Ken Stabler: An Underappreciated Legend

Ken Stabler passed away on Wednesday. He died at 69 years old from complications from colon cancer. If you don’t know who he is, you’re likely not alone. You really have to be an NFL fan to know who he is. If you do though, you know that there is quite a fascinating story to be learned in Ken Stabler. I didn’t learn too much about Stabler until I got to deepen my football fandom. Yes, while I am a big time Patriots fan, and an even bigger Tom Brady fan, I still know stuff about other teams and general NFL history. This is one of those things I know a little something about. Anyway, I’m rambling. 

Ken Stabler was an Alabama kid who became legendary in the south as a great left handed quarterback. As the starting quarterback for Foley High School, he earned his nickname, “The Snake”, after a long and winding touchdown run. He was recruited by Bear Bryant to succeed Joe Namath at Alabama.  

 When he became the starter, he stepped right in and played well. He started for 2 seasons at Alabama, and finished with a 28-3-2 record as a starter, despite being kicked off the team for a time after he cut classes and partied a bit too much for Bear Bryant’s liking. Stabler got back on the team in time for the annual Iron Bowl against Auburn, and authored his most legendary college moment: “The Run in the Mud”. Down 3-0 late in the game on a rain-soaked field, Stabler ran 53 yards through a quagmire to score the go-ahead touchdown. He is still remembered fondly at Tuscaloosa, and rightly so. 

After his 4 years, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the 2nd round of the 1968 draft. He didn’t join the Raiders until 1970 season; he played 2 seasons with the Spokeane Shockers of the Continental Football League. When he joined the Raiders, he became the starter in 1971. He first earned NFL notoriety in a playoff game in Pittsburgh. Stabler scrambled into the endzone to put the Raiders up 7-3. The game would come to be known for this other play by Franco Harris, called “The Immaculate Reception”. But the Snake sealed his starting job. 

He went on to lead the Raiders to the AFC Championship game every year from 1973-1977. He quarterbacked a team legendary for being renegades, crazy personalities, and brutally good play. He had many great performances, especially in late game situations. His most famous games included the “Sea of Hands” game against the Dolphins in 1974,  

 the “Ghost to the Post” game in Baltimore in 1977,  

 and the “Holy Roller” game against the Chargers in 1978.  

 All of these games were huge comeback wins, but no games meant more than the playoff run in 1976. Oakland entered the playoffs that year as the league’s top team and had lost only 1 game that season. However, they were the team that couldn’t win the big game. They had been to the AFC Title game 6 times before 1976 and hadn’t gotten to the Super Bowl yet. They had to win in 1976 to wipe the reputation of “Big Game Losers” away. 

They opened the run against the only team to beat them all season, the New England Patriots. The Raiders came back from down 21-10, with a little help from a controversial penalty on Sugar Bear Hamilton, to win 24-21. 

They then hosted the team of the 70’s, the Steelers. They beat up and beat down the Steelers 24-7, and finally went to the Super Bowl. 

In the Super Bowl against Minnesota, the Raiders were unbeatable. They walked over the Vikings 32-14. The Raiders validated everything they had done as the renegade organization who ticked off the league for years with a dominant win in the Super Bowl.

Stabler played with Oakland until 1979. He played 2 seasons with the Houston Oilers, then 2 1/2 seasons with the New Orleans Saints, retiring in the middle of the 1984 season. He became a broadcaster after retiring. He also became the only QB on the All-NFL 70’s team to not make the Hall of Fame. In fact, he is often considered one of the best players not in enshrined in Canton. 

Maybe he’s not in the Hall because he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, like Joe Namath or Bobby Layne. Maybe because he was surrounded by other legendary players, the same way Terry Bradshaw and Bart Start were. Or maybe because of many off the field issues, similar to Paul Hornung or, again, Joe Namath. 

Stabler deserves a spot in the hall of fame, and it’s a shame that he passed away before he got that chance. He’s the 2nd greatest left handed quarterback, after Steve Young, and the quarterback of one of the greatest teams ever assembled. But this isn’t the time to debate that. This is the time to honor a hero for the city of Oakland, a legendary quarterback and partier, and a colorful character that deserves to be discussed and recognized as an NFL legend. 

Rest in peace Ken “Snake” Stabler.  


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