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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.