One upon a time, the Oakland Raiders were the most feared team in professional football. The playoffs and a run at the Super Bowl were considered a birthright. Somewhere along the line, that changed and the Raiders have fallen from their once lofty position of greatness.
It is said that those who don’t learn from their past are doomed to repeat it. It is also true that it is imperative to understand how the situation came about. It took many years for the Raiders to fall to the lows they have reached in these last few years, so it is important to take the events in a much larger context than just these past seven years. In fact, the issues go back decades.
This is a three part series that chronicles the rise and fall of the Oakland Raiders: The rise, the fall, and the future. Tonight’s entry chronicles the rise of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders from their beginnings in 1960 through their third Super Bowl win following the 1983 season. Part two will cover the era from 1984 through the present day. The third and final installment will be a look at the future of the Oakland Raiders, from both a football and an ownership perspective.
The Rise and Fall of the Oakland Raiders: Part I-The Rise
The Humble Beginnings
As the American Football League formed in 1960 no one could have imagined that a force that would conquer and forever change the football landscape would arise from the franchise that landed in Oakland. The AFL was dismissed as a second rate league with second rate talent compared to the older and established National Football League. In fact, the team that would rise the highest out of the AFL, the Oakland franchise, was not even in the original plan. The AFL awarded a franchise to Minneapolis that was moved when the NFL put the expansion Vikings in Minnesota.
When it was announced that Oakland would be the home to the franchise originally slated for Minneapolis, the city of Oakland took a poll and the team was to be named the Señors and they were given the colors of Black and Gold. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the team was renamed the Raiders, which came in third in the poll.
The Raiders did not start out like they were a team destined for greatness, in fact they were terrible. In their first three years they were a putrid 9-33. They played their home games in various locations including Kezar Stadium and Candlestick Park in San Francisco. They were a bad vagabond team. Granted, during this time they already had acquired one player who would play a key role in their eventual rise to greatness, All-AFL center #00 Jim Otto who was selected during their first draft ever.
Enter Al Davis
Prior to the 1963 season the Raiders hired an offensive assistant coach away from Sid Gillman’s San Diego Chargers by the name of Al Davis. Davis’s hiring was a pivotal moment not just for the Raiders and the AFL, but for pro football.
Davis brought with him the phrases that have become synonymous with the Raiders “commitment to excellence,”: “pride and poise,” and “Just Win, Baby.” These phrase sound cliché now, 43 years later, but at the time they were necessary mantras to turn around a struggling franchise.
The slogans, the offensive style and Davis’s instillation of a new attitude turned the Raiders fortunes around immediately. In 1962 under their prior coach Red Conkright and his predecessor Marty Feldman (who was released during the 62 season) the Raiders had an abysmal 1-13 record, but in 1963 under Al Davis they brought home a 10-4 record for the greatest one year turn around ever.
Besides the slogans and the system, Al also changed the colors from the gold and black to the now ubiquitous Silver and Black. He began bringing in players who were bigger badder and meaner than anyone else, they were players who did not fit in with other teams’ uptight cultures, but were awesome football players. Al Davis, like the other greats in coaching valued winning above all else.
Davis served as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders from 1963-5 and amassed a record of 23-16-3. Following the 1965 season Davis was named the AFL commissioner and John Rauch was named Head Coach.
Rauch coached the team from 66-8 and won the 1967 AFL Championship only to lose to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II.
Almost a Dynasty
The early seventies marked the epoch of the Raider would be dynasty with trips to the AFC championship game in 74, 75, 76 & 77. In the 74 and 75 games the Raiders would be eliminated by their archenemies the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 76 game saw the Raiders defeat the Steelers and go on to defeat the Minnesota Vikings for their first World Championship. The 77 game saw the Raiders lose to their arch rival Denver after a controversial call, but this is jumping ahead just a little.
The roots of the dominance of the Raiders lie in Al Davis’s return from the AFL commissioner’s office to become part owner and General Manager of the Raiders following the AFL-NFL merger. Davis opposed the merger, envisioning instead a landscape similar to baseball with separate leagues, but a common draft and a common championship. Lamar Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs was the one who spearheaded the merger as it came to be. This left a rift between Hunt and Davis that lasted until the day of Hunt’s death. That is one of the reasons for the long standing blood feud between the Chiefs and the Raiders.
Upon Davis’s return to the Raiders, he became a general partner which gave him one third of the controlling interest in the team, as well as the director of football operations. Using machinations that would make Machiavelli himself proud, Davis was able to wrest complete control of the team.
Prior to the 1969 season Davis promoted a little known linebackers coach to Head Coach by the name of John Madden. Madden would be the catalyst that kept the team of misfits playing at a top level. Davis would sign players who had worn out their welcomes with their old teams because they could not fit in. Davis looked at the ability of the player, not the baggage that the player carried, and it was left to Madden’s able hand to make this eclectic mix of personalities work.
Madden had three rules for his team
1) Be on time
2) Pay attention
3) play your ass off on Sunday
The Raider teams of the Seventies were known for being rowdy, partying hard, and playing harder. The ring leader was the QB Kenny Stabler who was known to brag about studying his playbook by the light of the jukebox. He sure was a good study, under him the Raiders were a winning machine, at least until they got to the playoffs.
The beginning of the string of post season disappointments was the 1972 AFC divisional game against the team that was to dog the Raiders for the rest of the decade, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Raiders held the lead late in the game, Terry Bradshaw faded back to pass and lofted the ball for Frenchy Fuqua who was laid out by Jack Tatum with the ball careening off of Frenchy through the air to the area where Franco Harris was been jogging down the field. Franco grabbed it as it neared the turf and somehow took it to the end zone. The officials gathered to discuss the play because in those days if an offensive player touched the ball, another offensive player could not make the reception, thus making it an incomplete pass. After a phone call to security to see if they had enough protection, the refs upon finding there was not enough protection to escort them out of the building if they made the correct call of an incomplete pass, ruled it a touchdown thus administering the first of many questionable calls to go against the Raiders. (More on this with the 77 AFC championship game & the 01 divisional game) This travesty has gone down in history as the Immaculate Reception. The Steelers lost the next week to the Dolphins as they completed their perfect season, but laid the groundwork for their coming dynasty.
The 74 and 75 seasons both ended with losses to the eventual champion Steelers. At the dawn of the 76 season, the Raiders came out more determined than ever. Madden told the team that they were not going to do anything fancy, but they were just going to be better than everyone else. By that season, the Raiders were known as the team that could not win the big one. The Raiders played with a renewed fire that year and beat the Steelers in the AFC championship game, and beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
The 77 season promised to be a good one for the defending champions, but it did not go quite as planned. They entered the playoffs as a wild card, but still made it to the AFC championship game after winning the divisional game against the Baltimore Colts in one of the greatest games ever played. (It is called the Ghost to the Post game, and if you ever get a chance to see it on ESPN Classic, I suggest it.) In the championship game, The Broncos had a lead, and were working to go in for another touchdown, but Rob Lyttle fumbled the ball, and it was recovered by the Raiders, but the refs said it was not a fumble in another travesty of justice, and the Broncos went on to lose to the Cowboys in the Super Bowl.
After the 78 season Madden retired citing health reasons, and went on to a storied career in broadcasting. Madden was replaced by former Raider player and asst coach Tom Flores.
Back to the top
The last couple of years of the 70s saw a major remaking of the Raider roster. Fixtures such as linebacker Phil Villapiano and QB Ken Stabler were traded. Willie Brown and Fred Belitnikoff had retired. It looked like the Raiders were set to go into a rebuilding mode.
The 1980 season started out inauspiciously. It seemed that the team could not find its rhythm. Then starting QB Dan Pastorini was hurt and Jim Plunkett took over the reigns. Plunk led the team to a wild card birth, which the team parlayed into a third Super Bowl appearance. The Raiders demolished the Philadelphia Eagles to win their second world championship in 4 years.
End of an era
Following the 1981 season, Davis announced that he was moving the team from their home in Oakland to Los Angeles. The 1981 season had been dismal, and included being shut out three games in a row.
The 82 season brought a new face to the Raiders in future Hall of Farmer Marcus Allen. He would help the team compile one of the best records in the league that strike shortened year, only to lose to the New York Jets in the playoffs.
The 83 season saw the Raiders defeat the Washington Redskins for their third Lombardi trophy in a game that saw Allen set the Super Bowl rushing record and bring home the MVP trophy. This would prove to be the last Lombardi trophy that the team would bring home for the next two generations.
The Raider Mystique
During this period of dominance, the Raiders built up a powerful mystique that they were going to win, and ground you into the turf to do it. They played with an intensity that few teams could match. Al Davis always did whatever was necessary to make sure that the best players available would wear the Silver and Black.
The fans at the Oakland Coliseum were among the loudest and proudest of all fans. Oakland at the time was a tough blue collar city, and the Raiders were a tough blue collar team. They played hard and partied hard. It was well known that many of the players would party with the fans at the bars around the training camps in Santa Rosa. There was a synergy there.
Rise and Fall of the Oakland Raiders Empire to be contined
- Part II: The Fall
- Part III: The Future Monday 22 February 2010
(Article re-dited from an article posted on TFDS in February 2006)