After 22 years in Oakland, the Raiders packed up and moved south. They arrived in their new home with a proud tradition of excellence, but also seeming on the downswing. After winning the Super Bowl in 1980, the franchise went 7-9 in 1981, ending a string of sixteen consecutive winning seasons. The 1982 Los Angeles Raiders returned to the league’s elite thanks to two great rookies embarking on Hall of Fame careers.
Marcus Allen won the Heisman Trophy at USC in 1981 and was drafted by the Raiders. With the team having moved to the Los Angeles Coliseum, Allen didn’t even have to change home fields and he picked up in the NFL where he’d left off in college. Allen finished fourth in the league in rushing and was also one of his team’s top receivers.
It was good enough for first-team All-NFL and it should have been good enough for the MVP award. But 1982 was a strange year in the NFL—a players’ strike reduced the schedule to nine games. The voters gave the award to Redskins’ kicker Mark Moseley.
I’m a ‘Skins fan, I love Moseley and he hit some clutch kicks in 1982. But seriously? Allen was the key to an offense that was second-best in the NFL, which in turn carried a defense that only ranked 22nd. He deserved to be the first player in history to win the Heisman Trophy and NFL MVP in back-to-back years.
The other rookie was Howie Long. He wasn’t the instant impact player that Allen was, but Long recorded 5 ½ sacks in the short season and joined a defensive unit anchored by good veterans in outside linebacker Ted Hendricks, end Lyle Alzado and corner Lester Hayes. Hendricks was 1st-team All-NFL and Hayes made the Pro Bowl.
Jim Plunkett was at quarterback and the 35-year-old was good at creating the big play. While his 58% completion rate was average, his 7.8 yards-per-attempt was sixth in the league. His 15 interceptions were also pretty high, but in an era that relied on the deep ball more than today’s game does, Plunkett was valuable.
So was tight end Todd Christensen, who caught 42 passes for 510 yards and wide receiver Cliff Branch was the long ball threat, with 30 catches for 575 yards. The skill position talent carried an offense that lacked Pro Bowl talent on the offensive line.
Los Angeles opened the season on the road in San Francisco against the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers. The Niners would have a tough year this season and it started year. After digging a 14-6 hole, the Raiders rallied behind a 116-yard performance from Allen. The defense held San Francisco to 60 yards on the ground and Los Angeles won 23-17.
A week later they went to Atlanta and blew out a decent Falcons team 38-14. Allen caught a 14-yard touchdown pass to start the scoring and ran for another in the second quarter to extend the lead to 17-7. Branch caught six passes for 138 yards. And then the strike hit.
The labor discord wiped out seven games from the schedule. When play resumed the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the league settled on a plan that would abolish divisions and simply take the top eight teams in each conference for the playoffs, setting up a 16-team “Super Bowl Tournament.”
Los Angeles returned to action on the Monday Night stage against the San Diego Chargers and what a return it was. The Raiders fell behind 24-0 in the second quarter. Ironically, the Chargers had taken the same lead at the same point over the Dolphins in an epic playoff game the previous January. They blew that lead before rallying to win. The Raiders also came all the way back…and they didn’t let the Bolts off the hook. Los Angeles used a balanced offense and simply took the game over, scoring 38 unanswered points and staying undefeated.
A tough schedule continued with a road game at defending AFC champion Cincinnati. The Raiders were trailing 7-0 in the first quarter and near midfield when Plunkett threw a Pick-6. They climbed back into the game, trailing only 21-17, but the running game never got going in this one and the Bengals pulled back away to win 31-17.
The schedule finally got easier with four straight games that finished the season with sub-.500 records. Allen ran for 156 years against Seattle while linebacker Rod Martin had a Pick-6. Los Angeles jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the second quarter and then the tables nearly turned from the Charger game. The Seahawks came back, but the Raiders held on, 28-23.
In a road trip to Kansas City, they played poorly for three quarters but three red-zone stops on defense kept Los Angeles in striking distance, down 9-7. In the fourth quarter, Plunkett opened up. On a day that was seven degrees with the windchill, the veteran quarterback found Christensen for the go-ahead touchdown pass and then later hit Calvin Muhammad on a 35-yard strike. The Raiders got out of KC with a 21-16 win.
A late afternoon game on Saturday against the Rams marked the Raiders’ first game with their new intra-city rivals. The game was a wild affair, and Plunkett’s performance sums that up. He threw for 321 yards and he also threw four interceptions. The Raiders were down 21-7, up 30-21 and down again 31-30. But Allen was the constant—he rushed for 93 yards and caught eight balls for 61 yards. The Raiders got a 37-31 win.
With two games to play, the Raiders were 6-1 and had pretty much locked up a playoff berth. They crushed Denver on the day after Christmas, with five interceptions and seven sacks involving ten players overall. The team effort on defense led a 27-10 win.
The season finale was another game with the Chargers and it was again a wild one. Los Angeles had a 10-3 lead when defensive back Mike Davis picked off San Diego’s Dan Fouts and took it 56 yards to the house. The lead later grew to 20-3.
Now it was the Chargers’ turn to come back. They were a team again bound for the divisional round of the AFC playoffs and Fouts led them to 24 consecutive points. The Raiders tied it, then got another Pick-6, this one a 52-yard return by James Davis. Los Angeles eventually led 41-27 and finally prevailed 41-34.
Plunkett went 17/28 for 227 yards with Christensen catching six passes for 86 yards. Allen capped off his splendid year with 126 yards on 20 carries. The Raiders were 8-1 and going into the playoffs as the #1 seed in the AFC.
The first round of the NFL playoffs in 1982 felt like the NCAA Tournament’s opening round, with regionalized coverage and highlights coming in and out. Los Angeles hosted Cleveland in the late afternoon window on Saturday. The Browns had only finished 4-5, but it took time for the Raiders to get rid of them.
Los Angeles got an early field goal, set up by Plunkett and Branch hooking up on a 64-yard pass. Cleveland got the field goal back in the second quarter. The Raiders countered with an 88-yard drive capped off by an Allen touchdown run. The Browns came right back, with former USC quarterback Paul McDonald playing on his old turf, throwing a 43-yard touchdown pass. Los Angeles got a field goal just before halftime to lead 13-10.
The Browns took the opening kickoff and immediately drove deep into the red zone. Then the Raiders recovered a fumble and were finally able to decisively change momentum. They were controlling the ground game, with a 140-86 edge in yardage and they drove 89 yards off the fumble for another Allen touchdown run.
Plunkett finished 24/37 with 386 yards, though he did throw two interceptions. Before the third quarter was over, another Los Angeles touchdown drive sealed the 27-10 win.
The 6-3 Jets were up next for the AFC divisional playoffs. The Raiders turned a 10-0 deficit into a 14-10 lead, but it got away in the fourth quarter. After New York took a 17-14 lead, Plunkett threw two interceptions in the final three minutes. It ended a sloppy game where both teams turned it over five times and it ended the Raiders season.
In spite of the disappointing ending, it was still the start of great things. The Raiders were settled in their new home (at least temporarily) and a year later they got over the postseason disappointment by winning the Super Bowl.