By Zane Miller
After being selected 52nd overall in the 1968 NFL-AFL Draft by the Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders, Ken Stabler far outperformed his draft position once given the chance to assume the starting quarterback role. After riding the bench for five seasons, Stabler would finally get his opportunity to showcase his talents in 1973 after longtime starter Daryle Lamonica was benched three weeks into the campaign.
In the final 11 games of the year, Stabler was dominant, going 8-2-1 the rest of the way and leading the Raiders to the AFC Championship Game despite the slow start. Although the team lost to the Miami Dolphins to fall short of their second Super Bowl appearance, the Raiders were hungry with their new quarterback at the helm for the full season, as Stabler would go on to prove that 1973 was no fluke.
Stabler’s best game of the 1974 season came on November 3rd, as the Raiders traveled to face the division-rival Denver Broncos. There Stabler scored all four touchdowns for Oakland, finding Hall of Fame wide receivers Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch twice apiece as the team won 28-17 and improving to 7-1 on the year. Stabler also passed for a total of 217 yards on the afternoon.
The Raiders took the AFC West with a final record of 12-2, with Stabler only missing out on one of those victories as backup Larry Lawrence also claimed a win for Oakland. Stabler dominated the league in touchdown passes, scoring the most on the year with 26, six more than runner-up Joe Namath of the New York Jets. In the passing yardage category, Stabler also finished top-five with 2,469 yards, eight ahead of New England Patriots quarterback Jim Plunkett. With that, Stabler finished as a first-team All-Pro, Offensive Player of the Year and, most notably, claimed league MVP honors for the first time in his career.
On December 21st, the Raiders had home field advantage for their first-round matchup against the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins got on the board first thanks to an 89-yard kickoff return score by Nat Moore, although this would be the only scoring play of the first quarter with Miami leading 7-0. However, the Raiders responded as Stabler hit running back Charlie Smith from 31 yards out to briefly tie the game, before the Dolphins restored the advantage with a Garo Yepremian field goal. At halftime, the Raiders trailed 10-7, as the back-and-forth swing of the game would be far from over.
Oakland grabbed their first lead of the game as Stabler found Biletnikoff, though the third quarter wouldn’t end cleanly for the team as Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese threw a touchdown of his own to another Hall of Fame wideout in Paul Warfield. Luckily for the Raiders, the point after try would be unsuccessful, making it a 16-14 game with one quarter remaining.
With the Dolphins tacking on another field goal to lead off the fourth quarter, Stabler made his biggest play of the game as he connected with Branch for a 72-yard touchdown grab, claiming the lead once again at 21-19. With just over two minutes to play, Oakland found their backs pushed against the wall, as running back Benny Malone scored a go-ahead 23-yard touchdown rush. After connecting with Biletnikoff twice for a total of 38 yards, Stabler found veteran wide receiver Frank Pitts to get into the red zone. Shortly after, he gained another 12 yards through the air, setting the Raiders up for their biggest play of the season.
While the Dolphins defense was able to get to Stabler on the ensuing play, he would get the ball off while going to the ground, a pass which Stabler himself said should have been intercepted. However, he was able to find an unlikely target, with running back Clarence Davis, who had only one touchdown catch in his career, beating two Dolphin defenders to put Oakland ahead 28-26 with just 24 seconds remaining. This pass, known as the “Sea of Hands”, would become one of the most iconic touchdown passes in the history of the Raiders franchise. Miami would be unable to get anything going on their next possession, as linebacker Phil Villapiano made the game-ending interception to halt the Dolphins’ hopes of a third straight Super Bowl.
Stabler came through with one of the best performances of his career, getting four touchdowns with 293 passing yards as the Raiders continued their playoff homestand to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC Championship Game on December 29th.
Although the Raiders scored the only points of the first quarter with a George Blanda field goal, the Steelers responded in the second with a short field goal of their own, making it a 3-3 halftime score with both defenses firing on all cylinders. Like the week before, the Raiders threatened through the air, as Stabler found Branch for a 38-yard strike, giving the defense a chance to hold with a 10-3 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
Once the fourth got underway, however, the situation quickly began unraveling for the Raiders. After the Steelers tied the contest up thanks to a touchdown run from Franco Harris, linebacker Jack Ham would make a crucial interception on Stabler on the next possession. This allowed a touchdown connection from quarterback Terry Bradshaw to wide receiver Lynn Swann, putting Pittsburgh ahead for the first time all day at 17-10. The Raiders’ offense continued to sputter, managing only one more field goal before the Steelers added a late touchdown to cement a 24-13 victory, sending themselves to their first-ever Super Bowl. While Stabler managed solid numbers in passing yards with 271, only one touchdown pass to go along with three picks contributed to the Raiders’ deep postseason run coming up just a bit short. However, this would not be the last time that Stabler would lead the Raiders to a dominant regular season.