For years the Oakland Raiders bounced from one stadium to another, playing all but unnoticed in the shade of that other professional football team from the town across the Bay. But last week, now firmly settled in their own fine new home, the Raiders finally got what they had been seeking during those darker times—their first American Football League championship. After waiting so long, the Raiders turned the event into an almost casual rout. They beat the Houston Oilers 40-7 and left the impression they could have easily doubled the score if they had not been looking forward to their showdown Super Bowl match with the Green Bay Packers.
All week the Oakland players wore the look of men who had a rather simple but tedious job to perform. "Compared to the way it was when I was with Houston for other championship games, the attitude here is very calm," said George Blanda, the 40-year-old former Houston quarterback who this year became the Oakland kicker and who, on Sunday afternoon, booted four field goals and four conversions for 16 points. "We're going to win this game," said Oakland Defensive Tackle Tom Keating. "If I said anything else, I'd be a liar."
Two days before the game Raider Quarterback Daryle Lamonica had already plotted the affair on pieces of paper. Lamonica likes to sketch out different situations, draw his solutions and then talk them over with his roommate, Cotton Davidson, a Raider quarterback who was injured this season but stayed with the club to work with Lamonica. "I have the whole thing well organized in my mind," Lamonica said. "I know what I'm going to do. Of course, I'll have to wait and see what Houston will give me. Nobody has scored deep on the Oilers, but I'll go in looking to see what we have that will work on them Sunday. Then we'll adjust accordingly."
Like his opposite, Houston Quarterback Pete Beathard, Lamonica was involved in last year's AFL championship game between Kansas City and Buffalo. Lamonica was the substitute for Buffalo's Jack Kemp, and Beathard played behind Kansas City's Len Dawson. But this was the first title game for both as starters, and Lamonica had progressed so rapidly as a No. 1 quarterback that he had been named the AFL's Player of the Year.
January 8, 1968
"When I was traded to Oakland I was an outsider," Lamonica said. "I had to earn respect for myself. These old pros like Center Jim Otto and Guard Wayne Hawkins helped me a lot. If I would call a formation we didn't have, they'd know what I wanted and would line up in the right formation. By the time I got over the ball, it would dawn on me. Early in the season I had to stay with basic football because I couldn't read the blitzes very well. Now my play selection is broader, not so conservative. Cotton Davidson keeps talking to me, keeps me from making big mistakes."
The Houston defense presented a problem to Lamonica in the team's one regular-season meeting this year. Oakland won 19-7 on four field goals by Blanda, but Lamonica did not throw a touchdown pass. "That wasn't the same Houston team we had played in the exhibition season," Lamonica said. "We didn't know what to expect. Now we've seen films of them, and we have a better idea. We're as well prepared as any team in football. Nobody can do anything to us we're not prepared for. The only way we can lose is to beat ourselves. Credit John Rauch—our coach—for that."
The Houston offense had led the league in rushing, but the Raiders viewed it as a fairly straightforward and unsophisticated attack that could be stopped by pure force. "If we can shut off the Houston running game and make the Oilers throw the ball, we can make them do something they don't want to do," said Keating. "It's better to play a team like that than one that has a great throwing arm. If Beathard doesn't see a receiver right away and doesn't dump the ball to his tight end coming across, or to his fullback, he starts running around looking. But what we have to do is stop Hoyle Granger. He's the best fullback I've played against. Jim Nance of Boston made more yards this year, but he can't move laterally as well as Granger and can't catch the ball. Granger slides and picks his holes. By shutting him off, we can shut off the Oilers."
Oiler Coach Wally Lemm, handicapped by a lack of quality pass receivers, concentrated on the running game this season, and Houston surprised the AFL by running its way to the Eastern Division championship. "I've always been a believer in establishing a running game," Lemm said. "If all you do is throw, all you'll get is a pass rush. There are a lot of teams that play as we do. It's not a matter of how many times you throw, just how many yards you gain. If you have the ball, the other team can't score."
However, the Oilers considered the probability that the Oakland defense—known locally as the Eleven Angry Men—would load up to cut off Granger and Halfback Woodie Campbell. That left a great amount of responsibility on Beathard, who joined the club at midseason. For the Oiler offense to move, Beathard would have to throw accurately, the Houston receivers would have to quit dropping the ball and Beathard, an excellent runner, would have to scramble for a few important gains. "So we'll just keep Beathard in the pocket," said the Raiders' huge, mustachioed defensive end, Ben Davidson.
On a cool gray afternoon before a crowd of 53,330—an AFL championship-game record—Lamonica opened the Oakland attack with running plays aimed at the Houston middle and left side and tested both Oiler cornerbacks with sideline pass patterns. The first time the Oilers got the ball, they controlled it for 11 plays, with Granger losing two yards on four carries but with Beathard hitting five of six passes. The Oilers looked as if they might drive for a touchdown and spoil Oakland's Super Bowl plans before the team ever got out of town. Then Raider Linebacker Dan Connors stole a pass from Houston Tight End Alvin Reed, and the Oilers' mild hopes began to die. Blanda kicked his first field goal—from 37 yards out—to put Oakland ahead 3-0 at the end of the first quarter.
By then Lamonica had found out what he wanted to know. The left side of the Houston defense—Cornerback Miller Farr, rookie Linebacker George Webster and End Pat Holmes—was difficult to crack. Last year the Oilers gave up 25 touchdowns at their left cornerback position, but this season newcomer Farr had chopped that number down to one. But the right side was a different matter. On the first play of the second quarter Oakland Fullback Hewritt Dixon (see cover) went around left end on a sweep, got a clearing block from rookie Guard Gene Upshaw and raced 69 yards for a touchdown. Lamonica kept hitting to his own left. The Raiders sent 12 running plays to that side in the second quarter and gained 131 yards, but it took a fake field goal and a 17-yard pass from Lamonica to Dave Kocourek to get Oakland a 17-0 half-time lead.
"We blew it, that's all," said Lemm. "Our error on that fake field goal was just as important as our fumble on the second-half kickoff."
The fumble occurred when Houston's swift Zeke Moore, racing laterally across the field and looking for running room, dropped the ball after being tackled on the 30, and Oakland's Ken Herock recovered. Seven plays later Lamonica carried over from the one on a quarterback sneak—just as Starr had done against Dallas.
At this point Houston tightened up its defense against the Raider rushing game, but by now Blanda simply could not miss. He kicked another field goal from the 40 to put Oakland ahead 27-0. Then in the fourth quarter he kicked two more, one from the 42 and the last from the 36. And to cap it all off, Lamonica threw a final 12-yard touchdown pass to Bill Miller.
In the meantime the Houston offense, as well as its defense, had almost disappeared. Just as Tom Keating had suggested, the Raiders were able to counter the Oilers' power running with their own overpowering force. Keating, Davidson, Dan Birdwell and Ike Lassiter—the Oakland front four—refused to budge, the linebackers kept the Oiler running attack inside and the best secondary in the league came up to help out. Over the season Granger had gained 1,194 yards rushing, second best in the league. On Sunday he was held to 19 yards in 14 carries.
With no running game, Beathard had to scramble. He threw only one pass to his flanker, Ode Burrell, and that was incomplete. But he threw 18 rimes to Split End Charlie Frazier, who caught seven. After a disappointing season Frazier, Houston's fastest receiver, was the Oilers' only hope for quick touchdowns. He got one in this game on a five-yard pass after a 34-yard interference penalty against Oakland, but usually he was covered closely by Oakland Cornerback Willie Brown and could not get free.
With six minutes left, the Raiders were so comfortably situated that they put Blanda in at quarterback. "It's very sweet to win against people who let you go," Blanda said later in the Oakland locker room, where the Raiders doused themselves with the traditional champagne shower. But the Raiders—who had earned $6,000 apiece for their victory and could now look forward to a chance at $15,000 more against Green Bay—were a little restrained even in their celebration, as though the victory party had been a foregone conclusion—which, to them, it was.
Lamonica said Dixon's long run and the following Oakland touchdown drive—which also was directed toward Houston's right side—were the deciding factors. "We discovered a weakness, and a quarterback has to hit the weakness as long as he can," he said. "Upshaw's blocking had a lot to do with our going to our left, but we were just executing well in that direction."
"Upshaw," said Dixon, "is one beautiful player. On my run, he kicked out the corner and there was nothing in front of me for miles."
Lamonica admitted thoughts of playing in the Super Bowl had been lurking in his head even earlier in the week as he marked his diagrams and considered Oakland's defensive plan against Houston. "I wouldn't be human if I didn't think about going to the Super Bowl," he said. "I'm looking forward very much to playing Green Bay. I was drafted by the Packers when I got out of college, but I chose the AFL. I think I would rather play Green Bay than any other team."
"If we play like we played today, we can run on Green Bay or on anybody else," said Upshaw. "There's plenty of pressure in the Super Bowl, but if we keep calm it's going to be just like playing any team in any other game."
The Raiders may find that is not quite the case. But after eight years of trying, they have at last won an AFL championship, and they have a reason to feel heady.