard pass to tie it 7-7 by halftime. In the third quarter, the great veteran corner Willie Brown made the play of the game—a 50-yard Pick-6 that gave the Raiders the lead.
Lamonica was playing mistake-free and getting the ball down the field—his 8/16 passing line still produced 187 yards and there were no mistakes. In the fourth quarter, he made his biggest throw—an 82-yard touchdown strike to Rod Sherman that built a 21-7 lead. Miami tried to rally and scored again, but the Raiders won 21-14.
They were in the AFC Championship Game and going to Baltimore to face the Colts. The early part of the game didn’t go well. Johnny Unitas gave Baltimore a 10-0 lead. Lamonica was knocked out. It seemed almost too perfect—Blanda was coming off the bench. Did he have more magic left?
The proud veteran played well, throwing a 38-yard TD pass to Biletnikoff, and pulling the Raiders even at 10-10. He went 17/32 for 271 yards. The three interceptions seem a lot by our modern standards but were reasonably par for the course in this day and age. But the shaky Oakland defense couldn’t consistently stop Johnny U. The Raiders fell behind 20-10. Blanda threw a TD pass to Wells. Unitas answered. In the end, Oakland lost 27-17.
Madden had come up short of the Super Bowl, continuing what became a career pattern of great regular seasons and solid Divisional Round wins before frustrating losses in the conference championship game. But 1970 had still been a special year for the Oakland Raiders, marked by the memories of George Blanda.