In a football sense, "The Snake" deserved better.
Every year, around this time of summer, the talk of Hall of Fame -- who's in and who should be in -- starts to creep up. And, every year for the last 20 or so, fans have asked where's Ken Stabler?
On a day we all heard the news that Ken "The Snake" Stabler passed away at the age of 69, it is difficult not to think that the greatest honor a pro football player can hope for will come too late for the former Raider, whenever it does come.
Stabler was one of the greatest players of his generation. Every pro football career, modern or vintage, offensive side of the ball or defensive, should be judged in this manner: How did he fare against his peers?
Early in his career, it appeared Stabler might not become an NFL starter at all, much less a league MVP. Drafted in the second round in 1968, Stabler was both a member of the Oakland Raiders' "taxi squad" (the modern-day practice squad) and the Continental Football League. After riding the pine for two years, watching Hall of Famer George Blanda and Daryle Lamonica conduct the offense, Stabler rushed into the consciousness of football fans everywhere in 1972 by running for the go ahead touchdown in the AFC Divisional Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, better known as "The Immaculate Reception" Game.
His interim relief of Lamonica in that infamous contest became permanent the following season, and the rest is now Raiders lore.
The Snake was terrific during his era. A member of the All-Decade Team of the 1970s -- and one of the few on the prestigious squad not enshrined in the Hall -- Stabler won both a league MVP (1974) and a Super Bowl (XI). He posted the second-highest passer rating (103.4) of the decade in 1976 and led the NFL in yards per attempt during the 1970s (7.7), while placing third in touchdown passes. All this, despite not earning the starting nod from Raiders coach John Madden until mid-1973.
If you were a disco kid of the '70s, and packing a star-laden team from your Topps football cards, you wanted Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Stabler, Fran Tarkenton or Bob Griese at quarterback -- probably in that order. Four of the five are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The best lefty this side of Steve Young is not.
Stabler's left arm, some felt, was never strong enough for Raiders Owner Al Davis, who craved the vertical passing game. A head-scratcher, considering No. 12 had the highest yards per throw of any quarterback in that era. Lamonica, the guy Stabler beat out for the starting gig in Oakland, had the long-ball arm in spades. Yet, what Stabler lacked in arm strength, he made up for in touch, composure and the ability to deliver the big play when needed.
There was the "Sea of Hands" play versus the Dolphins in the 1974 AFC Divisional Playoff Game, when Stabler -- in the process of being tackled from behind -- lobbed a pass where only Clarence Davis could get it, in the middle of three Dolphins no less. How about the "Ghost to the Post," an imminently catchable ball served up for Dave Casper, which allowed Madden's Raiders to best the Baltimore Colts and move on to their fifth straight AFC Championship Game appearance.
Casper. Madden. They own beautiful busts in Canton. But not Stabler.
Perhaps it was the inglorious end to his glorious run with the NFL's meanest (and winningest at the time) franchise, the renegade Raiders. Davis famously traded Stabler, who many considered the partying leader of the controversial team, for Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini. Allegedly fed up with his quarterback's streaky play, Davis felt he could find a better alternative at the position. In a cruel twist of fate for Stabler, the Raiders ended up demolishing his new team in Houston in the 1980 playoffs, less than one year after he had been dealt.
There is a caveat, though. The man Stabler was traded for, the guy who was supposed to be a superior quarterback for Oakland in 1980, was not the man who authored the victory ... or the one who won Super Bowl XV. That was backup Jim Plunkett. And even though Plunkett won another ring with the team in the decade, he never started a full season for the Raiders. The team persisted to have signal-caller woes for 20 years, until Rich Gannon started playing lights-out football for the franchise. He won the league MVP in 2002, becoming the first Raider QB to bring home the NFL's most prestigious individual honor since, you guessed it, Stabler.
Being a top-three quarterback in the 1970s ("The Super '70s" -- as the all-important growth decade in pro football is commonly referred to) should make one a fixture in NFL lore.
Without Stabler, the Raider mystique of Davis and Madden, and "the Commitment to Excellence" motto, would be significantly diminished. Let's hope The Snake's career is not diminished any longer. A player and personality for his time, he is deserving of a spot among the legends of the game. Late is better than not at all.