Few saw it coming–before the season began and even at mid-season. But with excellent quarterbacking and a dominant defense, the Raiders won the NFL’s big prize 40 years ago.
From 1967–1977, the Raiders had been one of the top teams in professional football, reaching the post-season every year except for 1971. They had played in nine AFL/AFC Championship games, winning two of them, and in two Super Bowls, winning one.
But 1978 was a disappointing year. In a pre-season game against the New England Patriots, Raiders’ defensive back Jack Tatum’s hit resulted in Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley getting paralyzed. The play seemed to cast a dark cloud over the team. QB Ken Stabler threw 30 interceptions and only 16 touchdowns, receiver Cliff Branch scored only one touchdown, and the Raiders failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1966. They finished the year at 9–7.
To no surprise, 1979 brought change. Coach John Madden retired, and assistant coach Tom Flores took over. Future Hall of Famers Willie Brown and Fred Biletnikoff retired. Defensive tackle Otis Sistrunk retired, too. And the team traded hard-hitting defensive back George Atkinson to the Denver Broncos. There was more.
Defensive end John Matuszak spent most of the season on the injured list, and Pro Bowl running back Mark van Eeghen had a disappointing year–running for just 818 yards after having three seasons in a row with over 1,000 yards. It all added up to another dismal 9–7 record. The team missed the playoffs for the second year in a row.
1980 Oakland Raiders Season
More changes followed. Before starting the 1980 season, Al Davis announced that the team would be moving to Los Angeles. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle blocked the move, and the two ended up locked in a court battle. There were on-the-field changes, too.
Three of their top players were put on the trading block: QB Ken Stabler, DB Jack Tatum, and linebacker Phil Villipiano. Few expected much from the 1980 Oakland Raiders, and the first five games didn’t change that thinking.
Oakland opened with a win over the KC Chiefs but lost the following week in OT to the SD Chargers. A win in Week 3 (against the Redskins) gave hope. The team was 2–1, but Week 4 saw a five-turnover, 24–7 loss to the Bills, and Week 5 was worse–a 31–17 loss to the Chiefs.
Hope was fading for this 2–3 team, not just because of the way the team was playing, but because the new starting QB, Dan Pastorini, suffered a broken leg against KC and was out for the season. The team would now be led by back-up QB Jim Plunkett, who did nothing to distinguish himself by throwing five picks against the Chiefs.
Up to that point, Plunkett had an up-and-mostly-down NFL career. After winning the 1970 Heisman Trophy, Plunkett was the #1 draft choice of the then- Boston Patriots. After having a promising rookie campaign, Plunkett struggled for the next six seasons–four with the Patriots and two with the 49ers. In 1978, he joined the Raiders as a backup.
Things looked bleak going into Week 6 against the 4–1 Chargers. But the Raiders pulled off an upset. Plunkett threw only 14 passes but completed 11 without an interception. Kenny King gained 138 yds rushing. But the big news was on defense, where the Raiders forced six turnovers and sacked quarterback Dan Fouts seven times. The Raiders won, 38–24.
Next up were the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Surprisingly, the Raiders traded All-Pro tight end, Dave Casper, during the week, but what the team got in exchange was too good to pass up–a first-round draft choice and two second-round choices. And the Raiders had a solid player to replace Casper in three-time Pro Bowler Raymond Chester.
The trade wasn’t a disruption as Plunkett played a great game–passing for 247 yards, three touchdowns, and (again) zero interceptions. In a shootout, Oakland beat the Steelers, 45–34.
Tom Flores: Second Year Head Coach
Under the steady leadership of second-year coach Tom Flores, the team then went on to win their next four games, making it six wins in a row. With an overall record of 8–3, five games remained on the schedule. But it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Only one of their remaining opponents had a losing record. The Raiders went 3–2 in those games to finish the season at 11–5.
Tom Flores and Lester Hayes were two big reasons for the Raiders success.
The good news was on defense where the Raiders led the league in forcing turnovers with 52 for the season, were second in the NFL with 54 sacks, and DB Lester Hayes led the league with 13 interceptions. Best of all, the 11–5 record was good enough to get the team into the playoffs as a Wild Card entry.
Playoffs, Into The Super Bowl
The first playoff game was against the Houston Oilers and former Raiders QB Ken Stabler. The Raiders weren’t welcoming to their former signal-caller (two interceptions), and the ‘D’ kept hard-running Earl Campbell in check (only 91 rushing yards). The Raiders won going away, 27–7.
Next up was a trip to brutally cold Cleveland and a match-up with the Browns. The game-time temperature hovered near zero degrees. The Raiders were up 14–12 with less than one minute to play, but the Browns had the ball at the Raiders 13-yard line. Things looked bleak.
That’s when the defense stepped up once again. DB Mike Davis intercepted a Brian Sipe pass intended for TE Ozzie Newsome, and the Raiders were on their way to the AFC championship game against the Chargers in sunny San Diego.
Defense wasn’t the storyline in that game. Even though San Diego outgained the Raiders in yardage 434–362, they also committed three turnovers (to zero for Oakland), and the Raiders won 34–27. In a script few thought possible, the Raiders were on their way to the Super Bowl where they’d face the Philadelphia Eagles.
There the silver & black attack dominated the Eagles, who had defeated Oakland in week twelve. The defense limited Pro Bowl RB Wilbert Montgomery to 44 yards rushing. The ‘D’ had four turnovers during the day–three through interceptions made by linebacker Rod Martin. On offense, RB Kenny King turned a short pass into an 80-yard touchdown, and Jim Plunkett threw for 261 yards, three touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and was named the Super Bowl MVP.
The Raiders won the game 27–10 to become one of the most unlikely teams in NFL history to win a Super Bowl.
Learn more about the “Outlaw Oakland Raiders.”
Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond. He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area.