The Snake and Dave Show—Kenny Stabler and his favorite target, Tight End Dave Casper—returned Sunday to Oakland, where they had starred on so many playoff teams, where they were legends. They were back in the Columbia Blue and White of the Houston Oilers. That old Raider safety, Jack Tatum, was with them, and don't forget that Mike Reinfeldt, the Oiler safetyman, was once a Raider, too. Oh, what drama.
Forget it. All the Oilers were over-matched as Oakland won 27-7 in the AFC wild-card game and advanced to Round No. 2 this weekend at Cleveland. The Oilers were overmatched by a lean, gray-haired, weather-beaten assistant coach named Charlie Sumner, who installed a particularly nasty set of blitzes, and by two young defensive backs, Lester Hayes and Mike Davis, who executed them. Stabler was sacked seven times, Hayes and Davis nailing him twice each. Hayes is the left cornerback, Davis the strong safety. All their blitzes came from the left side, and each time they came in clean. Ted Hendricks, the 6'7" linebacker, got Stabler once, on a left-side blitz. Willie Jones, the left-end sack specialist, got Stabler once, too, and Dave Browning, the right end, also got him once.
That's six sacks from the left, and they were hardly accidents. Sumner and his boss, Oakland Coach Tom Flores, had watched Stabler close up for all those years, and they were ready. "We've got to load up on him from our left side," Flores said the day before the game. "When Kenny drifts, he drifts to his right. He feels it gives him a better look down-field. We've got to make him uncomfortable out there."
So, on Monday, Sumner sat down with his pencils and charts and started loading up. His plan began with John Matuszak, the 6'8", 280-pound defensive left end. Go in hard, John, and try to occupy two men; that shouldn't be difficult because Matuszak faces two men most of the time anyway. Then we'll come with Hendricks outside. Hendricks is the best blitzing linebacker in the business, a chap who has a knack for worming his way over and around blockers. Once Hendricks was a great linebacker, then for a few years he was just another good one, but this season he has had a renaissance, a return to greatness. Why?
January 5, 1981
"Because they're letting me freelance more," he says. "They're turning me loose."
So far so good. But for the Snake we need something special. Hell, the Snake is special. Who knew it better than Flores, a Raider assistant for seven Stabler years and the coach for one? "I've seen him carve up so many teams, just work them over," Flores says. "On Thursday before the 1977 Super Bowl, our offensive day, we went through a whole practice and the ball only touched the ground once, and that was on a drop. John Madden was standing next to me, and he said, 'Who do you think, Tom?' and I said, 'Throw a blanket over him and get him out of here. This is scary.' "
Oh yes, Flores saw the Snake do it to so many other people. He knew that if he didn't want to be another scalp on the belt, he'd better come up with something nifty. That's where Sumner came in. Fifty years old, 18 years an assistant in the NFL, Sumner is one of those guys who never gets mentioned when the usual roster of head-coaching candidates is circulated. But he does very nice things with his defensive units, and this was his ultimate challenge—a Houston offense with Earl Campbell, a bone crusher, perhaps the finest pure fullback who ever lived, to run the ball, backed up by the Snake, a little weaker in the arm department, perhaps, but more familiar with the Oakland defensive people than any quarterback alive, throwing to Casper, the Hall of Fame tight end of the '70s.
"I consider myself a conservative type coach," Sumner says. "Blitzing isn't my style. But I saw something this time."
So Sumner topped off his creation with a wide, left-side blitz featuring Hayes, who broke into big-time ball as a 195-pound linebacker at Texas A&M, and Davis, a wicked hitter but a high-class athlete, as well—a 14.2 high hurdler for East Los Angeles Junior College. "On Wednesday in our meeting, Coach Sumner first unveiled the thing," Davis said. "My eyes lit up. So did Lester's. He said, 'Thank you.' "
Al Davis, Oakland's managing partner, said after the game, "Oh, sure, we've used Lester on blitzes this year." But Hayes shook his head and quietly contradicted his boss. "This was the first time," he said. "I didn't do it against other teams because they have some kind of adjustment to it. They slide block, they zone block, they pick it up. Houston doesn't. The Oilers' offensive scheme is out of the '40s. Brute strength. I kick your butt, you kick mine. Vince Lombardi football, Taylor and Hornung running the power."
The Oiler offensive line averages 277 pounds tackle to tackle, and 263 pounds when you line it up, seven across, with the two tight ends. It may be the heftiest in history, but it isn't mobile, and it doesn't adjust well to the unusual. The Raiders outflanked the Oilers' line with their darting blitzers, and it was like watching a bear trying to catch a wasp.
"They never made the kind of adjustment another team would've made," Hayes said. "They didn't make the moves needed to combat what we were doing. There was no change of venue, no tomfoolery. They just stayed with that brute strength concept."
The Oilers have no offensive coordinator. Their attack is a three-man creation; three assistants, Andy Bourgeois, King Hill and Joe Bugel, draw it up and Bum Phillips has final approval. When the game was over Phillips sadly noted, "We were outcoached. They did things and we didn't have the adjustments."
Hendricks said the Raiders had a good read on Campbell, who carried 27 times but gained more than six yards only once. "When he leans all the way forward, you know he's going to carry the ball," Hendricks said. And they had a good read on Stabler, too. Three of the four sacks by Hayes and Davis came on first down, the other on second; in fact, only one of the seven sacks came on third down, the traditional sacking down. Six of those sacks killed a series.
After the game Stabler sat in a corner of the little auxiliary dressing room, slowly peeling off his equipment. He shook his head sadly when people asked him what had happened. He hadn't taken a particularly ferocious beating. The Raiders treated their ex-teammate almost gently, and even when Hayes and Davis got him on blindside shots that could have taken his ribs apart, they chose to jump on his back rather than stick him. The toughest hit Stabler took was when Matuszak, his former roommate, jumped offside and bowled him over.
"He said to me, 'I believe you're offside, Tooz,' " Matuszak said, "and I said, 'I believe you're right, pardner.' "
"We made some mental mistakes, we made some physical mistakes," Stabler said. "Sometimes we had the wrong protection called. I can't call this game a personal thing because I didn't play well enough to win. I know they're playing better defense than they used to."
Even with all those sacks, though, even with an offense that scored on only one of 16 possessions (one drive ended in a 45-yard field-goal attempt that hit the crossbar, another with a 37-yarder that was blocked and still another with a Hayes interception in the end zone), the Oilers were very much in the hunt as the third quarter drew to a close. Oakland led 10-7, but now the Raiders were backed up on the one-yard line following Hayes' interception. A safety was a very real possibility. Apart from Chris Bahr's 47-yard field goal, the Oakland offense had consisted of exactly two plays, a 37-yard Jim Plunkett pass to ex-Oiler Kenny King that set a second-quarter touchdown, and the TD itself, Plunkett's one-yard corner pass to Todd Christensen, who was in as a third tight end in the goal-line offense. Oakland's total offense to that point was 88 yards; its offense in the second half was a minus two.
Plunkett was having trouble homing in on his targets, and the Raiders couldn't run the ball, but now they buckled up and punched it out to the 28, where the drive died on two very bad misfires. As the offense left the field, Plunkett's passing stats read five for 18, and the Raider fans were treating him to some heavy booing. The next Oiler possession ended with a sack, and then Plunkett caught fire. "I don't know what was wrong with me," he said. "I've had spells like that when I couldn't hit a thing, but in this offense you keep throwing long. You don't worry about high percentages, you keep waiting for the big one, and sooner or later you're going to get it."
Plunkett got two in a row: a 33-yarder to Cliff Branch, flying down the right side, his only catch of the day, and then a 44-yard TD to Arthur Whittington, flying right, after a very skillful play-action fake. A field goal gave the Raiders a 13-point cushion—20-7—and with 5:29 left Hayes wrote finis with a 20-yard interception for a TD, picking off a sideline pass intended for Mike Renfro. Stabler's strength is over the middle, crossing patterns, hooks, curls, posts. He's at his worst when he has to gun it for the sideline, and Hayes said the pass to Renfro "looked like a moon shot. It was just beautiful the way it hung up there. It was as pretty as Hollywood Park. So beautiful, such a softly thrown pass."
So that's the story of The Great Return. Stabler was blitzed. Jack Tatum played sporadically as a nickel back and made a couple of tackles, broke up a pass and drew one exotic penalty called a "post position foul" that left everyone mystified. Reinfeldt played his usual steady game. Casper caught only three passes for 31 yards and wasn't a factor—except in the anger department. He infuriated the Raiders' Gene Upshaw, 14 years a starter at left guard, with some pregame statements to the effect that Upshaw was the worst offensive lineman on the team, an underachiever who seldom worked up a sweat, "the Michelin Man in his white suit...never falls down...never gets his uniform dirty."
"In all my years in football I've never heard one player talk about another one that way," Upshaw said. "When I showed up at the pregame meal all my teammates were reading that article, and they started calling me Mr. Michelin. A few of them asked me if I could get them a good deal on tires. I'll tell you, I wished I was out there for a few plays on defense today."
And the ex-Oilers on the Oakland roster? Well, King, who had languished on the Houston bench last year, caught that big pass in the first half. Dan Pastorini, who came for Stabler in the quarterback trade, was the saddest story.
He's the forgotten man on the Oakland team. He hasn't been activated for backup help, even though he feels his broken leg has healed. He hung around the Raiders' practice on Saturday, staring moodily out at the field, hands thrust deeply in his pockets. Three hours later, when the Oilers showed up for practice, he was there again and he came to life,. skylarking on the field with his old gang, drilling passes to Bum Phillips, having a hell of a time.
"God, I wish I was playing tomorrow," Pastorini said. "It would be the funnest game of my career."
That night Pastorini was in the Oakland Hyatt House, where the Oilers were staying. He brooded. He got into a scuffle with Houston Post sportswriter Dale Robertson, whom he had jammed with last year, and wound up chasing him through the parking lot. "He never caught me," Robertson said.
Pastorini got into his car. A few people tried to restrain him. Fifteen minutes later the car was wrapped around an elm tree in a residential neighborhood in Alameda, and Pastorini wound up in the hospital, getting his face stitched. He wasn't in his usual spot behind the Raider bench Sunday, leading cheers.
Restoring Pastorini's battered pysche will be a major reclamation project for Al Davis next year. But that's next year. Right now the Raiders are flying high. To Cleveland.