The offensive line of the 1976 Oakland Raiders was selected as the best O-line in National Football League history several years ago.
Probably the most underrated player on that line was tackle John Vella.
“Even though we get absolutely nothing for it except recognition, it’s probably the biggest award I’ll ever have,” Vella said of the honor, but Hall of Famers Gene Upshaw and Art Shell were the only players on the line officially notified, leaving out Vella, center Dave Dalby and guard George Buehler to find out from other means.
“A friend called and told me. The three of us found out by watching on TV. It’s definitely an honor.”
The 6-4, 265-pound Vella was selected by the Raiders in the second round (No. 43 overall) of the 1972 National Football League draft out of USC, where he was selected to the 1971 All-American team and also played on the baseball team that won the College World Series in 1970.
Vella moved into the starting lineup as a rookie and played for the Raiders from 1972-79 but never received any individual awards, most likely because he was overlooked by playing on an offensive line that included future Hall of Famers Shell, Upshaw, center Jim Otto, tackle Brown and tight end, Dave Casper.
During his years with the Silver and Black, Vella played a key role on the offensive line as the Raiders played in five AFC Championship Games and routed the Minnesota Vikings, 32-14, in Super Bowl XI at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, Calif.
“The offensive line the Raiders had in the ’70s is arguably one of, if not the greatest of all-time,” according to a Fansided Story in 2018. “The big fellas up front were crowded with future Hall of Famers, and for those weren’t inducted into Canton, they still are legends in team history and were fantastic players in their own right.
“That includes Vella, Buehler, Dalby, Henry Lawrence and Steve Sylvester.”
Vella’s job was especially important during much of that time because as the right tackle he protected the back side of Hall of Fame quarterback Kenny Stabler.
Stabler knew what he had on the right side.
“Shell, Upshaw and Otto got all the accolades, but I knew I had a great blocker in John Vella protecting me from behind,” Stabler said.
Added longtime Raiders scouting executive Ron Wolf, who was elected to the Hall of Fame after his years as general manager of the Green Bay Packers: “John Vella was as good a pass protector as there was and a very good run blocker. He had a mean, nasty disposition. Shell was a great player, but John Vella was a Pro Bowl tackle quality tackle who will never get his due.”
Vella effectively blocked Mean Joe Green and L.C. Greenwood of the Pittsburgh Steelers in some of the classic games of the 1970s.
That included the famed “Immaculate Reception” playoff game won by the Steelers in 1972.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say we should have beaten them because they were a great team,” Vella said. “I say we could have beaten them. There was no disgrace to lose to the Steelers. I couldn’t say that about any other team. They were definitely our nemesis. It was a great, great rivalry.”
Vella also had the assignment of blocking Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller of the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
Eller made only three tackles and no sacks in the game.
“The way we played the Super Bowl was definitely a big factor,” Vella said of the 1976 Raiders O-line being selected the greatest of all time. “I’m glad I didn’t have to face Carl Eller when he was 25. Because he was still a very good player at 37 or 38.”
Vella also was very good until injuries led to the end of his Raiders career in 1979.
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