Like piranha, the Raiders’ front four–with almost no blitzing from the linebackers, as Al had always deemed that an admission of weakness as well as a needless risk–went on a bacchanal of quarterback sacking in 1967. Revealingly, none of these men were highly regarded players when they came to the Raiders, before Al turned loose their primal urges.
By season’s end, they had recorded a then-pro-record sixty-seven sacks– an average of almost five a game. Aided to no end by their relentless pressure on quarterbacks, the defensive backs grabbed a league-high thirty interceptions. All around, 1967 was not so much a season as it was a carnage. Daryle Lamonica arrived in Oakland throwing. Though he would often be criticized for not throwing short, surgical passes, he never wavered in his fealty to Al’s incontinent brand of passing. That first year, Lamonica aired it out for 3,228 yards and a league-high thirty touchdowns.
In this windfall, many Raider receivers prospered. Fred Biletnikoff darted and dodged for forty catches and an average per catch of twenty -two yards. Warren Wells, a sylphlike receiver with ocelot speed but unproven abilities, was picked off the waiver list from the Chiefs and caught thirteen balls–six for touchdowns.
Wells was both startling and disturbing. As became clear to the Raiders, he was a man of drastic highs and lows. Out of uniform, demons seemed to run rampant within him, and far too often he took his refuge in a bottle of Jack Daniels. Yet on the field, he was a player of immesurable talent -“probably the best athlete I ever played with,” according to Tom Keating.
Then there was the effect of Gene Upshaw. At six-five and 255 pounds he was faster than most of the backs. Stationed in the left guard spot, he immediately became the nucleus of the running game. Often, Rauch would run two or three sweeps behind Upshaw on the first series of the game–right at the other team’s best cornerback, so that the ungodly Upshaw would put a hurtin’ on him early.
The next season, a third-round draft pick would bring another mastadon lineman: Art Shell, six-five, 255, and a two way tackle. When Shell matured and moved into the tackle spot next to Upshaw, the Raiders would slant their running plays almost exclusively toward the left side–and would do so until 1982 when both men had finally retired.
…by the mid-seventies Al believed he personally had more grandeur than Oakland could fit between it’s borders. “By 1976 Al had already become disenchanted with Oakland, ” George Ross said. “Al was a New York guy, he knew that sports heroes back there were given ticker-tape parades, they were quoted, they got endorsements. In Oakland there was no mountain named for him, they didn’t change Lake Merritt to Lake Davis. And I think that was a deficiency on the part of the town; it took him for granted. …”
…Al blamed the town–especially after Wayne Valley’s exit and a Super Bowl victory sent his Napoleonic quotient clear through the roof. Al already owned one of the highest payrolls in the game, and his fears about survival in a new, mercantile NFL altered his old Darwinism. Davis once said, “There are three alternatives in a changing environment. One, you adapt your activities to it. Two, you migrate. Three, survival of the fittest. I decided on number three.: But that was before. Now it was possible to combine two and three.
The lease was due to expire after the 1979 season, and had the extent of Al’s LA fascination been known, his increasingly hesitant and bitter negotiations with the Oakland Coliseum’s board of directors might have been seen as a masquerade. As it was, Al was able to act as the aggrieved party being screwed by the Coliseum board.
Now, officially , Rozelle posed two questions to him.
“Do you intend to move to Los Angeles?” came the first.
“Yes of course,” Al said.
“Do you intend to come to the league for a vote?”
On March 8, at the annual owners meeting in Palm Springs, the vote would be taken. Knowing the outcome, Al didn’t wait. Several days before, when Alameda County sheriffs came to the Raiders offices to enforce the restraining order, they found the building empty and dark, the contents of the team’s business having already been taken by vans to Los Angeles…. Raiders staffers had sold thirty thousand season tickets and seventy of the not yet built luxury boxes in five days….
On March 25, Al Davis… filed a $160 million antitrust suit against the NFL. Though the plaintiff would be the Oakland Raiders, much could be ascertained from the fact that Pete Rozelle was listed by name as a specific defendant. By the nature of the issues involved, and the pent up loathing of the two main contestants, there now was going to be a war like no other ever witnessed in sports.
With the season looking grim, Jim Plunkett at long last found his overdue NFL birthright. At thirty-two, Plunkett had to climb out of the football graveyard, in which were buried the remnants of the Rose Bowl and Heisman Trophy he won while at Stanford and the career that he began in neon as the top pick int he 1971 NFL draft.Reared to throw the ball deep, Plunkett became a lost soul running Chuck Fairbanks’s option-play ground game with the Patriots. Often injured and always frustrated, he demanded a trade to the 49ers in 1976 but was shunted aside; in 1978, he was cut, and unclaimed even at a hundred dollar waiver price. When Al signed him as a free agent, it was strictly as a backup guy.
But when Plunkett took over the Raiders offense, he finally had pass protection and an offense suited to his strong arm. He also had Florees, with whom he had so much in common that it was scary. On unique terms with Flores, Plunkett excelled in a way unseen in the days of wine and Stabler. The Flores-Plunkett style almost completely changed the nature of the team–at least with the offense. The huddle was again hushed and orderly, dependent on the communication between coach and quarterback.
It was Lester Hayes who now defined the new class of Raider reprobates. Lining up inches from the receiver, daring him from the get-go, Haye’s compulsiveness was seen in his unbelievable burst to the ball and the muck all over his body–a compost of dirt and stickum, which Hayes applied to places Fred Biletnikoff never heard of. Not only did Hayes dig his hands into big jars of the goo, he sprayed it onto his uniform and exposed skin using areosol cans filled with it.
“Never was the adage more apropos about being better lucky than good than it was that season,” said Todd Chirstensen, who signed as a backup tight end in 1979 after being cut by two NFL teams. “You had all these castoffs winning all these crazy games. I remember Lester intercepting one pass when the ball stuck to his helmet! He reached up and peeled it off. Lester really had twenty three interceptions that year, counting ones that were called back on other guys’ penalties.”
In the playoffs as an 11-5 wildcard team, they were now a steamroller, crushing the Oilers in the first round 27-7, besieging Stabler with a flood of blitzing that had even the defensive backs coming in after the Snake. Next came the Browns, on a Siberian early January day in Cleveland. After the interception by Raiders Mike Davis, Browns QB Brian Sipe, the league’s MVP that season, was never whole again.
As fate would have it, to get to the Super Bowl as the wild-card team the Raiders had to beat the two teams with the most vehement anti-Davis owners, first Art Modell and then Gene Klein. Klein must have needed sedation when the Riaders, needing no aid from the officials, blew out to a 28-7 lead and won the game 34-27 to go to their third Super Bowl.
“One thing that gave me great pleasure,” said Gene Upshaw afterward, “Was coming down here and sticking it to Gene Klein. The only thing that’s left is to win the Super Bowl and stick it to our commissioner. I’m waiting for him to come into our locker room to present the trophy to us and find out what it’s like to be booed.”