Kenny “Snake” Stabler was the most popular of the swashbuckling Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, among his teammates and Raider Nation.
If you check out social media these days, you will see that might not have changed.
“When you look up the word Raider in the dictionary, a picture of Snake should be the first thing that you see,” Brad Weiss wrote in a story on Just Blob Baby.com last year.
“He was electrifying on the field, the ultimate teammate, and played the game with the kind of fearlessness and precision that makes him the most beloved quarterback, if not player in the history of the franchise.”
There is no question that Snake was the trigger of the talented Raiders' offense that included Hall of Famers Fred Biletnikoff, Dave Casper, Gene Upshaw, Art Shell, and Jim Otto, plus Cliff Branch, who should be enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
Said wide receiver Branch: “Kenny Stabler was the leader of the Raiders, he ran the offense and he called his own plays, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Coach John Madden would put the offensive game plan in on Wednesday, Kenny would learn it inside and out, and the offense would execute it against our second team defense …
but that didn’t mean anything on Game Day.
“Snake was prepared for what the defense was supposed to do and what they might do if they made changes to try to confuse us. Sometimes, he would just say, ‘Check with me on the ball.’ We would break the huddle, he would come to the line of scrimmage and he would a call running play or a pass, depending on how the defense was lined up. He seemed to be able to tell what they were going to do, even before the ball was snapped.”
However, it didn’t happen for Stabler right away with the Raiders.
The 6-3, 215-pound Stabler was an All-American at Alabama, helping the Crimson Tide to a 27-3-2 record in three seasons, including a 34-7 rout of Nebraska in the 1966 Sugar Bowl as a junior.
“Kenny Stabler had ability coming out of his ears,” legendary Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant said of Stabler. “He had a great touch passing, he could run the ball outside, and he was quick as a cat. His junior year was the best year any of our quarterbacks ever had.”
Stabler, who wasn’t the strong-armed quarterback like starter Daryle Lamonica that was preferred by Managing General Partner Al Davis, but the Raiders still selected him in the second round (No. 52 overall) of the 1968 NFL Draft.
When Raiders scouting executive Ron Wolf picked up Stabler at San Francisco International Airport after the draft, he wanted to give Stabler a look at the Bay Area and drove to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, the center of the Hippie movement.
Next, they traveled across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to Telegraph Avenue at the University of California in Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement.
Stabler stood there out of place in his Alabama letterman jacket, khakis, and penny loafers—but was intrigued by what he saw.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” recalled Stabler, a clean-cut 22-year-old Southern boy. “It was the Age of Aquarius, Free Love, Ban the Bra, Make Love not War, and all that. Everybody was so friendly, especially the girls.
“Even though it was a little bit of culture shock, I thought I might like this place.”
While Stabler also was known for his off-the-field activities, saying: “Sometimes, I read the playbook by the light of a jukebox,” he added, “I never let it get in the way of what I had to do on the field.”
The Raiders selected quarterback Eldridge Dickey of Tennessee State in the first round (No. 25 overall) of that 1968 Draft, but after the Raiders coaching staff watched the two quarterbacks in practice, they moved Dickey to wide receiver.
Stabler became the Raiders quarterback of the future, playing behind Lamonica and grizzled veteran George Blanda, but he was impatient.
Stabler spent most games alongside Blanda, who had more than 20 years of experience, and absorbed all the information he could handle.
“We had a natural bond for a couple of reasons,” Stabler said. “We both played for Coach Bryant in college, and we were both quarterbacks with the same philosophy about the game. He definitely grabbed me and gave me the advice I needed when I came to the Raiders.
“George talked to me and was always there for me. Daryle was the starter, so George and I spent a lot of time on the sidelines during games and behind the huddle during practice. He did most of the talking and I did most of the listening. They were good lessons learned.
“I wanted to play right away, but George, who had been through the same thing with the Chicago Bears, told me to take my time, keep my eyes open, and learn the game. He was right.”
Stabler finally became the full-time starter in the fourth game of the 1973 season after a 1-2 start and led the Raiders to a 17-10 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on the road, the first game of a 4-0-1 stretch.
The Raiders finished 9-4-1 that season to reach the playoffs, and went 12-2 and 11-3 the next two seasons with Stabler at the controls, but lost in the AFC Championship Game all three years.
“We developed the tag of a team that couldn’t win the big one,” Stabler said. “And, I guess we couldn’t. But we knew we were good enough and that one year we were going to get to the Super Bowl—and win.
“We had that tag around our necks and had to get rid of it.”
That all changed in 1976.
The Raiders went 13-1 during the regular season, losing only to the New England Patriots early in the season, 48-17, but got past the Patriots, 24-21, in the first round of the playoffs and defeated the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-7, in the AFC Championship Game.
Super Bowl XI was not even close, as the Silver and Black routed the Minnesota Vikings, 32-14, in Stabler’s greatest moment with the Raiders, as completed a modest 12-of-19 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown to tight end Dave Casper.
But he engineered the victory, often calling plays at the line of scrimmage.
Said legendary Raiders play-by-play announcer Bill King: “Jascha Heifetz never played the violin with more dexterity than Kenny Stabler is playing the Minnesota Vikings defense.”
Biletnikoff caught three passes from Stabler to set up touchdowns and was voted the game’s Most Valuable Player, but has said: “Snake could have been the MVP.”
The Raiders never again reached such heights with Stabler, who had a 69-26-1 record for the Silver and Black, while passing for 19,070 yards and 30 touchdowns with Oakland before finishing his career with the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints.
But numbers meant nothing to him, except his team’s record.
Stabler threw seven interceptions in a loss to the Denver Broncos in 1977, and after the game, he said: “Had the game gone on much longer I might have thrown 10 picks because that was the only chance we had to get back into the game.”
Stabler was finally voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016, a year after he died from colon cancer.
Said Madden after his favorite quarterback passed away: “I’ve often said, if I had one drive to win a game and I had one quarterback to pick, I would pick Kenny. The Snake was a lot cooler than I was. He was a perfect quarterback and a perfect Raider. When you think about the Raiders you think about Ken Stabler.”
To this day.
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