After some initial confusion Thursday, it was confirmed that Ken Stabler, arguably the greatest quarterback in Raiders history, has died at the age of 69 in Gulfport, Miss. His death was the result of complications associated with colon cancer, according to his family.
“He passed peacefully surrounded by the people he loved most, including his three daughters and longtime partner, as some of his favorite songs played in the background, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and Van Morrison’s ‘Leaves Falling Down,’ ” the family wrote in a statement posted to Stabler’s Facebook page. “He quietly battled Stage 4 colon cancer since being diagnosed in February 2015.”
The left-handed QB with the pinpoint accuracy and the gimpy knees remains the Raiders’ franchise leader with 19,078 passing yards and 150 touchdowns. Stabler was the NFL’s most valuable player in 1974, and he led Oakland to its first Super Bowl triumph in January of 1977. He was voted to four Pro Bowls.
Stabler’s years in Oakland neatly bookended the 1970s, which is somehow fitting. With his long hair, mischievous attitude and on-field toughness, he epitomized the decade.
The Raiders held their training camp in Santa Rosa in those days, staying at the old El Rancho motel on Santa Rosa Avenue, and Stabler was among the ringleaders who organized epic bouts of drinking in bars like the Bamboo Room, the Music Box and Melendy’s Cocktail Lounge.
Amazingly, he was always able to drag himself to practice the next day, and the Raiders rallied around him as a leader.
Stabler, nicknamed “The Snake,” quarterbacked the team in its golden era. The Raiders drafted him in the second round out of the University of Alabama in 1970, and after three years on the bench he took over as starter in 1973. It was the first of five straight trips to the AFC championship game for the Raiders. And while they lost four of those games, they broke through in 1976 and brought home the franchise’s first NFL title.
“I was head coach of the Raiders the entire time Kenny was there and he led us to a whole bunch of victories including one in Super Bowl XI,” John Madden said in a statement. “I’ve often said, If I had one drive to win a game to this day, and I had a quarterback to pick, I would pick Kenny. Snake was a lot cooler that I was. … When you think about the Raiders you think about Ken Stabler.”
Stabler was especially deadly in the 2-minute offense. He’d stand in the pocket – frequently a pretty good pocket, with Pro Football Hall of Famers like Art Shell and Gene Upshaw blocking for him – calmly patting the ball until a receiver broke open.
Stabler threw some of the most memorable passes in NFL history, including the “Sea of Hands” toss to Clarence Davis to win a 1974 playoff game against the Dolphins, and the “Ghost to the Post” throws to tight end Dave Casper in a 1977 postseason win over the Colts. Even one of his fumbles became legendary. After he initiated the “Holy Roller” and pulled out a miraculous win against the Chargers in a 1978 game, the NFL changed its rules regarding the advancing of fumbles inside the 2-minute warning.
Jim Plunkett won more Super Bowls (two) with the Raiders, and Rich Gannon had more efficient numbers, but Stabler remains the franchise’s most iconic quarterback.
“So sorry to hear about the passing of a true Raider legend Ken Stabler, the original #12,” Gannon tweeted shortly after the news of his predecessor’s death. “It was a pleasure to know him and wear his number.”
Stabler’s heyday wound up being surprisingly short-lived. With his knees deteriorating and his team aging, he wound up throwing more interceptions (52) than touchdowns (42) in his final two seasons in Oakland (1978-79).
The Raiders shocked their fans by trading Stabler to Houston in 1980. He led the Oilers to the playoffs that season, but they were crushed by his old team in a wild-card game. His final four seasons with Houston (1981) and the New Orleans Saints (1982-84) were not memorable.
Though Stabler remained something of a rebel folk hero to football fans of a certain age, his life after football was checkered. He went through three divorces and three drunk driving arrests, losing his job as an analyst on Alabama football broadcasts after the last of those transgressions. In 2012 he lost his home and wound up with a debt of $260,000 for unpaid federal income tax.
Even as a player he had his share of controversy. Though Stabler’s level of involvement was never entirely clear, he was thrust into the spotlight in the 1979 offseason when some of his supporters in Gulf Shores, Ala., planted cocaine in the wheel well of the rented car driven by Bob Padecky, who was in town to research a story on the quarterback. Padecky, a reporter for the Sacramento Bee at the time, later became a Press Democrat columnist.
Stabler grew up in nearby Foley, Ala.
The Tuscaloosa News first reported Stabler’s death Thursday, but soon retracted the story, saying the news was premature. A half-hour later, the University of Alabama confirmed Stabler’s passing.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @Skinny_Post on Twitter.