Written by Joe Messineo
Al Davis and the Raiders are credited with making the vertical pass a staple in NFL offenses. Up until about 50 years ago, most offenses used the deep ball as only a means of desperation, but under Davis’ direction, the Raiders made it routine. This high-risk method proved to be a major payoff, as the franchise had the best winning percentage in professional sports into the 1990s.
The silver and black may have fallen on hard times recently, but their offensive strategy has gone on to change how football is played. And with promising rookie Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree posing as dual threats at the wide receiver position, the 2015-2016 Raiders are poised to maintain an aerial attack. That said, it will be hard to rank among the team’s five best passing offenses in history.
On their way to a third Super Bowl championship, the Raiders – then residents of Los Angeles – put up 27.6 points per game behind the arm of Jim Plunkett. Most of his passes went into the direction of tight end Todd Christensen, who capped a Pro Bowl season with 92 receptions, 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns (all team-highs). Old-timer Cliff Branch still had a penchant for the big play, averaging 17.8 yards per catch, while running back Marcus Allen made 68 grabs coming out of the backfield. Not only did the Raiders shut down the supposedly more powerful Redskin offense in Super Bowl XVIII, they put together a calculated game plan that resulted in few mistakes from Plunkett.
It was a tall task for the Raiders to try and top what they had accomplished over the decade leading up to the ‘76 season. But one thing eluded them up to this point – winning a Super Bowl. In ’76, Oakland managed to excel in all phases and capture that elusive first title. This team ranked second in yardage, with quarterback Ken Stabler accounting for 2,737 through the air (No. 4 in the NFL). He was the league-leader in passing touchdowns (27) and had the best QB rating (103.4). Cliff Branch and tight end Dave Casper combined for 22 TD grabs, with Branch posting a reception average of 24.2. Of course, it takes more than a great arm and great hands to make a pass offense work smoothly. The Raider offensive line – featuring Hall of Famers Gene Upshaw and Art Shell – consistently gave Stabler ample time to find his long-range targets.
Attaining a winning campaign for the first time since 1994, Jon Gruden became a household name on the NFL coaching front. The offense generated the most points for a single season franchise history with 479, averaging 29.9 per contest. They produced 49 against Kansas City, 41 against Atlanta, and a staggering 52 in Week 17 versus the Carolina Panthers. Tim Brown led the club in touchdown catches (11) and was their only 1,000-yard receiver. Mostly, this was a balanced distribution. In fact, eight different Oakland players recorded scores through the air. Rich Gannon, at age 35, would throw for 3,430 yards and 28 TDs as the Raiders finished the regular season at 12-4. A 27-0 win over Miami in the Divisional Round would be reversed in the AFC Championship, as the dominant Baltimore Ravens defense held the Raiders in check and prevented a Super Bowl berth.
This was when Raiders and the long pass became synonymous. Quarterback Daryle Lamonica loved to throw deep. The “Mad Bomber” certainly lived up to his moniker. He had 3,228 passing yards and an AFL-leading 30 touchdowns. Eight of his receivers averaged more than 10 yards per reception, included Fred Biletnikoff (who had a team-high 876 yards) and Billy Cannon (to go along with 10 TDs).
Even their fullback got into the mix. Hewritt Dixon recorded more yards receiving (563) than he did rushing (559). Defenses found great difficulty in stopping head coach John Rauch’s club, which posted 468 points over the 14-game regular season slate (an average of 33.4). The Raiders lost just once, but ultimately fell to the Green Bay dynasty in Super Bowl II.
The finale may have put a damper on the accomplishments prior, but it’s hard to think back and deem the ’02 offense as the most successful in the long and storied history of the Raiders. League MVP Rich Gannon, now 37 years old, had his finest season as a quarterback, helped out by veterans Jerry Rice and Tim Brown – both of whom were well on their way to Canton. Rice tallied a team-high with 92 receptions and 1,211 receiving yards. Brown only found the end zone twice, but managed 930 yards and hauled in 81 passes.
The breakout player in the receiving corps was Jerry Porter, who used his speed and agility to record nine TD catches. Averaging 35.5 points in their two AFC playoff victories, the Raiders truly met their match in Super Bowl XXXVII, facing former coach Jon Gruden and the amazing defense of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Oakland fell hard, 48-21, behind five Gannon interceptions. It’s hard to believe this franchise hasn’t had a winning season since.
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