The John Madden era started in Oakland back in 1969. The previous nine years had been great run of success for the Raider franchise. Madden’s teams earned eight playoff berths, six appearances in the AFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl title in 1976—all while competing in a conference that had some of the league’s all-time great times, from the Shula-era Dolphins to the Steel Curtain. The 1978 Oakland Raiders season was looking much the same, with a playoff berth in grasp. But a late fade and an early retirement from the young head coach ended an era.
Ken Stabler was at quarterback. The veteran southpaw was renowned for his accuracy—a 58 percent completion rate was good for fifth in the league in an era where passing was more difficult. Stabler could also get it downfield, with his 7.3 yards-per-attempt. But he also threw a lot of interceptions. Even allowing that more INTs were thrown in this era, Stabler’s 30 picks—on 7.4 percent of his passes—was one of the worst in the league. I guess the nicest way to say it is that very few of Ken Stabler’s passes hit the ground in 1978.
Dave Casper was the key to the short passing game. The NFL’s best tight end caught 62 passes. Cliff Branch and Morris Bradshaw were at wideout, each with an ability to get down the field.
Oakland’s great offensive line was starting to show its age. The great Gene Upshaw missed the Pro Bowl at age 33 and began to decline. Art Shell still had a Pro Bowl year at left tackle, but even though fullback Mark van Eeghen was a 1,000-yard rusher, he had a mediocre four yards per attempt. Arthur Wittington’s 661 yards at halfback came at the cost of just 3.8 yards a pop.
Even so, the Raider offense still ranked a solid 10th in a 28-team league for points scored. The defense ranked the same. There were no Pro Bowl seasons on D, but there were still playmakers, from outside linebacker Ted Hendricks to corner Lester Hayes to safeties Jack Tatum and Charlie Phillips.
Tatum was surrounded by controversy and tragedy in the preseason. His hit on New England Patriots’ receiver Darryl Stingley resulted in Stingley being paralyzed. It bears noting that Tatum was not penalized on the play nor disciplined by the league afterward, but there’s no question the tragedy impacted him, and Madden would later cite it as a factor in his decision to retire.
The regular season opened at Denver, whom Oakland had lost to in the previous season’s AFC title game. The Raider pass defense limited Bronco quarterback Craig Morton to 34 passing yards. But Oakland had to settle for field goals on two trips to the red zone. They lost the turnover battle 3-1. Denver got touchdowns on their red zone trips and handed the Raiders a 14-6 loss.
Another divisional road game was in danger of getting away at San Diego. With Stabler throwing three interceptions, the Raiders trailed the Chargers 20-7 in the fourth quarter. Stabler hit Bradshaw on a 44-yard touchdown pass, then drove Oakland down to the San Diego 14-yard line. There was time for one more play.
It would prove to be one of the most famous (or infamous) plays in NFL history. Stabler was about to get sacked to end the game. He deliberately fumbled it forward. Two Raider players, including Casper, kept pushing the ball forward, where the tight end finally fell on it in the end zone. This was a legal play at the time. It became known as “The Holy Roller” and it handed the Raiders a 21-20 win.
A road trip to play a decent Green Bay Packers team finally produced an easy win. Even though Stabler threw four interceptions, van Eghen rushed for 151 yards and the team overall rolled up 348 yards on the ground. Oakland coasted, 28-3.
The following week would make history. The Raiders’ home opener with the Patriots would be in prime-time on Sunday Night. This would be the first-ever edition of what is now the highest-rated TV show of any kind in the United States—Sunday Night Football. Madden likely had a hard time appreciating the history of it all after his team was outrushed 207-83, blew a 14-0 lead and lost 21-14.
A late-afternoon road trip to Chicago saw Stabler play his cleanest game of the season to date. The Snake went 25/43, 278 yards, no interceptions and spread the ball around. The game went to overtime and the Raiders pulled out a 25-19 win. They were 3-2, and half of their road schedule was already behind them.
The Houston Oilers were becoming a contender with a rookie running back named Earl Campbell. They came to Oakland, put the Raiders in a 17-7 hole, and were knocking on the door for more in the third quarter. Then Phillips made a massive play, returning a fumble 96 yards for a touchdown. Stabler tossed a three-yard TD pass to Casper. The Raiders overcame five turnovers to win 21-17.
Kansas City was the worst team in the AFC West, and Oakland made quick work of the Chiefs. Phillips scored again, this time on a 42-yard Pick-6. Stabler was brilliant, going 15/20 for 222 yards and no mistakes. The final was 28-6.
Seattle was an AFC West team prior to the realignment of 2002, and they were also a franchise getting competitive for the first time since their founding in 1976. A trip to the old Kingdome was a disaster for the Raiders. They couldn’t run the ball, dug themselves a 21-0 hole and lost 27-7.
Oakland hosted San Diego and led 23-14 in the fourth quarter. But a generally well-played game on both sides turned against the Silver-n-Black. Dan Fouts and the Chargers pulled out a 27-23 win. The Raider record was suddenly 5-4 and they faced some urgency.
A light spot in the schedule arrived at just the right time. Whittington rushed for 134 yards in Kansas City, while Casper caught seven balls for 112 yards. The Raiders beat the Chiefs 20-10. A Monday Night visit to lowly Cincinnati saw defensive back Neal Colzie start the party with a 32-yard fumble return for a score. Stabler played clean football, Oakland built a 27-7 lead and won 34-21. Another mistake-free game from the Snake, combined with 98 yards on the ground by van Eghen, produced a 29-17 win at Detroit.
Oakland was 8-4 and in a good position to make the playoffs. They were tied for first with Denver in the AFC West. While the Broncos had the tiebreakers, thanks to divisional record, the Raiders would still host their rival in December.
There were two wild-card berths available and Oakland’s position there was even better. The primary contestants were Houston and Miami, both 8-4 themselves. The Raiders had the head-to-head win over the Oilers and would play the Dolphins in the season’s penultimate game.
In short, it was all right there for Oakland. But it was all right here when it all fell apart.
The Seahawks were 6-6 and hoping to make a push themselves when they came to town. Even though Stabler played well, the Raider offense bogged down in the red zone once, and had what proved to be a fatal missed PAT. They lost 17-16. But the good news was that the Broncos and Dolphins both lost too. No reason to panic.
Denver came in for another Sunday Night game. The game was almost a carbon-copy of the season-opener. Morton only threw for 54 yards. Oakland put together two nice drives but had to settle for field goals. They turned it over five times. They trailed 7-6 in the second half, and again Denver put it away late. This time the final was 21-6. The loss realistically ended any hopes the Raiders had of winning the AFC West.
It would all come down to a late afternoon national TV game in Miami. If Oakland won, they would still control their destiny for a wild-card spot in the season finale at home against Minnesota. If Oakland lost, they were finished.
Another missed extra point loomed large as the Raider-Dolphin battle was tied 6-6 after three quarters. Stabler went 23/36 for 251 yards. But he also threw five interceptions. The game got away in the fourth quarter and turned into a 23-6 loss.
Oakland salvaged some wounded pride against Minnesota, outrushing the Vikings 168-90, getting another defensive touchdown from Phillips, taking a 21-0 lead, and winning 27-20. Minnesota came into the game still fighting for the NFC Central title, and while they would win it, the Raiders made the Vikes back into the playoffs.
Madden would later recount that he knew he was going to retire. His ulcers were creating a health problem that, even at age 42, he didn’t want to keep pushing. He departed with a career record of 112-39-7—the best winning percentage (75.9%) of anyone who has coached at least 100 games.
Tom Flores took over as Oakland coach. The 1979 season was more of the same—a 9-7 finish that wasn’t enough to get in the playoffs. But better times were coming for both the franchise and for Madden. Flores won Super Bowls in both 1980 and 1983. And Madden merely went on to CBS, later Fox, and effectively turned into the public face of the NFL. All’s well that ends well.