I was truly saddened a few months ago at the untimely passing of one of my personal heroes, the great Oakland Raiders quarterback Kenny “Snake” Stabler. It reminded me that in 1993 I had the great pleasure to interview him for my sports publication, the NorCal Sports Report. Stabler was gracious enough to spend some time sharing his thoughts on those glory days with the Raiders and on the NFL in general. He was very funny and candid, and easily the most enjoyable interview of my career to date. I fortunately kept that interview and present it to you now in a slightly abridged version. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
RE: Several of your teammates went into coaching. Did you ever consider that?
Stabler: Oh I don’t know. I have, but I really didn’t take the necessary steps to pay my dues to be a head football coach. After playing 15 years I know you don’t just go from the field to being a pro football head coach. I remember what kind of focus it took to play and it would take that same focus in order to coach because you want to win. You don’t want to be an assistant all your life, you want to work your way to that head coaching job, through being an offensive coach or offensive coordinator to get to that head coaching job. That takes the same kind of commitment that playing did. It’s tough on the children, they’re 7 and 5 and I don’t want to bounce them all over the country. I would love to do it, take a great young group and play but it doesn’t fit my lifestyle right now.
RE: Let’s talk about the glory days of the Raiders, generally acknowledged to be the wildest group on and off the field. How much of that is fact and how much is a little less than fact?
Stabler: I’d be the last one to ask. [Laughs] I was a victim of circumstance, I was just along for the ride. I was hooked up with a bad crowd for 10 years. I wouldn’t know.
RE: There are a lot that would say you were the ringleader.
Stabler: [Laughs] I’d say between fact or fiction, a lot of it was probably true. But it was always in a fun loving way that hurt very few people. A good, fun loving group of guys that cared about each other on and off the field. We ran together on the field, we ran together off the field. Cared about each other and it was always a good group of people. But no matter what our reputation was off the field we never let it interfere with our responsibility on the field. No matter what we did off the field, we played pretty consistent for about 10 years.
RE: You mentioned that you didn’t do anything to hurt anyone else. Do you think a lot of that had to do with the relationship you had as players and a team with the community of Oakland?
Stabler: I definitely think that had something to do with it. I think it’s harder to be an athlete today. We had a great relationship with the city. I think that our group of guys in the 70s gave the city of Oakland an identity. People before the football team was there had established its reputation and mystique and tradition. People think of the Bay Area and think of San Francisco. We made people think of Oakland because our football team and I think we gave the city some identity. They welcomed us in, made us feel like family and supported us well for so many years. It was a good relationship. It was a tough, blue collar football team in a tough, blue collar city. The fit was like a hand in a glove and it was an absolute blast those 10 years.
RE: You always seemed to be so in control of yourself and the game. The one game that stands out for most fans other than the Super Bowl was the “Sea of Hands” game in 1974 against the Miami Dolphins. Many people – including Curt Gowdy, who called the game for the network – called it the greatest football game ever. When you started that final drive what was the atmosphere like in that huddle and what kinds of things did you have to do to keep the guys focused?
Stabler: I remember the opening kickoff. We lost the toss and kicked to them and Nat Moore ran it back something like 98 yards for a touchdown. I looked at [Head coach John] Madden and said, ‘damn, it’s going to be a long day’. And it basically was. Up and down the field, both ball clubs. I guess the thing that made it what it was was the circumstances, doing it in playoffs when there’s a lot of money on the table. Doing it when you’re supposed to do it, when you have to do it in order to qualify for the next round. The circumstances made it a great football game. To answer your question, our ball club was always a group of veteran players that were in control of themselves and the situation and it was very business-like in there. That wasn’t the first time that we did that and it wouldn’t be the last time we did. All I’m saying is, we knew that we could if we execute, do what you’re job description calls for. I was a kid with an Erector Set. Using Freddy [Biletnikoff], a Hall of Famer, and using [Cliff] Branch, who could outrun half the cars in the parking lot. And then you get [Dave] Casper working the field against the linebackers, or a 240 pound fullback like Mark Van Eeghen. We had all the tools we needed to win. But the whole thing was very businesslike because it was a group of veterans.
RE: You mentioned having that businesslike attitude and knowing you’d be there again. I’d like to run a few games by you and get your thoughts on them. Let’s start with the “Holy Roller” game against San Diego in 1977. That game actually led to some rule changes. What do you recall most from that game?
Stabler: We shouldn’t have been in that position, for one. That’s the first thing that comes to mind, we shouldn’t have had to do that against them. We should have beaten them before then. But I don’t know, you come out the huddle, interception you lose, fumble you lose, incomplete pass you lose. You think of those and you have to do whatever is necessary to try to win. And of course the sack, the guy that got to me was Woodrow Lowe, former Alabama player, he got to me and in the course of the sack, ball squirts out and [Pete] Banaszak knocks it down inside the five and Casper inadvertently kicked it three times into the end zone. A crazy set of circumstances and we ran off the field like we stole something.
RE: Did you think at the time they were going to let it stand?
Stabler: There was no reason for them not to. All the video people came running to me asking about the fumble, the paper and pencils and TV cameras, and I told them we worked on that play all week, and just had to find a place to call. They didn’t think that was funny.
RE: The “Ghost to the Post” game against the Baltimore Colts in the AFC playoffs. The thing that comes to mind for most people is that pass to Casper late in the game with everything on the line. Reflection on that game?
Stabler: Just like Clarence Davis in 74 playoff game, that ball could very well have been intercepted and probably should have been but Clarence took it away. In the game you’re talking about the ball was thrown on the wrong side of Casper, he makes a wonderful adjustment and the ball comes over the top. That game is when games could go deeper than five quarters. If it was a tie after five quarters you played again, played six quarters. We were four or five minutes into the 6th quarter and third and 15, third and 18, third and long. Called that play and Casper makes that adjustment and gets us down in there. Five or six plays later we play pass and he catches a touchdown and ends the game in the 6th quarter. That was a fun game. I look at that and I think I had more fun in that game than a lot of them because of the offense. We were up and down the field like a track meet. Burt Jones threw the length of the field, I threw the length of the field. It was whoever had the ball last was going to win. That kind of game is fun and it was very memorable. Vivid in my mind.
RE: The “Immaculate Reception” game in 1972 against the Steelers. That play to this day, I don’t think anyone can really say exactly what happened. Marv Hubbard still swears up and down that the referees didn’t make the right call because they were afraid of getting out of the stadium.
Stabler: That was the speculation. I’m certainly not going to blame it on that and I don’t think Marv is blaming it on anything either. But playing in Pittsburg at that time of year against the Steelers was like going into a third world country. It was nasty, rough. It was a great game. I back up [Daryl] Lamonica and I started the second half and it was the first game the Dave Casper emerged as one of the greatest tight ends of all time. He had a big game, too, though neither of us started. We get ahead in the game and Bradshaw goes incomplete on his own 30 or 40. Incomplete on first down, incomplete on second down, third down. Then on fourth down he throws a strike and Jack Tatum and [Steelers running back] Frenchy Fuqua get there at the same time. Instant replay probably would have helped us but we ran the play back a hundred times when we got back and really couldn’t tell who it went off of. Franco [Harris] goes walking along like the game is over, just killing time. He thinks it’s over and the ball bounces right at him and he goes down the sideline. But I already knew we were in trouble when we got off the bus. I walked into the stadium behind Fuqua and he had on a full length mink coat and mink hat and par of platform shoes with a goldfish in each heel. I said, ‘How the hell are we going to beat this group?’
RE: Then there is the big one, Superbowl XI. It was the team’s Super Bowl first win and until then they had a reputation for not being able to get over the hump. That season you only lost one game and you beat Pittsburgh easily.
Stabler: We avenged that loss, with them in the first round.
RE: What was going through your mind when it became apparent you were going to win the Super Bowl?
Stabler: I knew exactly when it was. It was late in the third quarter or early in the fourth and Freddy Biletnikoff caught a 15, 20 yard in route and then broke it up between the safeties and ran all the way down inside the five. On his way after he caught the ball, and with us already ahead by 20-something points, I said to myself, ‘we just beat their ass.’ That was a great sense of relief and accomplishment and self-satisfaction, because we’de been carrying that rap for three or four years. We were a victim of a great football team in the 70s, the Pittsburgh Steelers. We were a victim the way that people were a victim of the 49ers in the 80s so it was great to get that monkey off our back.
RE: You were appointed “Keeper of the Tooz,” the great defensive end John Matuszak. Do you think the public ever really got to know him?
Stabler: No, I don’t think the public knew what he was all about. But I don’t think the public ever knew what a lot of us were about. I lived with John my last year out there in Oakland and I tell people it was the reason it was my last year. We just had a blast together. He was a wonderful guy, but he was misinterpreted and misunderstood. I saw that firsthand. He was a caring guy. His priorities were correct in an awful lot of things, children and how he treated people and his respect for older people and animals, and things of that nature. He was a wonderful guy. But he was not a very good drinker, and that always caused him some problems.
RE: Did it shake you up when he passed?
Stabler: Oh yeah. If I think about it, it tears you up outside. People don’t understand what players go through. And rightfully so, they shouldn’t. But you go through so many emotions as an athlete, whether its football, basketball, baseball, fuckin’, fightin’ or footracin’. You go through so many emotions that bond you together. You go through winning and losing and injury and pain and glory and criticism and all those things, it bonds you together because you go through them together. You miss people like that. You get relationships that you don’t just walk away from and forget. Our team was extremely close.
RE: You appeared to have a great relationship with John Madden. Describe that relationship.
Stabler: We meant an awful lot to each other. He gave me the opportunity. He had so much confidence in me. Our game plan was everything we had. He basically tossed me the playbook and said, ‘go win, do whatever the hell you want to.’ I played in an era when quarterbacks called their own plays and I probably ran 75, 80 and sometimes 90 percent of the game. John had that kind of confidence in me and that’s the thing that motivated me about him. I had all the self-motivation, but here’s a guy that puts his eggs in my basket and lets me do what I want to do, let’s me be the kind of athlete I want to be and let’s me use people the way I wanted to. I think that was his strong suit as a coach. He knew Xs and Os and offense and defense and kicking game, but I think what made John a good coach was he knew how to handle all the egos and the characters and how to keep us all together. Hell, the whole secondary was on a work release program just to play. John got us there and kept us all together.
RE: This current Raider team, one of the saddest aspects is the situation with Marcus Allen. You had your share of troubles with Al Davis. What were some of the good and bad points of working for him?
Stabler: I think anytime you play for somebody, all you can ask if for the same kind of commitment that you have, and he had that he is very committed to that football team. Whatever we needed, offensive player, defensive player. He understood talent because he comes from a coaching background, and most owners don’t understand the coaching aspect of the game, but he did. He was good with players. He gave us what we needed to win. All he expected was to win, and if you couldn’t help him, then you may have problems.
RE: One of the things it seemed like with Marcus Allen was that it was dividing the team. From your perspective, how much of a drag on a team is a situation like that?
Stabler: It has to be, there’s no doubt about it. When you have problems between player and management, it does have an effect. How you gauge it and measure that on the field I think is hard. But it’s certainly a distraction. We didn’t have that. I think it’s one of the things that made us a good ball club, along with being a talented team with all the tools, that we didn’t have any problems. Nothing that we couldn’t handle ourselves. We didn’t have to negotiate in the newspaper.
Me: I wanted to bring up this thing with Todd Marinovich.
Stabler: They wanted him so bad. The city wanted him so bad. Everybody that wears black wanted him so bad because he looked like me. And everybody wanted that, which was so unfair to him at his age and with not very much experience in college or pro football that people to expect those kinds of results from him. It was tough on him and took its toll. I always thought he could play. Maybe I’m not close enough to him and don’t know him well enough, but I pulled for him and hoped that he would do what they wanted him to do because he looked familiar as hell.
RE: Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
Stabler: No, I called him one time and I didn’t get a chance to talk to him. I talked to Al and Art and Freddy about him. I don’t know if he’s one of those kids that’s misunderstood from an early age. I’m not close enough to that kid to be able to say and to give you a real educated guess. I watched him play and he looked like he needed more arm strength, but he’s a tough kid. That didn’t seem to bother him. He seemed to say, ‘I threw three interceptions, well now I’m going to throw three touchdowns to beat you.’ He would just keep firing. I don’t know, maybe it’s just that he was so young and not much experience and I’m not sure he had the greatest football team around him. I’m not sure they ran the ball well enough. A young quarterback’s best friend is a great running game.
RE: You mentioned about calling your own plays. It’s the coach’s ball game these days. Why do you think they don’t let more quarterbacks run the game on the field these days?
Stabler: I think that is one thing that will always separate quarterbacks. You take Kenny Anderson, Bob Griese, Dan Pastorini, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Fouts and myself, guys like that, a bunch of us called our own stuff. That puts us, I think, in a very good category. The game has become so specialized now. When I played, on second down you usually saw the same 11 you saw on first and on third down you might five defensive backs. There it was. And today’s game, from 2nd and 1 to 2nd and 40, there’s whole field change on every down. And to ask your quarterback to keep up with that whole field change, like here comes three linebackers and two DBs, going to play this way. Or here comes four DBs and one linebacker, they’re going to play like that. And they don’t make those changes until you’re 30 seconds into your clock. So maybe the game has been taken out of his hands and run upstairs where they have the computer print outs and play the percentages and signal it down to him. And maybe rightfully so. Maybe the game has changed in a direction that’s absolutely too much for the quarterback to come up with. I don’t know. The only way to find out is to let the quarterbacks call the plays for the next five or six years and let’s see which brand of football is better. Does that make sense?
RE: It does. Do you think it’s going to happen?
RE: Lot of dollars floating around those decisions.
Stabler: The way I look at it, Steve Young makes $5 million. You’re going to pay him $5 million? That’s the kind of responsibility I would want. If I’m going to get my ass beat, I’m going to get it beat my way, as opposed to somebody else’s way. The guy who’s going to face the heat is going to be the coach. There’s that old thing, fire the coach and trade the quarterback.
RE: Another thing going on with quarterbacks is the new ruling that the guy can down the ball to avoid taking the sack. It seems to me guys didn’t have this kind of protection during the time you played and guys didn’t seem to get hurt as much.
Stabler: I don’t think they came after us as bad. They came after us, but I don’t think they came after with as many people, and with certain people. When I played, defensive lineman the Steelers front four of LC Greenwood, Joe Greene, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes were expected to get to the quarterback. In today’s game, they’ve got Lawrence Taylor and Derek Thomas and Pat Swilling. These guys are 6’3, 240, as opposed to the defensive line guys being 6’7 and 280. That’s like a Coca Cola machine falling on you, and the other one is like stepping off a curb in front of a cab and the cab hits a lot harder. I think that’s part of it. I think they’re bringing more people and athletes are getting bigger and faster. There’s more of them. That little brown ball draws a hell of a crowd.
RE: You see the guys too, even with these rules, they seem to keep getting hurt. Is there any way they can really protect the quarterback?
Stabler: No. Not unless you rule them off limits. You don’t hit them at all. But as long as people understand, you gotta be able to throw the football to win. As long as people understand that, and the best way to defeat that, the guy throwing the ball, beat the shit out of him. It’s as simple as that.
RE: We talked earlier about Marinovich and his problems as a young quarterback. You mentioned in your book, you thought at least in your case that your teammates not only respected you but they also liked you. You felt they played better for you if they liked you personally. I look at somebody like Jeff George and the situation he’s created. From your perspective, do you see him ever being able to regain that type of atmosphere with his teammates?
Stabler: That’s a damn good question. I think it would take a lot of work on his part. I’m not inside that locker room. I can’t give you a really educated guess on that, but when you go through those things, fighting with fans and the hold out and not being part of the football team at times when everybody needs you, you’re going bring some hard feelings and burn a bridge or two. It’s hard to rebuild those bridges. It damn sure can’t be with bullshit talk. It would have to be one thing. You have to get out there and complete a lot of passes and move the chains on a regular basis and score points and win football games. That will gain the respect back. But respect is really all you need. I’ve always thought that liking somebody was important. You can respect people and not like them but I’ve always thought it was better situation if you could get people to respect you because of what you did on the field. Because your job description calls for you to complete passes and move chains and score points and win football games. And then be a pretty good guy off the field and give a damn about them and their children and their injuries and what’s going on in their lives. Because we’re all in this thing together. That type of attitude and mentality, what the hell does that hurt?
RE: From the quarterback’s perspective, what’s the most essential physical trait?
Stabler: That’s hard because one is so dependent on the other. You can have all the desire and fire and determination and ‘keep getting up’ attitude that you want, but if you can’t throw the damn ball, you don’t have the ability to do it, you’re going to struggle. The great players are the ones who have a combination of all those things. They are blessed with the ability to throw a football accurately and where they want to and have all the touch you need as an athlete throwing a football. And then there’s that fire inside that needs to be there. And you need to be mentally and physically tough to be able to deal with the criticism when things don’t go well, to be able to handle it when you’re not winning. And then to be able to be physically tough to take the pounding and be consistent every Sunday, and for long periods of time. You need to be able to say, ‘here’s our quarter back for 17 or 18 years,’ like what Dan Marino is doing right now. Joe Montana has all that, in my mind. It’s a combination and I don’t think you can say one thing.
RE: You came this close to making the Hall of Fame this year. How much does making it mean to you?
Stabler: It’s probably like John Matuzak’s death. It probably bothers you more than you’ll let on, that you haven’t yet. But something tells you that one of these days, you probably will. If the criteria is numbers or winning or being a pretty good guy, you can get two out of three, three out of four. It’s important I guess. It’s that old cliché of icing on the cake. It would probably round things out nicely but shit, I still get up every morning at six with my children, whether we do or don’t.
RE: Do you know who would be your presenter?
Stabler: Oh I think Al Davis.
Me: Really? I don’t mean to sound too surprised but again, you hear things.
Stabler: He and I have a good relationship. I talked to him two weeks ago and I tried to call him today. I was going to ask him about his ball club that game from behind to win one. It looked familiar. They need things like that to pull them together and I was going to tell him that and talk about his football team. I do that every two or three months. We mended our fences a while back. You say things when you’re young and immature. We were both that. He probably would like to have some things back that he said about me and so would I. We mended that. I respected him and I feel like him. He’s another one who’s a bit misunderstood and there’s more to him than people give him credit for because they’re not with him on a daily basis so they don’t understand what he does for people around him and how deeply the loss of friends affects him and things he does off the field for people. His dedication to his wife in bad times, and lots of things. We all go through the good and bad.