By Steve Silverman
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Ken “The Snake” Stabler was not the greatest quarterback of all time.
When it comes to glory, numbers and throwing perfect spirals every time out, Stabler does not fit in the same category with the game’s all-time leaders like Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Steve Young and, soon, Aaron Rodgers.
However, if you needed to win one game or succeed on one drive, you might come out ahead of the pack if you chose the Oakland Raiders’ left-handed slinger over any one of those all-time greats.
Stabler died at age 69 Wednesday, and he was the greatest player in Raiders history. He’s not in the Hall of Fame, but perhaps he should be. His ability to come through with the most important plays when the game was on the line is what gave him the ability to take the Raiders to the top.
There are three signature plays that define Stabler’s career and helped make him the winner he was. Perhaps his greatest was a pass to tight end Dave Casper in a 1977 playoff game on the road against the Baltimore Colts that set up the Raiders’ game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter.
Casper was bracketed by the Colts, but Stabler simply dropped the ball into his arms when he had no margin for error. Stabler and Casper would combine for the game-winning touchdown in double overtime and the Raiders would come out of the game with a 37-31 victory.
Years before that play, Stabler had helped dethrone the Miami Dolphins in 1974. The Dolphins won the Super Bowl in 1972 and ’73, and they were once again in the playoffs following the ’74 season. The Dolphins were about to continue their success against the Raiders, as they led 26-21 in the final seconds. However, Stabler bought time and spotted running back Clarence Davis in the end zone, surrounded by Dolphin defenders. The gutsy Stabler lofted a pass in Davis’ direction, and the running back outfought the defense for the ball. The touchdown gave the Raiders a 28-26 win.
Stabler’s infamous Holy Roller play came in a 1978 regular-season game at San Diego. The Raiders were trailing the Chargers with 10 seconds left, and the San Diego defense converged on Stabler for what appeared to be a game-ending sack. However, Stabler calmly fumbled the ball forward as he was getting tossed to the ground, and Raiders running back Pete Banaszak got his hands on the ball and batted it towards the end zone. An alert Casper fell on the ball for a game-winning touchdown.
After that play, the NFL made it illegal to bat a ball forward after a fumble, and it negated any forward fumble in the last two minutes of the game or half by bringing it back to the point of the fumble if the opposition did not recover it. It was known as the Raider rule, and nearly every football fan knows it by heart.
All of those plays came in Raiders victories, but perhaps the most underrated play of his career came in an even more famous loss. Stabler and the Raiders engaged the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 1972 playoff game at frozen Three Rivers Stadium, and when Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum batted a Terry Bradshaw pass backwards, running back Franco Harris picked it off on the run at his shoe tops, and kept running into the end zone with the Immaculate Reception. It gave the Steelers a 13-7 victory.
However, moments before that play, Stabler had scored on a 30-yard bootleg through the Pittsburgh Steel Curtain defense. Stabler was never the fleetest of foot, but he was quite elusive before knee injuries slowed him further.
To score on a run late in the fourth quarter against the greatest defense the game has ever known can’t be overstated. It was a play that should have given the Raiders a victory, but Harris’ magical and controversial catch took that away from him.
Stabler always rose to the occasion in the biggest moments. He quarterbacked the Raiders to their first Super Bowl victory following the 1976 season against the Minnesota Vikings by calmly dissecting the staunch Purple People Eaters defense. John Madden’s joyous celebration after the 32-14 victory in Super Bowl XI at the Rose Bowl was largely determined by Stabler’s excellence.
Stabler had the kind of big-game confidence that has rarely been seen in any era of the game. There have been many other quarterbacks who have come through with big games, but how many have done it with Stabler’s bravado? Stabler didn’t have to check with others and get their opinions on what would work best. Instead, he relied on his own instincts.
That’s just what Madden wanted from him. If Stabler wanted to discuss a play or a situation, he was more than happy to do so. However, if Stabler wanted to run it on his own, he had a coach who allowed it and would never second-guess him
Stabler may not have been better than Montana, Unitas or Manning, but would any of them have beaten him in the final moments of the biggest game? Very doubtful.