NFL Insider
1980 Raiders were outcasts, champions

(Editor's Note: With the possible elimination of four wild-card teams from this year's playoff field, NFL Insider looks back at the first wild-card team to win a Super Bowl: the 1980 Oakland Raiders. This story is taken from the official game program for Super Bowl XXXV.)

By Dave Newhouse
NFL Insider

The sound of the 1980 season was commercial airliners landing in Oakland, where NFL rejects and reclamation projects arrived with the frequency of commuters as Raiders owner Al Davis assembled an odd championship mix.

"That was the epitome of the last-stop team," recalls Matt Millen, a rookie linebacker on the Super Bowl champion 1980 Raiders. "It was a bunch of people who shouldn't have fit together. But we did."

Nearly one-third of Millen's teammates that year had been found wanting by another NFL team, yet they meshed in a memorable, magical way.

Even so, the road to Super Bowl XV in New Orleans was rocky for those vagabond Raiders, the first wild-card team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy. While Davis plotted a franchise move to Los Angeles, his Raiders managed to finish 11-5 in spite of political discord and public resentment in Oakland.

With head coach Tom Flores on the firing block after a 2-3 start, the season turned around dramatically, thanks in part to a storied comeback by quarterback Jim Plunkett. And Flores, pro football's first Hispanic head coach, not only saved his job, he survived to win another Super Bowl (XVIII) with the Silver and Black.

"It was the best job I did as a coach," Flores says of that 1980 season, "because of the circumstances. It was only my second year as a head coach. We had guys who were resurrected or, maybe, in their last year. We had lots of unproven guys."

Hall of Fame offensive linemen Gene Upshaw and Art Shell would be gone from the Raiders within two years. So would fullback Mark van Eeghen, tight end Raymond Chester, wide receiver Bob Chandler, defensive ends John Matuszak and Cedrick Hardman, cornerback Dwayne O'Steen, and free safety Burgess Owens.

Chandler, Hardman, O'Steen, and Owens had joined the Raiders in 1980 either through trades or the league's waiver wire. It was the same story for kicker Chris Bahr; running back Kenny King; quarterback Dan Pastorini; defensive lineman Joe Campbell; linebackers Bob Nelson, Randy McClanahan, and Mario Celotto; and defensive backs Odis McKinney and Keith Moody.

"It was almost like free agency way back when," Plunkett says.

The NFL didn't adopt free agency until 1993, but Davis made numerous moves that gave the Raiders a new look. He drafted quarterback Marc Wilson in the first round in 1980, and Millen in the second. Defensive back Kenny Hill and wide receivers Malcolm Barnwell and Calvin Muhammad came later in that same draft. Millen was the lone rookie to start immediately, and then only because veteran Monte Johnson suffered a knee injury in preseason.

"We needed a square guy to stop the run in a three-four defense," Davis says of Millen, who was converted from a defensive lineman at Penn State into an inside linebacker in Oakland. "We brought in fifteen players because we wanted to give Tom his team, but that team was not expected to do anything."

Not after two consecutive 9-7 nonplayoff seasons. Plunkett was signed in 1978 after flopping with the San Francisco 49ers. In 1979, Davis brought in a running back from Dallas, Todd Christensen, who was switched to tight end. Davis also traded quarterback Ken Stabler to Houston for Pastorini, and dealt free safety Jack Tatum to the Oilers for King.

By 1980, only 11 Raiders remained from Oakland's 1976 Super Bowl XI championship season. Pastorini, the team's new starting quarterback, was a distraction from the start, bringing his wife, buxom British actress June Wilkinson, to the team's training camp in Santa Rosa, California.

"Here's this very striking blonde sitting around the pool," Flores says. "She wasn't wearing a bikini, but she didn't have to wear a bikini to draw attention. Word got back to Dan, and she disappeared.

"And Dan, with all due respect, didn't fit into the offense. He was beat up, he had his own way of doing things, and he just didn't have good rhythm."

Pastorini suffered a broken leg in the fifth game, a 31-17 loss to Kansas City, when rumors were flying that Flores would be dismissed. Davis summoned his coach for a meeting.

"My comment to Al was, 'We're not doing anything wrong. We just need to do it better. We'll get through this,'" Flores says.

That's what Davis wanted to hear. He then challenged Flores.

"What I wanted Tom to be was the head coach," Davis says. "He was feeling his way. I wanted him to show the toughness he showed as a player. I wanted him to throw the ball down the field."

Davis loves a vertical offense. His wish was answered when Plunkett, a Mad Bomber of sorts, took over.

Oakland won its next six games. The winning streak started with a 38-24 victory over division leader San Diego. King broke a 24-24 tie late in the third quarter by racing around left end for an 89-yard touchdown run. The next week, Oakland traveled to Pittsburgh and stunned the defending Super Bowl champions 45-34 on Monday night. Plunkett tossed 3 touchdown bombs, and the Raiders were on their way.

The streak ended with a 10-7 loss in Philadelphia. Oakland's only touchdown came on Plunkett's 86-yard pass to Cliff Branch.

"I was looking for the big play, maybe a little too much," Plunkett says. "I was looking to make a big impression. I knew that if I fell on my face, I'd be out of football."

He had reason to worry. After winning the 1970 Heisman Trophy at Stanford, then upsetting Woody Hayes's greatest Ohio State team 27-17 in the Rose Bowl, Plunkett had been drafted by New England with the first overall pick in 1971. After five seasons of taking a beating playing for a bad team, the Patriots traded him to San Francisco in 1976-just as New England became an AFC power.

Plunkett's heralded homecoming failed as he took more of a pounding with the mediocre 49ers. By the time San Francisco waived Plunkett in 1978, he was battered physically and mentally. The Raiders picked him up and basically mothballed him for two seasons.

In 1980, a healthy Plunkett asked to be traded rather than ride the bench. Davis turned him down.

"When we went to Plunkett," Davis says, "we took off like dynamite."

There was another explosion on the home front. Angered by Davis's plans to relocate, some Raiders fans staged a demonstration during a Monday night game against Denver. Those fans entered the Oakland Coliseum en masse five minutes after kickoff waving "Save Our Raiders" placards.

Oakland won the game 9-3, indicative of the stingy defense it displayed during the last half of the season. The Raiders had two All-Pro selections that year, both defenders — linebacker Ted Hendricks and cornerback Lester Hayes. The Raiders turned Hendricks loose in 1980, allowing him to line up where he thought best. He responded with his best season (9 sacks, 4 fumble recoveries, 3 interceptions, 3 blocked kicks, and a safety), while Hayes set a franchise record with 13 interceptions.

"We figured if we could get to the playoffs, we could beat anybody," Hendricks says.

Oakland went 9-2 with Plunkett as the starter to reach the postseason for the first time since 1977. Plunkett did not post great numbers (he ranked 17th in the NFL in passer rating) but he made big plays. His leadership, play calling, and toughness proved even more important to the Raiders' success.

"In this offense, you keep throwing long," Plunkett said. "You don't worry about high percentages. You keep waiting for the big one, and sooner or later you're going to get it."

First up for the Raiders in the postseason was Houston, which meant the return of Stabler, Tatum, and tight end Dave Casper (who had been traded in October) to Oakland. Plunkett completed only 8 of 23 attempts, but he hit 3 long passes to blow open a close game in the fourth quarter. The Raiders used blindside blitzes, a wrinkle added before the game by defensive coordinator Charlie Sumner, to sack Stabler 7 times. Hayes capped the 27-7 victory (the last playoff game in Oakland until this season) with a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown.

The Raiders then flew to Cleveland to face the "Kardiac Kids," who specialized in comeback wins. The temperature at Municipal Stadium was 1 degree, at the time the second-coldest game ever. At the Lake Erie end of the stadium, no kick had been successful that day because of the wind. Consequently, Browns coach Sam Rutigliano had his offense take a shot at the end zone on a second-and-9 from the Raiders' 13. Raiders safety Mike Davis intercepted Brian Sipe's pass for Ozzie Newsome to preserve a 14-12 victory.

Browns running back Greg Pruitt said, to no one in particular, "It had to be an act of God."

Millen believes Oakland benefited from "divine help" that postseason. He pointed to the third play of the AFC title game in San Diego as a sign from above. Plunkett threw a pass over the middle to King, the ball bounced off his hands and ricocheted downfield to Chester, who caught it in stride and continued on a 65-yard scoring play.

The Chargers had averaged an NFL-best 401 yards per game on offense, so they were not daunted by a 28-7 first-half deficit. They reeled off 17 points to cut the lead to 28-24 with 6:04 left in the third quarter. The Raiders were reeling, but the veteran squad regrouped behind Plunkett, who led two time-consuming field-goal drives that put Oakland up 34-24.

The Chargers answered with a field goal that made it 34-27 with 6:43 remaining. As the Raiders took over at their 25, Hendricks grabbed Plunkett by the jersey on the sideline.

"You've got to keep scoring," Hendricks pleaded. "We can't stop them."

In a beautifully executed 15-play drive, Plunkett led the Raiders inside the Chargers' 25 as time ran out. The march capped a brilliant day by the quarterback (14 of 18 for 261 yards and 2 touchdowns, with no interceptions). The ragtag Raiders were on their way to New Orleans for a rematch with the Eagles.

Super Bowl XV is remembered for an event that occurred on another continent. A yellow ribbon was tied around the Superdome in honor of the American hostages who had been freed in Iran after 444 days in captivity.

"I'll always picture that ribbon in my mind," Plunkett says.

Then there was The Tooz's wild adventure. Vowing to keep teammates out of the French Quarter after curfew, Matuszak then broke his own vow. He was spotted in a Bourbon Street bar at 3 a.m.

Flores fined Matuszak, and that was it. But Eagles coach Dick Vermeil said if Matuszak were on his team, he'd have been on the first plane home.

"Dick was a paramilitary type of guy then," Flores says. "His players were having two-a-days [in New Orleans], and they were moaning and groaning. And they hadn't changed [strategy] from our first game. They were a very conservative team that liked to run. We felt if we could get them to throw the ball, we would win that battle."

Oakland altered its blocking schemes from the regular-season game against the Eagles, when Philadelphia used stunts to sack Plunkett 8 times. Plus, a week of answering reporters' questions about allowing all those sacks in the first meeting only increased the determination of a veteran offensive line. (The line didn't fit Oakland's renegade image — all five had been high draft picks.)

Given plenty of time to throw, Plunkett cut up the Eagles the second time, tossing 2 touchdown passes to Branch and a Super Bowl record 80-yard scoring pass to King. Plunkett's first touchdown pass to Branch gave Oakland a 7-0 lead six minutes into the game. His scoring pass to King made it 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, and Oakland coasted from there.

"We didn't make any mistakes," Flores says, "and they made them all."

Raiders linebacker Rod Martin picked off 3 passes by Ron Jaworski to set both single-game and career Super Bowl interception records that still stand today.

Plunkett, the comeback hero, completed 13 of 21 passes for 261 yards to earn MVP honors. "I felt some vindication," he says. "There had been a lot of doubters. I felt relieved. I did it!"

In 1982, the Raiders moved to Los Angeles, where Plunkett quarterbacked his second Super Bowl victory the following season. The Raiders moved back to Oakland in 1995.

Where are those maverick 1980 Raiders today? Upshaw is executive director of the NFL Players Association. Shell, after becoming the NFL's first black head coach of the modern era with the Raiders, is the offensive line coach in Atlanta. Millen is a respected NFL analyst on television and radio, not to mention an NFL Insider columnist. [Note: Millen is currently the President and CEO of the Detroit Lions.]

"Al always felt if you didn't do well elsewhere, he could get two, three years out of you," Millen says.

Matuszak died of a heart attack, and Chandler of cancer. Chester operates a golf course in Oakland. Van Eeghen is in the insurance business. Guard Mickey Marvin scouts for the Raiders. Flores, the Raiders' head coach for nine seasons, resigned after the 1987 season. He coached the Seattle Seahawks for three seasons, and now does radio color on Raiders games.

Wide receiver Morris Bradshaw is a Raiders' executive. Nose tackle Reggie Kinlaw owns a construction company. Offensive tackle Henry Lawrence makes a living in agriculture. Owens has an Amway distributorship. Nelson owns a dairy. Mike Davis is a high school football coach. Wide receiver Rich Martini owns a computer company. Offensive lineman Steve Sylvester has a real estate business. Branch, Hayes, and Hendricks can be found making public appearances.

Plunkett owns a beer distributorship among his business investments and also co-hosts the Raiders' weekly television show.

"I've never had so much fun in football," he says of the 1980 Raiders. "They were a colorful bunch. I laughed hard, drank hard … it was so much fun. Some guys would miss practice now and then. But they always showed up on Sunday."


Santana Moss
The 1980 Raiders were a wild bunch.
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