The Oakland Raiders were a regular part of the NFL elite, winning the Super Bowl in 1976 with John Madden at coach and Ken Stabler at quarterback. But they missed the playoffs in 1978, Madden’s final year, and again in 1979 under new coach Tom Flores. The 1980 Oakland Raiders made a major change, trading away Stabler, and they made an improbable run all the way back to the top of the NFL.
The Raiders dealt Stabler to the Houston Oilers in a swap of quarterbacks, getting Dan Pastorini back in return. The Raiders and Oilers would continue to be trading partners in a less dramatic, but more significant deal, when Oakland acquired running back Kenny King. And in mid-season, the Raiders traded veteran tight end Dave Casper to Houston.
King stepped up and made the Pro Bowl, as did 34-year-old left tackle Art Shell, a future Hall of Famer and head coach of this franchise. Mark van Eeghen, the big fullback, ran for over 800 yards.
The receiving corps was balanced between speedy wideout Cliff Branch and possession receiver Bob Chandler. Gene Upshaw was no longer a Pro Bowler, but the Hall of Famer and future head of the NFL Players Union was still reliable at left tackle.
Defensively, Oakland was led by ballhawking corner Lester Hayes, renowned for lathering himself up with stickum at a time when this was legal. Hayes intercepted 13 passes and won Defensive Player of the Year. Outside linebacker Ted Hendricks was another 1st-team All-NFL talent and a rookie named Matt Millen (a much better inside linebacker than he was as a GM or TV analyst in future years) joined the team. And to win the field position battle, Ray Guy was a Pro Bowl punter.
Oakland proved to be a balanced team. The defense ranked 10th in the NFL points allowed and the offense, while probably having less individual talent and going through instability at quarterback, would end up seventh in the league in scoring.
Pastorini’s career as a Raider got off to a good start in Kansas City, throwing for 319 yards and twice hooking up with Chandler for touchdowns as Oakland got a 27-14 win over a mediocre opponent.
The next game was at San Diego, the defending AFC West champs, with a feared passing attack led by Dan Fouts. Oakland picked off Fouts five times, but also allowed 387 yards through the air. Late in the game, trailing 24-17, Pastorini was knocked out backup Jim Plunkett came into the game. He threw the tying touchdown pass, but Oakland lost in overtime.
Pastorini returned at home against the Redskins, but did not play well, throwing three interceptions. The running game bailed Oakland out against a subpar team, with King gaining 136 yards and the Raiders escaped 24-21. But another shaky performance the following week against Buffalo, one marked by five turnovers, came against an opponent good enough to capitalize. Oakland lost 24-7 and their only touchdown came when Hayes returned an interception for a score.
Plunkett was in the lineup for a home game with Kansas City, but it was a complete disaster. He threw five interceptions and after trailing 31-3, the quarterback threw 52 times. Oakland scored a couple meaningless touchdowns to make the game respectable, but they were 2-3 and there was no sign that this was a team ready to return to the playoffs, much less win a Super Bowl.
The season was at a crucial point, with a home game against the Chargers next, followed by a Monday Night road trip to the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. The way things were going, everything was set up for Oakland to be buried early.
But instead, the Raiders turned their season around and Plunkett wrested the quarterback job from Pastorini, never to give it back. The game with the Chargers was another exciting, back-and-forth affair as the Oakland defense and San Diego offense traded shots. Fouts threw for 388 yards, but the Raiders forced six turnovers.
Kenny King was the difference. He ran for 138 yards, most of them on an 89-yard touchdown jaunt that broke a 24-24 tie in the fourth quarter. Oakland added one more touchdown to get a huge win.
Pittsburgh was going to miss the playoffs this season, but they were very much in the mix for a three-peat on October 20, and Oakland came to town as a (+10) underdog. Plunkett was efficient, completing 13/21 passes with no interceptions. He also made big plays, throwing for 247 yards. Branch caught five passes for 123 yards, two touchdowns and the Raiders were in command in a 45-34 win.
The offense bogged down a bit at home against Seattle, an AFC West rival prior to 2002. They only had three field goals in the third quarter, but a strong defensive effort kept Oakland ahead 9-0. Then Plunkett unleashed for three touchdown passes to Chandler and the game ended a 33-14 rout. The Raider running attack then overpowered an average Miami Dolphins team, gaining 192 yards in a tough 16-10 home win.
Special teams delivered the next two victories, as Oakland continued to take advantage of a soft spot on the schedule. A home game with Cincinnati was sloppy both ways, with a combined nine turnovers. But a 90-yard kickoff return from Arthur Whittington was the difference in a 28-17 win. The Raiders trailed in Seattle 17-7 before Hendricks scored off a blocked punt and Oakland ultimately pulled out a 19-17 win on Monday Night.
The schedule would not be easy the rest of the way. Oakland had to play two of the NFC’s top teams, the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. Both games with the Denver Broncos were still ahead, and though Denver was mediocre this year, finishing 8-8, they were good enough to cause problems for an archrival. Only the season finale at the lowly New York Giants looked like a soft spot.
Oakland’s trip to Philadelphia on November 23 was a defensive war. Trailing 3-0 in the fourth quarter, Plunkett found Branch on an 86-yard touchdown strike, but Philadelphia rallied for a touchdown of their own and the Raiders lost 10-7. Oakland was 8-4 and tied with San Diego for first amidst a very balanced AFC landscape.
Another defensive battle followed at home against the Broncos on Monday Night. Oakland did nothing on offense, but they took care of the ball, while forcing six turnovers in a 9-3 win. Even so, over two games, this was an offense that had suddenly only produced one long touchdown pass. And that finally caught up them the following week when Dallas visited. This time, the Raiders turned it over four times and they lost 19-13.
Oakland caught a break when San Diego was upset in Washington, and the race stayed tied at 9-5. The downside was that the Chargers had control of the tiebreaker situation, although an upside was that the Raiders were in good shape to at least get back in the playoffs.
A tough game at Denver followed, and Oakland made yet another big play defensively, getting a 58-yard interception return from Burgess Owens. Plunkett got loosened up, completing 13/21 passes for 213 yards, including a pair of touchdowns to Chandler. The 24-21 win clinched a wild-card berth, though San Diego continued to hold serve in the division race.
The Raider defense played a little soft in New York, allowing 185 rushing yards, but it was time for the offense to step up and win a game. That’s what happened, as van Eeghen powered his way for 115 yards, while Plunkett went 12/22 for 164 yards. The 33-17 win ensured Oakland would at least host the wild-card game, and they kept the pressure on San Diego, who hosted Pittsburgh on Monday Night.
San Diego won, and it set up a playoff game the following week that was all-too appropriate, given how the season began. The Houston Oilers were coming to town, with Stabler and Casper coming home.
No wild-card team had ever won the Super Bowl, and as of 1978, that task had been made harder when the playoffs expanded and moved wild-cards into today’s first round of playoff games. Maybe it’s easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, but with every AFC postseason qualifier having finished the year at 11-5, 1980 looked tailor-made for someone to get hot out of this round.
The Raiders got a break on the first play of the game, with Houston’s great running back Earl Campbell, the league’s leading rusher, fumbled. Oakland recovered a kicked a field goal. Campbell later ran for a touchdown, but Plunkett flipped a one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Christensen. The game was 10-7 at the half and remained so into the fourth quarter.
Oakland defined its passing game with the deep ball in this era and Plunkett threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Whittington to stretch the lead to 17-7. After another field goal, Hayes administered the dagger, intercepting a Stabler pass deep in Houston territory and taking it twenty yards for the clinching score in a 27-7 win.
The key to the game had been defense. Campbell rushed for 91 yards, not a bad total, but less than what Houston needed from a back that carried a disproportionate share of the load. The Raiders had also won the turnover battle 3-1, enough to carry them on a day when Plunkett only went 8-for-23
Frigid conditions awaited in Cleveland the next week on early Sunday afternoon. The winds were blowing at 21 mph off of Lake Erie and the temps were (-20) with the windchill. The field was frozen solid. This worked to Oakland’s advantage, since the Browns had the MVP of the league in quarterback Brian Sipe.
Plunkett made the game’s first big mistake in the second quarter, throwing a Pick-6. A missed extra point kept the Raiders within six points and van Eeghen bulled over for a touchdown that gave them the lead at halftime.
The Oakland defense was taking advantage of the weather conditions. Sipe still threw 40 times, but he only completed 13 of them. Hayes intercepted two passes and on the frozen turf, the Browns missed a couple field goals and messed up the snap on another. But they also made a couple and took a 12-7 lead in the third quarter before van Eeghen again muscled his way in. The Raiders clung to a 14-12 lead when Cleveland drove to the 14-yard line with less than a minute to play.
In normal weather conditions, the Browns surely just play for a field goal. But with the frozen field having caused three botched field goals and a missed extra point, they felt it worthwhile to at least try a pass into the end zone. That suited the aggressive Oakland secondary just fine and Mike Davis intercepted Sipe’s pass to preserve the win.
Now it was time for Round 3 with the Chargers. Each of the regular season meetings had been tied 24-24 in the second half before someone stepped up. And though the Raiders had to go on the road, at least the weather was just a bit warmer in San Diego than it had been in Cleveland.
Oakland had the ball on their own 35-yard line when Plunkett went deep to tight end Raymond Chester. The ball batted around off a few fingertips before Chester stayed with it, made the catch and ended up in the end zone.
San Diego answered with a score of their own, but the Raiders exploded and rattled off three straight touchdowns. Plunkett was both efficient and spectacular, completing 14/28 for 261 yards and no interceptions on the game, and it looked like Oakland might have an easy day with a 28-7 lead.
But Fouts didn’t give up and he threw for 336 yards of his own. San Diego scored a touchdown before the half and drove deep into the Oakland red zone in the third quarter. The Raider defense came up with a big stop, forced a field goal and kept the lead at eleven points, but the Chargers roared right back with a touchdown that cut the lead to 28-24.
The Raider offense responded, and van Eeghen rushed for 85 yards. But they missed a chance to put it away, with two drives to the red zone ending in field goals. In between, the Chargers had a deep drive of their own stall with a field goal. The score was 34-27 when Oakland got the ball back with 6:52 left.
The Oakland defense was exhausted and implored the offense to finish the job. That’s exactly what happened. The offensive line might have struggled in pass protection today, allowing six sacks, but they controlled the trenches when it mattered most. Oakland kept the ball the rest of the game and ran the clock out. They were going back to the Super Bowl.
A rematch with Philadelphia was up and the Raiders were a (+3) underdog. But Oakland entered the game loose and confident, while the Eagles were tense and after the excitement of the AFC playoffs, this game seemed over from the moment it started.
Linebacker Rod Martin intercepted the first pass of Philly quarterback Ron Jaworski, and set up a 2-yard TD pass from Plunkett to Branch. It was the first of a Super Bowl record three interceptions for Martin. Later in the first quarter, Plunkett found King down the sideline for an 80-yard touchdown pass. It was the longest TD pass in Super Bowl history, though unlike Martin’s record, that one has since been broken.
The game was 14-3 at half, and another touchdown pass to Branch, this one from 29 yards out, all but sealed it. Philadelphia briefly cut the lead to 24-10 in the fourth quarter, but a 35-yard field goal from Chris Bahr eliminated all doubt.
Plunkett finished 13/21 for 261 yards, three touchdown passes and no interceptions. He was named Super Bowl MVP in the 27-10 win, completing an improbable rise from NFL bust (a former Heisman Trophy winner at Stanford and #1 overall draft pick, he had washed out in New England) to backup to hero. Even better was that his comeback story didn’t end in New Orleans—he continued to have success with the Raiders and led them to another Super Bowl title in 1983.
Having said all that, I do feel Martin would have been a more appropriate choice for game MVP. The Raider defense was really the big story of the game and the three interceptions were historic. The fact one of them came on the first pass clearly set the tone. But whomever the MVP was didn’t matter to the silver-n-black. The 1980 Oakland Raiders were back on top and had become the first team to win four games in the postseason.