The 1976 Oakland Raiders came into the season as the proto-type of a team that couldn’t win the big one. The franchise reached the second Super Bowl in 1967 before losing to the Green Bay Packers. One year later they dropped the AFL title game to Joe Namath and the New York Jets. Head coach Jon Rauch stepped down and turned the reins over to his young assistant, John Madden. The winning continued—as did the frustration.
Madden’s Raiders saw their season stop in the AFC Championship Game in 1970. They lost the “Immaculate Reception” play in the divisional round in Pittsburgh in 1972. Then came three straight AFC Championship Game losses from 1973-75, the last two to the Steelers who were en route to Super Bowl wins.
Even in the relatively calmer media climate of the 1970s, the “can’t win the big one” tag was being hung on Madden and quarterback Ken Stabler. One can only imagine how intense the media shouting would be today.
The talent was there for Oakland to go all the way. Stabler was 31-years-old, a sharp precision lefthanded passer and a Pro Bowler. He had two good backs, with fullback Mark van Eeghen going over 1,000 yards and Clarence Davis providing a change of pace.
Cliff Branch was a Pro Bowl receiver, a big-play threat and ably complemented by possession receiver Fred Biletnikoff and one of the game’s top tight ends in Dave Casper. The left side of the line was anchored by great players in tackle Art Shell and guard Gene Upshaw.
Defensively, the 1976 Oakland Raiders didn’t have the same number of Pro Bowlers, but by reputation, the cupboard was hardly bare. Phil Villiapiano and Ted Hendricks were tough outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme. Cornerback Willie Brown was 36-years-old and nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career. Free safety Jack Tatum had a reputation as one of the game’s feared hitters.
Oakland just needed to prove it could beat Pittsburgh, and the opening game of the 1976 NFL season pitted the two rivals against each other. In our own day, this would be a Thursday night affair in the Steel City, but back then it was a normal Sunday afternoon game and scheduled in Oakland. The Raiders trailed 21-7 at the start of the fourth quarter and 28-14 with five minutes to go, but Stabler rallied the troops.
The final quarter saw him throw for two touchdowns, run for one more and the Raiders got a late field goal to win 31-28. Stabler finished with 342 yards passing, enough to offset his four interceptions. Oakland not only had a win over its conference rival, but they were at least 1-0 as they started a five-game stretch that would be all on the road.
Oakland got narrow wins over bad teams in Kansas City and Houston. The Raiders played a poor game in New England, losing three fumbles and being run over by Patriot back Sam Cunningham. The final was 48-17. At the time New England was considered a bad team. The remainder of the season would prove differently.
Another team that would make significant strides was Denver. The Raiders fell behind their AFC West rival 10-0 early, but a strong defensive outing paved the way for a 17-10 comeback. Oakland concluded the road swing at 5-1, and at the end of October they beat the Broncos again back at home. This time the score was tied 6-6, before the Raiders got a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns. The defense generated ten sacks in that game, and at 7-1, Oakland was now in firm control of the AFC West race.
They kept right on winning, taking their last six games. The most impressive was a 35-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at home on a Monday Night. The win helped nudge the Bengals out of the playoffs—ironically, helping the Steelers nudge in. If nothing else, Oakland was both a team of integrity and one that did not fear playing the champ.
The playoff format of 1976 was three division winners and only one wild-card. The team that got the wild-card was the Patriots, who had rolled to an 11-3 record. As the #1 seed, at 13-1, Oakland would draw the one team who had beaten them.
New England led 21-10 in the fourth quarter of the AFC divisional playoff game and it looked bleak. The Raiders cut the lead to 21-17 and then got help on two controversial calls. A big incompletion stopped a Patriot drive to run out the clock, when New England felt tight end Russ Francis was interfered with. Stabler would get a chance to win the game.
The second call lives in Boston sports infamy—a phantom roughing the passer penalty was called on defensive tackle Sugar Bear Hamilton after a third-down incompletion with Oakland driving. Stabler would run in from a yard out for the winning points in a 24-21 final. You can make an argument that the Hamilton penalty was what settled the Super Bowl for 1976, because Oakland would never be tested like this again.
The Steelers came west for an AFC Championship Game visit having lost running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier in their own playoff win. Terry Bradshaw would be exposed as a quarterback who was heavily reliant on his supporting cast, turning in an erratic 14-of-35 performance. Oakland’s running game pounded on the Steel Curtain, with a balanced performance between van Eeghen (66 yards) and Davis (54 yards). Oakland cruised to a 24-7 win.
1976 was the first time a professional football game of any kind was played in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl. The Raiders and the Minnesota Vikings would be the first. The Vikings had their own issues with “winning the big one”, having lost the Super Bowl in 1969, 1973 and 1974. A monkey was coming off somebody’s back in this game.
Oakland had special teams problems early in the game—a missed field goal from short range and a blocked punt. But the defense forced a fumble following the blocked kick, and in the second quarter the Raiders took a 16-0 lead and got command of the game. They intercepted the great Viking quarterback Fran Tarkenton twice, the last of which was a 75-yard pick-6 from Brown that put the Raiders up 32-7 and sealed an ultimate 32-14 win.
The ability of the Raiders to run the ball against a defense with a well-earned reputation was again the story, just as it had been in the AFC Championship Game. Davis ran 16 times for 137 yards. I’m still not sure how he was passed over for game MVP in favor of Biletnikoff, who caught four passes for 79 yards. Even allowing that those numbers are more impressive in the mid-1970s than they would be in today’s environment, they weren’t overwhelming. Davis deserved the award.
It was the fans of Oakland, John Madden and a dedicated veteran cast that deserved this moment more than anything. The 1976 Oakland Raiders had finally won the big one.