Super Bowl XI Raiders break through

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Super Bowl XI Raiders break through

Programming Note: Watch Super Bowl XLVI live, Sunday at 3 p.m. on NBCSports.com. Pregame simulcast will kick off at 11 a.m.

John Cannon
CSNCalifornia.com

Much was made a few weeks ago about the 30th anniversary of The Catch, but this season is also a significant anniversary for the NFL team on the other side of the Bay. Thirty-five years ago, the Oakland Raiders won the first of their three Super Bowls, defeating the Minnesota Vikings 32-14.

For the Raiders, the victory was made sweeter by the fact that they had finally won The Big One after years of frustration. Oakland had played for a Super Bowl berth six times in the eight seasons between 1968 and 1975. It lost every one of those games and every single time, the victors went on to win the Super Bowl.

Thus, the 1976 season began with a huge weight on the shoulders of the Raiders, and especially coach John Madden and quarterback Ken Stabler. As fate would have it, their very first game was against the team that had ended their previous two seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers took a 21-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Raiders came storming back with 24 fourth-quarter points and won the game on a late field goal.

The Steelers and Raiders were famous for their dislike for one another, and things didnt get any better in this game. Raiders safety George Atkinson knocked Steelers receiver Lynn Swann out with a forearm to the back of the head -- on a running play. In fact, on the NFL Films highlight you can see Atkinson clock Swann -- then a second later Franco Harris barrels past on a 25-yard run!

The comeback win, and the Atkinson-Swann incident, set the tone for the Raiders season. They barely survived games against Kansas City and Houston, and took a shaky 3-0 record to New England to face the Patriots. The Raiders were blown out, as Steve Grogan threw two TD passes to Darryl Stingley and ran for two more scores. The final score was 48-17.

As it turned out, that was the only game the Raiders lost in 1976. They had a couple of close calls, the closest being when Bears kicker Bob Thomas hit the upright on what would have been a game-winning field goal. Their biggest blowout of the season was a 49-16 win over the expansion Tampa Buccaneers led by QB Steve Spurrier.

The Raiders were unconventional on both sides of the ball. On offense, they were left-handed, with a southpaw QB in Stabler and perennial All-Pros Gene Upshaw and Art Shell at left guard and left tackle, respectively. Tight End Dave Casper often lined up on the left side, which was highly unusual at the time. They controlled the ball on the ground with an incredible line and backs Mark Van Eeghen and Clarence Davis, with Pete Banaszak coming off the bench when it was time to stick it in the end zone.

When defenses cheated up to play the run, they paid a terrible price. Flanker Cliff Branch, one of the most underrated players in NFL history, had his best season in 1976. He averaged a stunning 24.15 yards per catch, and scored 12 TDs. While he was stretching the field vertically, sticky-fingered split-end Fred Biletnikoff and Casper were finding holes underneath. Stabler completed exactly two-thirds of his 291 passes, leading the league by a fairly wide margin.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Raiders had changed to a 3-4 defense, still a pretty novel concept at the time. The personnel was a combination of All-Pros (Ted Hendricks, Phil Villapiano, Willie Brown) and guys who came out of nowhere (Willie Hall, Monte Johnson, Skip Thomas). The result was a defense that was not easy to run on (10th in the NFL), which was a bigger deal back in 1976 than it is now.
There was little drama involving the AFC West, as the Raiders clinched the title in Week 12. The remaining intrigue in the regular season centered around Game 13, a Monday night matchup at home against the 9-3 Cincinnati Bengals. If Cincinnati won, the Steelers would have been eliminated from the playoffs, and more than one observer felt the Raiders would have been better served to lose to Cincinnati to avoid the red-hot Steel Curtain.

Madden, of course, was not interested in any such scenario, and he later called the 35-20 win over the Bengals one of the proudest of his career.

To start the playoffs, the Raiders had a rematch with the Patriots, the one team that had beaten them. The playoff game looked like a repeat, with New England taking a 21-10 lead into the 4th quarter in Oakland. Stabler dug into his bag of comebacks, however, and the Raiders survived to meet Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship for the third straight time.

Unfortunately for history, the Steeler team that played in Oakland that day was without both starting running backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, and the Raiders rolled 24-7.

After six failures on the doorstep, the Raiders werent going to be fussy about how they finally got to the Super Bowl. Instead, they dealt out some misery of their own, handing the Minnesota Vikings their fourth Super Bowl loss, controlling the game from start to finish. Biletnikoff was named the games MVP, although he didnt score any of the Raiders four TDs. He did have four catches for 79 yards, and three times was tackled at the Vikings 1-yard line.

It was a glorious day in Pasadena, the last outdoor day game in Super Bowl history, and as the Raiders carried John Madden off the field on their shoulders his grin was so wide that radio announcer Bill King said he looked like a split watermelon. It was the grin, finally, of a champion.
Media professional and Bay Area native John Cannon was a television and radio sportscaster in Phoenix and Las Vegas. Follow him on Twitter at @JCannonSports, or email him at JCannonSports@gmail.com.

Raiders sign rookie OT Sharpe, LB Lee, all four seventh-round draft picks

Raiders sign rookie OT Sharpe, LB Lee, all four seventh-round draft picks

The Raiders signed several members of their 2017 draft class, the team announced on Friday. Later round picks put pen to paper following the first week of OTAs, which began on Monday.

Fourth-round offensive tackle David Sharpe and fifth-round linebacker Marquel Lee highlight this group of signings, as both players inked four-year rookie contracts.

All four seventh-round picks also signed their first professional contract. That group includes running back Elijah Hood, safety Shalom Luani, offensive lineman Jylan Ware and defensive tackle Treyvon Hester.

These deals aren’t hard to work out. The NFL and the league’s players union agreed on a rookie wage scale in the last collective bargaining agreement that slots salaries by draft order, which leaves little negotiating room within the set payment structure.

The team’s top picks remain unsigned, though they’ll get done in time. First round cornerback Gareon Conley, second-round safety Obi Melifonwu and third-round defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes remain unsigned.

Here’s a list of estimated contract values over a four-year rookie deal for each signed draft pick, per spotrac.com:

OT David Sharpe (No. 129 overall): $2,986,415 total; $586,415 signing bonus
LB Marquel Lee (No. 168 overall): $2,653,693 total; $253,693 signing bonus
S Shalom Luani (No. 221 overall): $2,494,414 total; $94,414 signing bonus
OT Jylan Ware (No. 231 overall): $2,484,295 total; $84,295 signing bonus
RB Elijah Hood (No. 242 overall): $2,469,750 total; $69,750 signing bonus
DT Treyvon Hester (No. 244 overall): $2,468,601 total; $69,750 signing bonus

Marquel Lee gets to play for his father's favorite team: 'He started bawling'

Marquel Lee gets to play for his father's favorite team: 'He started bawling'

ALAMEDA -- Marquel Lee’s NFL draft weekend wasn’t always fun, a byproduct of high hopes unrealized. The former Wake Forest linebacker wanted to go early, but slid into Saturday and waited well into the fifth round before his phone lifted spirits.

A 510 area code brought Lee out of an emotional rut, one so deep he started wondering whether he’d get drafted at all.

“When I got the call from the Raiders, everything changed,” Lee said in the latest episode of NBC Sports California’s Raiders Insider Podcast. “I was so excited to play for this organization.”

Marquel Lee wasn’t the only one. His father jumped over the moon.

“He might’ve been more excited than I was,” Marquel Lee said. “He started bawling. I’ve never seen my dad cry like that.”

Corey Lee’s tears don’t come easy. He’s a no-nonsense military man who served 11 years in the Navy before entering the private sector. He was a strict but fair father and football coach who instilled the discipline and work ethic required for his son to realize great potential.

Corey Lee is also a lifelong Raiders fan. Seeing his son get drafted by his favorite team created a perfect emotional storm.

“I’m as die-hard as they get,” Corey Lee said. “When they called his name in the fifth round, it was such a great, powerful moment. There was some relief, because he worked so hard and sacrificed to reach this point. When families were on vacation, we were in summer camps and working out hard.

“Everything we did was to prepare him for the next level. I was so proud to see him achieve a goal he had.”

Corey Lee didn’t break down completely when Marquel Lee officially became the Raiders’ fifth-round selection. This proud papa let emotion overcome for a beat, and then darted for his bedroom. He returned to the party with a brand new Raiders hat and a No. 89 Amari Cooper shirt from his vast Raiders collection.

Marquel Lee threw on dad’s gear to honor his new team and the golden opportunity to play for a linebacker-starved Raiders team.

That wasn’t Marquel Lee’s first time in silver and black. He rocked a full Raiders uniform at age 2, complete with a helmet, football pants and a Tim Brown jersey.

He donned one again when rookies reported to the Raiders offseason program earlier this month. The full-circle moment wasn’t lost on Marquel, a man proud of his past and excited about an NFL future.

“There’s a picture of me in a Raiders jersey, pants and a helmet on my second birthday,” he said. “I look at it now and think, ‘Wow. It really happened.’ I’m wearing a Raiders uniform for real. My dream is becoming a reality.”

Corey Lee grew up a Raiders fan in Southern California, going to games with his family at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Pardon Marquel for not following in those footsteps. He grew up on the East Coast when Donovan McNabb was a superstar and gravitated toward the Eagles. Ray Lewis performed in Lee’s Maryland backyard and became an athletic role model.

Marquel watched tons of NFL football with his dad, complete games where father and son would talk about strategy and scheme. Marquel would watch game tape with his father at an early age and when Corey Lee deployed with the Navy, his mother Katanya – she, too, understood football -- made sure that practice continued.

Marquel Lee was armed with natural athletic gifts and cultivated knowledge of the game, allowing him play quarterback and middle linebacker as a junior at Westlake High in Waldorf, Md. His dad was a guiding light as youth instructor, a JV head coach and a varsity linebackers coach, but took steps to separate family and football.

“As a father, I never would allow him to call me dad on a practice field or anywhere,” Corey Lee said. “I was always ‘Coach’ during the season, whether we were at home or at practice, because I wanted to keep him in that mindset.”

Football was a primary focus back then, when the family often traded summer vacations for skills camps. Despite buzz around Marquel’s talents, Corey was against his son doing interviews with recruiting websites or ranking services. Father wanted his son’s head on straight, and it has remained that way. 

Top schools were slow to come around, but gravitated after Marquel fully recovered from a torn patella and stood out early in his senior year. He chose Wake Forest, a commitment his father wanted upheld even with late interest from other programs.

His growth continued as a collegian, and took a real spike during the 2016 season. Wake Forest’s defensive captains graduated, leaving him to assume a leadership role and put team over stats. Lee considered his junior season at Wake Forest subpar, and vowed to do better.

“I was pressing a lot, trying to rush my time and trying to get to the NFL,” Lee said. “I was on a road where I thought I wanted to leave (school) early. I was so hard on myself, especially if I didn’t produce. That’s why I said it was subpar. I don’t think I played like a team player that year.

“(The next season) I made a decision to finish what I started and be the leader I always knew I could be. I wanted to help my team get to a bowl game. I hadn’t played in one. That was a major part of me coming back in 2016. … I grew up a lot. I feel like I gained respect as a team leader, and really understood what it took to own that responsibility.”

Lee might have major responsibilities as an NFL rookie. The Raiders don’t have many options at middle linebacker, and Lee will be allowed to compete for a starting spot. It’ll take a solid spring and summer to earn it and give the Raiders confidence to hand an important starting spot to a rookie. The Silver and Black could add a veteran to that position group, though they have high hopes for their fifth-round pick. Lee could well make an instant impact. 

“We definitely think he has the potential to start,” Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said in an interview with 95.7-The Game. “He’s a long ways away from that. We haven’t even begun to get the pads on, so a lot will be determined in training camp and the preseason. So far, he has looked very good.”

Lee considers himself well prepared for the challenges ahead, and believes he can compete at the professional level.

“I’ve been getting ready for this a long time,” Marquel Lee said. “My dad has been telling me that this experience will be different. It’s not like college anymore. It’s a job, and I have to be mentally prepared for everything I’m about to do. I’m here and I’m learning and I’m trying to do my best.”