The improbable Oakland Raiders, who play the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV in New orleans on Jan. 25, weren't considered much before the start of the National Football League season.
A proposed franchise shift to Los angeles had been blocked in court; the team was coming off a year in which its defense ranked 21st in the NFL; and quarterback Ken Stabler had been traded to Houston for Dan Pastorini. Meanwhile , a reported 10,000 season ticket holders, furiout that Raider ownership was determined to cut itself a piece of L.A.'s more lucrative TV market, had failed to renew.
While a swap of veteran quarterbacks has sometimes proved beneficial to both parties, there is usually an adjustment period while the new man and his teammates learn each other's ways. Often that shakedown cruise results in more defeats than victories. In fact, after five games, Oakland was 2-3.
Considering those conditions, the chances of the Raiders making the playoffs this year -- even as a wild card -- were about the same as a .219-hitting minor league baseball player getting a loud foul fireball pitcher Nolan Ryan.
"What people forgot is that Oakland still had Al Davis in the front office, and there probably isn't anyone around who understands pro football and the people who play it better," said former NFL quarterback and place kicker George Blanda, who spent the last time nine years of his career with the Raiders.
"I could have run that offense today, because it's the same thing the Raiders were using when I was playing, and I quit six years ago," George said, While shaking hands with old friends in the Oakland locker room after the Raiders' upset 34-27 win in San Diego. "Plunkett [QB Jim Plunkett] used only four or five running plays and only about sevenpass plays against the Chargers. Of course, there were options for himself, his runners, and his receivers if the defense shifted, but basically it was all standard stuff."
Whatever it was, it certainly worked, as Plunkett passed for two touchdowns and ran for another in building a 28-7 lead. San Diego rallied to within four points late in the third quarter, but Oakland controlled the ball most of the rest of the way to protect its lead.
Blanda says that although a lot of peole still think Davis has never stopped coaching the Raiders, what he has really done is surround himself with good people and then convince them that his way of doing things works.
"Some will tell you that Al is hard to deal with, but in all the time I played at Oakland we never had anything but a perfect working relationship," George continued. "It happened because Al lets everybody know exactly what he wants, and doesn't pull any punches.
"The reason Oakland defeated San Diego is the play- offs is because it outplayed them, 'outfundamentaled' them, beat them physically, took advantage of Charger mistakes, and made very few of their own."
Blanda says that he has never liked quarterbacks who scramble. Instead he preferes guys who stay in the pocket, who don't try to force things, who take what the defense give them, and who don't throw many interceptions.
"Plunkett [who replaced Pastorini early in the season when Dan broke his leg] is ideal for the Raiders because he uses the pocket for what it was intended -- a safe place from which to throw," George said. "Jim sometimes costs the Raiders yardage when he gets sacked. But that's a lot better than throwing when youdon't have anyone open and risking an interception."
"Ordinarily you'd never want Plunkett to run with the football," he continued. "If this had been a regular season game, I don't think you would have seen Jim run five yards for a touchdown when all his receivers were covered early in the game, because the risk of injury is too great. But in a playoff game, a quarterback has to be willing to break the rules."
Blanda says that three big things Plunkett has going for him are his ability to read defenses, a throwing arm that is accurate both short and long, and a flair for quickly finding his secondary receiver whenever his primary target is covered.
"Although Jim didn't played much in the last few years, he was able to get his timing back, and he hadn't forgotten the lessons he'd learned in New England.
"Things never change in football, it's still blocking and tackling and execution, and having an experienced quarterback who is patient enough to take what the defense gives him. The thing that impressed me most was the way the Raiders kept making the big plays."
Read anything you want into the following, but after beating San Diego the Oakland players voted the game ball to Davis, who never tackled anything tougher all afternoon than a roast beef sandwich.