Kenny Stabler, scraggly bearded and feisty, finished a rap session with the press one afternoon last week and strode onto the field at the Oakland Raiders' training camp in Santa Rosa, Calif. He took the snap from Center Dave Dalby, dropped back and scanned the coverage. Finding Morris Bradshaw free, he connected with him on a 50-yard scoring pass. The play was vintage Stabler, and the members of the Raiders' offense cheered, happily drinking it in.
For all of the above, it was a whole new ball game. Snake Stabler had refused to talk to the press most of last season, preferring not to discuss the fact that he rarely connected on any pass longer than 30 yards—to someone wearing a Raider jersey, that is. As recently as two weeks ago not many of Stabler's teammates were of a mood to cheer anything he did. Indeed, not only had Stabler failed to report to camp on schedule with the other Raiders, not only had he demanded to be traded, but he also had ripped a number of his teammates in print—Receivers Bradshaw and Cliff Branch because they dropped too many of his passes last season, Offensive Linemen Henry Lawrence and Mickey Marvin because they hadn't blocked well enough for Stabler on pass plays.
But controversy has long been more a Raider tradition than a disruptive force. Oakland has won with mavericks and malcontents, solid citizens and players just a fly pattern short of the slammer. So it is really no surprise that Stabler is working in harmony with his team these days and is likely to continue to do just that unless his bitter feud with Al Davis, the Raiders' managing general partner, reaches the point where Davis decides that Oakland isn't big enough for both of them.
With no trade apparently in the works, Stabler ended his one-week holdout on July 19, at the curfew hour of 11 p.m., when he drove his $33,000 Porsche 928 into the parking lot of the El Rancho Tropicana Motel in Santa Rosa. He had bought the car the night before.
The next morning Stabler was unexpectedly cordial to sportswriters until Bob Padecky of The Sacramento Bee asked a question. Padecky had gone to Gulf Shores, Ala. last January to interview Stabler and had been detained by police after a key case containing cocaine was found under a fender of his rented car. The cops figured he'd been framed, and they released him. Stabler responded to Padecky's question with a quick verb and pronoun.
Once on the field, Stabler settled into the routine of two-a-days, with Davis eyeing him closely. Stabler also applied himself dutifully to Oakland's new strength and conditioning program, hitting the weight machines after the morning practice and running around the field twice in the afternoon. The Snake's nocturnal regimen was also vintage Stabler. After team meetings broke up—at about 9:15 p.m.—he could be found with several of his teammates and one or another idolizing young lady in one or more of the half dozen Santa Rosa watering holes that comprise what the Raiders call "the circuit."
For Stabler, the Raiders' trip to Canton, Ohio for last Saturday's Hall of Fame game against Dallas was something of a junket, as he was still too rusty to participate. He played poker with Offensive Tackle John Vella, Tight End Raymond Chester, Linebacker Monte Johnson and Dalby on the flight east, and was on the sidelines as the Raiders beat the Cowboys 20-13.
Neither David Humm nor Jim Plunkett, Stabler's backups, particularly distinguished himself. Humm, playing the first half, completed six of 12 passes for 69 yards and led the Raiders to a 20-6 halftime advantage, but he overthrew open receivers on three occasions. In the second half Plunkett showed that his ailing arm is strong again but failed to put any points up.
On the field or off, every move Stabler makes is hot news in the Bay Area. Last season the Raiders stumbled to a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1971. Unable to throw long passes because of a jammed left elbow and a split tendon in the ring finger of his left hand, southpaw Stabler was easy pickings for defensive backs; he was intercepted a career-high 30 times and threw only 16 touchdown passes, none of which went as far as 50 yards.
The Bay Area press, which was generally unaware of the severity of Stabler's ailments, was quick to attribute his sudden ineffectiveness to his carousing. Once Stabler began to read their stories, he clammed up.
"I always got along with the writers until last year," he said one day after practice. "It was just that they were questioning my life-style. Hell, my life-style hasn't changed in 20 years. It was all right when we won the Super Bowl, but then we lost some games, and all of a sudden I'm a fat drunk, out of shape, overweight and all that."
Stabler insists he doesn't intend to reform. "To be perfectly honest," he says, "I'm not going to change, because I don't know any other way. I'm going to live the way I want to live. I don't think it distracts me from doing what I want to do during the season. People say, 'You can't do those things as you get older.' Well, if I can't, and it hurts my game, I'll get out. But I'm not going to let football control my entire life. I play and I work as hard as I can, and in the off-season I do the things I like to do. That's not going to change."
Shortly after the quarterback tuned out the press, the Davis-Stabler feud erupted. Davis made a remark that he claims was intended as an observation, not an indictment. "Our whole team isn't playing well this year," he said. "We're like a baseball team whose star pitcher has gone from a 25-and-4 record to 18-and-7." Later, asked who was to blame for the Raiders' decline, Davis said, "If you've got to find someone to blame, then blame Stabler. He makes the most money, and he's paid to take that kind of pressure."
While Davis was blaming Stabler, others said Davis was at least equally responsible for the Raiders' downfall, citing questionable moves that had robbed the team of a number of high draft choices for several seasons. Stabler thought Davis' comments about him smacked of a cheap shot. They have not talked since, and Stabler spent the off-season issuing "trade me or else" ultimatums from his home in Alabama.
Unfortunately for Stabler, so far no other NFL team believes that a 33-year-old, $342,000-a-year quarterback with a bad knee and a questionable arm is worth the price Davis has put on him: two frontline players and two first-round draft picks. So Stabler is likely to remain with the Raiders, although that doesn't mean he has to converse with Davis.
"I think if you have a beef with a guy," Stabler says, "you should call him into a room and sit down and look him in the eye and just tell him. I don't think it should be done with over-the-shoulder remarks to the media or stuff like comparing me to a baseball pitcher. He says I get paid to take the criticism, but I don't think it has to be done in the press.
"Somewhere along the line they always ask for loyalty from the players. Why can't a player ask for some loyalty from management? When you win you hear how it always starts at the top—good team, good management, good organization. It's possible that losing starts there, too, but you never hear about that. I just think it could have been handled a little better. But it won't affect the way I play the game. I have a great relationship with the players, and that's the only thing that's important. I don't have to have one with him."
Says Davis, "It's disappointing, because I know down the road he's going to need help in life. He's a loner. He went through this same thing with Bear [Bryant] and made up. I've had this problem with him before, and we've made up. Right now I'm only interested in one thing—how he plays. Our only legacy is whether we win or lose. You can say we're glad he's here, and we hope he plays like the premier NFL quarterback he says he is."
As for Stabler's caustic criticism of various teammates in a widely publicized pre-training-camp story, those named seem to have forgotten and forgiven. Says Lawrence, the tackle whose pass blocking didn't meet Stabler's exacting standards, "The man gave his own honest opinion of what was right and what was wrong here last season, and everyone is entitled to an opinion. Although his opinion of me was negative, I'm a team man. There were a lot of things I could have done better, the same as some other players, but I'm too mature to dwell on what happened. I'm going to stand tall and carry the burden, if it is one."
Lawrence also sees a positive side to Stabler's criticism of his blocking. "It really puts me in a pretty good spot," he says. "Now people know who's playing right tackle for Oakland. Maybe now I'll get some of those votes for the All-Pro team."
Branch also insists there is no bad blood. "The relationship between Kenny and me has always been there, and no criticism is going to affect it," he says.
Guard Gene Upshaw, one of Oakland's senior citizens, escaped Stabler's wrath, but he had a few words of avuncular advice for Stabler when the quarterback reported to camp. "I told him, I don't want to hear no more crap about being traded,' " Upshaw said. "We like him, he likes us, we're all in it together—and he knows that. There's no resentment about the things he said. They were things Kenny honestly felt, and he wouldn't be the competitor he is if he didn't react.
"I'll tell you, though. I'd like to be Al Davis' and Kenny Stabler's press agent. There's been nothing else in the papers for months. That's all you heard. I called my bank the other day and even they asked me about Kenny."