The 1976 Oakland Raiders were voted the NFL’s greatest team of all-time in a 2012 on-line tournament conducted by NFL.com, beating the 2000 Baltimore Ravens in the championship match-up.
There were 5.2 million votes cast during the 64-team competition, with the fifth-seeded Raiders winning the finale over the Ravens by the slim margin of 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent.
While some might suggest Raider Nation stuffed the ballot box, the case can easily be made that the voters got it right.
Coach John Madden, a future member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, led the Raiders and had eight players who would make the HOF on his roster.
They were quarterback Kenny Stabler, left tackle Art Shell, left guard Gene Upshaw, tight end Dave Casper, wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, cornerback Willie Brown, linebacker Ted Hendricks and punter Ray Guy.
“That’s the best team I’ve ever played on,” Stabler said before he passed away in 2016. “We had so many weapons on offense that defenses couldn’t try to shut down anything or anybody, without leaving me an opening somewhere else.
“And the defense made big plays all season to get us the ball with great field position. Obviously winning the Super Bowl was the greatest moment of my career.”
Those Raiders were put together by two more Hall of Famers, Managing General Partner Al Davis and talent scout Ron Wolf, later General Manager of the Green Bay Packers, who left Oakland in 1974 but was responsible for drafting many of the players on that 1976 team.
Wide receiver Cliff Branch also should be in the Hall of Fame, and cases can be made for safety Jack Tatum, perhaps the hardest hitter in NFL history, and linebacker Phil Villapiano.
The Raiders’ offensive line that season is considered by many to be the best ever, with three Hall of Famers when you count tight end, Casper. Upshaw might be the best pulling guard of all-time and Shell, who was one of the best tackles ever, threw a shutout (no tackles, no assists, no hurries, no nothing) against Jim Marshall of the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
The other three—center Dave Dalby (who replaced retired Hall of Famer Jim Otto the year before), right guard George Buehler and right tackle John Vella—probably are a bit underrated because the other three were so great.
“George Buehler has the perfect built for a guard, a Coke machine with a head on it,” Stabler once said of the brilliant Buehler, a Stanford graduate who felt a bit like an underachiever in his family of doctors and lawyers.
The Raiders had defensive linemen Art Thoms, Tony Cline and Horace Jones go down with injuries early that season, so they acquired 6-7, 280-pound Dave Rowe from the San Diego Chargers and switched to a 3-4 defense.
They put Rowe at nose tackle flanked by 6-8, 280-pound bad boy John Matuszak and 6-4, 265-pound Otis Sistrunk. During a Monday Night Football game, former NFL star turned analyst Alex Karras saw the steam coming off Sistrunk’s bald head on the sidelines and quipped that he was from “the University of Mars.”
Behind them were the 6-7 Hendricks and the hard-hitting Villapiano at outside linebacker, with 6-4 Monte Johnson and the other addition when the Raiders went to the 3-4, Willie Hall as the inside linebackers.
Hall made big plays all season, but especially in the playoffs, when intercepted two passes including a huge one in the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and two fumble recoveries, one on the goal line in the Super Bowl after a hit by Villapiano.
If you got past the front seven, you had to deal with “The Soul Patrol,” with Brown, who invented the “Bump and Run” defense, and Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas at cornerback, plus free safety Tatum and strong safety George Atkinson.
Offenses often played away from Brown, because he was such a shutdown corner, but that exposed receivers to punishment from the other three, who all were extremely physical players.
Those Raiders went 16-1, including 3-0 in the post-season, second only to the 17-0 record posted by the Miami Dolphins in 1972. The Silver and Black’s only defeat came by a lopsided 48-17 score in Week 4 at New England, but they got past the Patriots, 24-21, in the AFC Divisional playoff game when Stabler led two touchdown drives in the last 10 minutes.
Then the Raiders, who lost to the Green Bay Packers, 33-14, in Super Bowl II but had not been back, dethroned the two-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-7, with running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier out because of injuries.
The Steelers claimed it would have been different with them in the lineup, but the Raiders said it didn’t matter because there was nowhere to run, holding the Steelers to 72 yards rushing while also containing quarterback Terry Bradshaw and receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
Mean Joe Greene of the Steelers met Upshaw under the stands to sort of pass the torch afterward and told Uppy that the Raiders wanted to play the Vikings and not the Los Angeles Rams, who were playing in the NFC Championship Game, in the Super Bowl.
When Upshaw and the Raiders saw the films, they knew why.
Even the normally cautious Madden knew what was about to happen in Super Bowl XI at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and predicted a victory in the days before the game on Jan. 9, 1977.
The Raiders, known for their passing game, went to a power running game against the smaller Vikings with fullback Mark van Eeghen as a punishing lead blocker against the Minnesota linebackers
Clarence Davis rushed for 137 yards, while Van Eeghen added 73 yards and short-yardage specialist Pete Banaszak scored two touchdowns.
Stabler completed 12-of-19 passes for 180 yards and a one-yard touchdown pass to Casper, but mostly the man they called Snake carved up the Vikings’ famed Purple People Eaters defense, calling all the plays.
Biletnikoff caught four passes for 79 yards, three of them going to inside the two-yard line to set up touchdowns, and was named the games Most Valuable Player.
“Heck, Snake, probably should have been the MVP,” Biletnikoff said, but Stabler was happy for his friend and simply was happy with the Lombardi Trophy.
Brown-capped it off with a 75-yard pass interception return for a touchdown against Fran Tarkenton in the final minutes.
Chortled Bill King, the Raiders’ legendary play-by-play announcer: “Old Man Willie, he’s going all the way.”
All the Raiders finally did that day.
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Tom LaMarre of Raider Maven covered the Oakland Raiders for the Oakland Tribune from 1971-76, with his last game being Super Bowl XI against the Minnesota Vikings, and he has written about the Raiders for several other publications and websites over the years.