1977 Oakland Raiders: A Repeat Bid Comes Up Just Short

After a decade of frustration, marked by excellent teams and playoff losses, the Raiders had gotten over the top with a Super Bowl title in 1976. The 1977 Oakland Raiders continued to contend and extended their streak of consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances to five. But they came up short of a repeat championship.

The league’s most prolific offense was the key to success. Ken Stabler had a Pro Bowl year at age 32. While he was prone to interceptions, that was also more common—and acceptable—in this era, so long as you made big plays. And Stabler did. His 7.4 yards-per-attempt was third-best among starting quarterbacks. He was also efficient, with a 58 percent completion rate that ranked fourth in the league.

Stabler had the NFL’s best tight end in Dave Casper, who caught 48 balls for 584 yards—and that number doesn’t include his biggest catches, which came in the postseason. Cliff Branch was now 33-years-old, but the wide receiver still made the Pro Bowl. Branch, along with Fred Biletnikoff, each caught 33 passes.

But the real key to the offensive explosion was a powerhouse running game. Mark van Eeghen ran for almost 1,300 yards in what was then still a 14-game regular season schedule. Clarence Davis added nearly 800 yards. They both ran behind a terrific line, anchored by its Hall of Fame left side of tackle Art Shell and guard Gene Upshaw. Both made 1st-team All-Pro in 1977. Dave Dalby was a Pro Bowl center.

A prime reason that Oakland often ran just a step behind other great AFC teams in this era, from Pittsburgh to Miami earlier in the decade, was that the Raider defense usually wasn’t elite. That was the case in 1977, when the Raider defense ranked 14th in a 28-team league for points allowed.

There were no Pro Bowlers on the defensive side of the ball in ’77, but there were some playmakers. Defensive ends Pat Toomay and John Matuszak combined for 23 ½ sacks. Free safety Jack Tatum was one of the hardest hitters in the league. But the D could never really overcome the injury to one of their more consistent performers, linebacker Phil Villapiano.

Defensive problems certainly weren’t evident in the early going. Oakland opened the season at home against mediocre San Diego. The Raiders outrushed the Chargers 178-59, won the turnover battle 3-1 and took home a penalty-ridden game 24-0.

That set the stage for a high-profile visit to Pittsburgh—the teams who had played for the AFC Championship each of the last three years. In our own day, this would either be prime-time, or at least late Sunday afternoon viewing. In 1977, it just kicked off at 1 PM EST.

While Pittsburgh wanted to reassert themselves atop the AFC, Oakland had their own motivation. Their victory in last year’s playoffs had been diminished by many in the public because the Steeler running backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier were injured. Franco and Rocky were healthy today. And the Raider defense shut them down. They forced five turnovers and sacked Terry Bradshaw five times. The 16-7 win marked the third time in a calendar year that Oakland had beaten Pittsburgh.

A Monday Night visit at lowly Kansas City saw the Raiders get out to a slow start, and they trailed 21-13 at the half. But the offense was moving the ball. Both van Eeghen and Davis cleared the 100-yard mark rushing, and Casper did the same receiving. Oakland won 37-28.

The Raiders went on to visit Cleveland. They forced five turnovers from the mediocre Browns, van Eeghen rushed for 114 yards, and Oakland stayed undefeated with a 26-10 win.

Denver had gone back and forth between contention and irrelevance in the 1970s to date. This ’77 edition of the Broncos were decidedly contenders, and the first head-to-head battle in Oakland was between 4-0 teams. Stabler threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Casper to get a 7-0 lead. That was about the last thing that went right for the Raiders. Stabler threw seven interceptions, including a Pick-6. Unsurprisingly, it led to a 30-7 loss.

Oakland went on to play a bad New York Jets team in old Shea Stadium and dug themselves a 27-14 hole after three quarters. What the Raiders were doing was running the ball, to the tune of a 210-67 rush yardage edge. By the fourth quarter, that paid off. Stabler threw touchdown passes to Casper and Mike Sinai, making the Jets pay for an earlier missed extra point in a 28-27 win.

That set up a fast turnaround for the road rematch with Denver. Stabler again opened this matchup with an early touchdown pass, this one to Branch, for a 7-0 lead. This time, he played well the rest of the way. There were no turnovers. There were 200 rush yards, 105 of them from Davis. By playing clean football, the Raiders built a 24-0 lead by the third quarter and closed a 24-14 win. The AFC West rivals were both 6-1 as the season moved to the second half.

A home date with the subpar Seattle Seahawks got off to a slow start, and Oakland only led 3-0 after a quarter. But with Davis going for 100 yards, and Stabler playing clean football, the Raiders rolled to a 44-7 win.

The Houston Oilers were starting to put together a contender, one that would emerge as a playoff team the following year. They came into Oakland and had the Raiders down 29-24 in the third quarter of what was a turnover-laden game both ways. What Stabler was doing was making big plays. He went 23/31 for 264 yards, with Branch catching eight of those passes for 115 yards. Oakland rallied to win 34-29.

But the following week, Stabler played his worst game of the year in San Diego. He went 4/10 for 40 yards and was yanked for backup Mike Rae. The Raiders were getting outrushed decisively, 263-112. They made enough red-zone stops to keep it close, but still lost 12-7.

In the meantime, Denver beat Kansas City. The Broncos not only took a one-game lead, but they also took the lead in terms of division record, which would be the key tiebreaker, given the head-to-head split.

Oakland came back home and took out their frustrations on a poor Buffalo Bills team on Monday Night Football. The Raiders pummeled the Bills up front, to the tune of a 307-65 edge in rush yardage. 143 of those yards came from van Eeghen. The final was 34-13.

There was only one wild-card spot available in 1977, and at 9-2, Oakland had a one-game lead on Miami. The Raiders were also in reasonable position for the tiebreakers, depending on how the final three weeks played out.

But Oakland gave away their cushion in a big road game against the contending Los Angeles Rams. Stabler threw four interceptions, and the Raiders lost a close 20-14 game. Denver knocked off Houston and clinched the AFC West. Oakland and Miami were both 9-3, with the Raiders still controlling their own destiny.

Another marquee NFC opponent awaited in the Minnesota Vikings. It was a home game, and by the time the Raiders took the field, the Dolphins had lost in New England. Whether head coach John Madden knew this and informed his team, I don’t know. But Oakland played hungry. In short order, van Eeghen ran for a TD, Stabler threw one to Branch, and the defense scored a touchdown. It was 21-0 quickly. The Raiders collected seven turnovers, van Eeghen rushed for 112 yards and a 35-13 rout secured a playoff spot.

Madden took the opportunity to let Rae start the home finale against Kansas City. The backup QB threw a 100-yard Pick-6 and the Raiders trailed 20-12 in the fourth quarter. But Rae, aided by a ground game that rolled up over 240 yards, rallied Oakland to a 21-20 win.

The Raiders finished the season 11-3. It was the second-best record in the AFC, but as the wild-card, they would have to go on the road for the postseason. That road would start on a Christmas Eve Saturday afternoon against the Baltimore Colts.

In the course of the great 1970s NFL decade, Oakland had already played in some all-time classic playoff games. From the crushing and controversial loss in Pittsburgh in 1972, to the epic win over Miami in 1974, the Raiders had their place in the history books. Today in Baltimore, they played another one.

Davis took off on a 30-yard touchdown jaunt in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead. But Stabler threw a Pick-6 in the second quarter and the Raiders trailed 10-7 at the half. In the second half, both offenses started trading blows. Stabler threw a ten-yard TD pass to Casper. The Colts returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. Stabler threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Casper. Oakland led 21-17 going into the final period.

The Raiders were getting the better of the flow of play and would outgain the Colts 491-301. But losing the turnover battle 4-0, along with giving up a special teams score, prevented Oakland from getting control. Baltimore scored to take the lead, 24-21. Stabler kept throwing. He finished 21/40 for 345 yards, with Biletnikoff and Branch each going over the 100-yard mark. Oakland went back up front, 28-24.

Baltimore had their own response and took a 31-28 lead. The Raiders had the ball on their own 44-yard line with 2:17 to play.

The next play would become known as “Ghost to the Post” in NFL lore. It drew its name from Casper (“The Friendly Ghost”), running a post pattern. Stabler hit with him a deep ball that set up the tying field goal.

At 31-31, the game went to overtime. Then it went to a second overtime. Finally, it was Stabler and Casper again early in the sixth quarter. A ten-yard touchdown pass won the classic battle, 37-31.

That set up Round 3 with Denver, after the Broncos took out the Steelers later that day. The AFC Championship Game would take its own place in NFL lore, although not for the reasons any Oakland fan wanted. In a game where neither team ran the ball well, the Raiders trailed 7-3 in the third quarter. Denver was on the doorstep of adding to the lead.

They gave the ball to Rob Lytle. Tatum leveled a big hit and forced a fumble. Raider defensive back Mike McCoy scooped it up and might have been running for a long time. But the play was blown dead. It was a premature whistle in the age before instant reply. Denver scored on the next play. It was the difference in a game that ended as a 21-17 loss.

The loss was a bitter play to swallow. It also—though not apparent at the time—represented at least a pause in the era of Oakland’s excellence. A late-season fade cost the Raiders a playoff berth in 1978 and Madden retired. Tom Flores took over and Oakland again missed the playoffs in 1979. But it was just a hiccup. By 1980, Flores led the Raiders to another Super Bowl trophy. And in 1983, he did it again.