During the 1970s, there were many men who played the position of quarterback in the National Football League. During the same time, there were also quite a few men who played that position fairly well, to the point that they had winning records, admirable statistics, and possibly had even won a championship or two.
But what separated the good, the very good, and the very great quarterbacks of that era…or indeed of any era…was and is the ability to take their team down the length of the field to score a winning touchdown when the game had less than two minutes on the clock.
The infamous two-minute warning. Those are the pressure moments and the pressure couple of minutes where a signal caller’s greatness can truly be tested.
But the men who could do it in the playoffs were actually paving the way for their own legends to exist and to grow, and to be remembered to this very day.
John Madden Recalls "Sea of Hands" Game
In February of 1982, the great John Madden penned an article for Pro! Magazine which detailed one specific moment during his pro coaching career for the Oakland Raiders. It was a description of the famous Sea of Hands playoff game between his Raiders and the defending World Champion Miami Dolphins on December 21, 1974.
The article takes a close look at the decisions that his quarterback, the future Hall of Famer Ken Stabler made, during the final two minutes of that contest.
The scene is set at the Oakland Coliseum, and the Dolphins own a 26-21 lead with just two minutes left on the clock.
Ken Stabler Nicknamed "Snake" For A Reason
Stabler had the nickname of “Snake” for a reason. During those pressure-packed moments, you could just see from his facial expression and the way that he handled his demeanor, that he just wasn’t going to be phased by what lay in front of him and in front of his team. It might have been Stabler’s greatest moment as a pro quarterback during his entire career.
One of Coach Madden’s primary goals when dealing with a two-minute offense was to save time outs. Madden claimed that he would much rather see a pass out of bounds, or almost anything, really, rather than burning up time outs. Stabler felt the same way, and in the playoff game in 1974 versus Miami, Stabler used his time-outs only when he had to.
But he was smart enough to use them all, the last one with 35 seconds left in the contest. Stabler may have been a clutch quarterback, but he was also a practical one.
He knew that even though he wanted to save his time-outs, he also realized that it was foolish to have the final gun sound, with one or more time-outs still yet to be used. Madden hated that too. But Madden also admitted that Oakland would not have won that game if they had wasted a time out earlier in the second half.
The Dolphins’ defense knew that Stabler had to throw the ball, as the Raiders needed a touchdown, and they were 68 yards away from getting it when their drive started.
Stabler managed to complete six passes in the drive, and he used a timeout when only necessary. The first of those moments came following an 18-yard completion to wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, which resulted in a first down at the Miami 43-yard line. Madden said that Stabler was trying to establish the right rhythm, with crisp pacing, and without panicking.
Stabler did just that on the very next play when he hit Biletnikoff for a 20-yard gain. That placed the ball at the Dolphins’ 23-yard line, and there was exactly one minute left on the clock.
Madden said that Stabler realized that the Miami cornerbacks and outside linebackers were sticking tight to the sidelines, in the event that the Raiders tried some passes towards the sidelines, which would stop the clock, and sang their timeouts.
So to counter that move, Stabler sent his pass receivers over the middle, where traffic from the Dolphin defenders would not be as congested as it normally would be. Both of Biletnikoff’s first down catches on the drive were located in the middle of the field near the hash marks.
Stabler still had two time-outs left in his pocket, but he refused to use them at this time. In fact, he would wait for two more plays before he called his next time out.
The first of those two plays was a short four-yard pass to Cliff Branch. On the next play, Stabler hit Frank Pitts for a five-yard gain. The ball at first popped out of Pitts’ grasp, but the veteran wideout snared it before he was tackled. Stabler then immediately called a timeout. The Raiders were now perched at the Miami 14-yard line. He had only one timeout left at this point.
One factor that inadvertently aided the Raiders to get this deep into Dolphin territory was the fact that the Miami defense was playing a prevent coverage strategy. Stabler was quick to notice this, and he was quick to take advantage of it by having wide receivers like Biletnikoff and Pitts run patters that stayed underneath the deep zone coverages.
The field was now much shorter for the Raiders.
They knew that they only needed to gain 14 yards for the inning score. Madden urged Stabler to do anything…except to take a sack. Stabler decided to cross up the Miami defense by handing the ball off on a running play. Davis gained six yards (and a first down). Stabler immediately called his team’s final time-out. There were 35 seconds left to play, and the pigskin was perched on the Miami 8-yard line.
Greatest Play in Raider History?
Stabler’s next play became possibly the greatest single play in Raiders history. The Snake was chased out of his passing pocket, was tripped up by Miami defensive end Vern den Herder, and heaved the ball to the end zone. It was probably a pass that Stabler should not have thrown because his setback Clarence Davis was double-covered in the end zone.
But Davis somehow managed to catch the ball anyway and thereby secured Oakland’s 28-26 victory over the two-time World Champion Dolphins.
Ken Stabler had a few more great moments quarterbacking the Raiders, most importantly a victory in Super Bowl XI in January of 1977. But he will always be known as a clutch quarterback and a great clutch quarterback at that.
Host of Pro Football in the 1970s - Joe Zagorski
Throughout his days, Joe spent some time as a sportswriter and has been a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association since the mid-1980s. Joe is also a proud member of the Pro Football Writers of America.
Also, if you’re interested in picking one of Joe’s books up, all three are listed below.
Here, you can learn more about Joe and Pro Football in the 1970s.
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