John Madden: the pied piper of pigskin

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 17, 2009



John Madden retired last week from a 30-year broadcasting career that has defined his image in the eyes of a generation of football fans.
 
But before he was a pop-culture phenom who wrote best-selling books, introduced the nation to the turducken, lent his name to one of the most popular video games in history and rolled across America on his tricked-out bus like a pied piper of pigskin, Madden was a pretty damn good coach – though certainly an imperfect one – who left an amazing imprint on the NFL that people seem to have forgotten over the years.
 
Madden was truly a regular-season coach without peer. His career record of 103-32-7 (.750) gives him the best regular-season winning percentage of any coach in NFL history. But for years he was also the proverbial coach who "couldn't win the big game." (See CHFF's combined regular season/postseason list of winningest coaches, where Madden looks up only at Vince Lombardi.)
 
In an era when it actually meant something to reach the postseason – back before 8-8 teams hosted home playoff games – Madden's Raiders appeared in the postseason in eight of his 10 years as a head coach (1969-78). He was not an annual Tony Dungy one-and-done postseason whitewash, either, as he won at least one playoff game almost every year of his career. He reached seven conference title games, which means he was a national television fixture before he sat in the broadcast booth. But he lost six of those seven conference title games, leaving many fans to wonder what might have been.
 
Along the way, though, his teams produced a series of the most thrilling victories and most famous plays in NFL history.
 
So purely from a football perspective, without even looking at his broadcast career, Madden is one of the more interesting figures in NFL annals.
 
He was the third in the line of four great coaches who established the Raiders as one of the marquee franchises in the NFL. More importantly, he's the coach who finally delivered a championship to the organization after more than a decade of great but disappointing teams. And he probably did more than any other individual to establish the once tangible "Raiders mystique" that's gone into hibernation over the past few years.
 
Al Davis in his hey-day, of course, was the coach who kick started the "committment to excellence" for the Raiders. He arrived in Oakland in 1963, after three straight poor years for the organization in the upstart AFL, and instantly gave the team credibility. It had gone 1-13 in 1962. It went 10-4 under Davis in 1963.
 
John Rauch, a curiously forgotten figure in NFL history, took over as Oakland's head coach in 1966. He guided the team for three years, compiling a remarkable 33-8-1 (.798) record. His 1967 squad represented the AFL in Super Bowl II, where they lost to the Packers in Vince Lombardi's Green Bay swan song. At 13-1 and with a tremendous scoring differential of 468-233 (over 14 games), Rauch's 1967 Raiders were easily the most dominant team of the AFL's 10-year existence
 
(Before his coaching days, Rauch was a big-time college quarterback at Georgia and the No. 2 overall pick in the 1949 draft – right after CHFF hero and All-Time 11 captain Chuck Bednarik.)
 
The Rauch Era in Oakland ended in 1968 much like the Lane Kiffin Era ended in Oakland in 2008: after a public dispute with executive Al Davis, who insisted on inserting himself into the onfield operations from his perch in the front office.
 
Enter Madden. He earned his stripes as an assistant at San Diego State, working under future NFL offensive whiz Don Coryell from 1964 to 1966. (The trivia buffs may be interested to know that Madden played juco ball at the College of San Mateo – in Tom Brady's California hometown.)
 
Madden then served as Rauch's defensive assistant in 1967 and 1968. He took the top gig in 1969. Clearly, he inherited a great team. Rauch's 1968 Raiders had gone 12-2 and lost in the AFL title game to Joe Namath and the Super Bowl III champion Jets (just one month after the Raiders beat the Jets in the infamous "Heidi Game").
 
Madden's 1969 team featured "Mad Bomber" and perennial Pro Bowl quarterback Daryle Lamonica, and six future Hall of Famers: legendary kicker and quarterback George Blanda, a pair of young offensive linemen named Art Shell and Gene Upshaw, defensive back Willie Brown, receiver Fred Biletnikoff, and center Jim Otto.
 
In fact, the Raiders have sent 11 players to the Hall of Fame, more than any other AFL franchise. Eight of those 11 Raiders HOFers played for Madden.
 
So he had a lot to work with. But did he deliver? That remains open to debate.
 
As noted above, Madden's Raiders reached the playoffs eight times in his 10 seasons – a remarkable feat in an era that featured an eight-team postseason. The Raiders also appeared in seven conference title games in those 10 years, including five straight from 1973 to 1977, a feat worthy of Paul Brown's Browns, which was pro football's greatest dynasty.
 
The chinks in the Madden armor, of course, are those conference title games – six defeats, mostly to some of the best teams in NFL history.
 
The AFC in the 1970s was ruled by a small handful of tyrants – Pittsburgh, Miami and Oakland – who annually battled for conference supremacy in an epic series of conference title games. Those three teams alone filled 15 of 20 AFC title game spots in the 1970s and represented the conference in eight of 10 Super Bowls that decade (four for Pittsburgh, three for Miami, one for Oakland).  
 
But Madden's Raiders typically came out on the short end of those battles.
 
In 1969, Madden lost to the eventual world champion Chiefs in the final AFL championship game. In 1970, he lost to the eventual world champion Colts in the first AFC title game. In 1973, he lost to the mighty world champion Dolphins (a team that went 32-2 over two seasons) in the AFC title game. Madden's Raiders lost consecutive AFC title games to Pittsburgh's first two Super Bowl champions in 1974 and 1975. He also lost the Broncos in the 1977 AFC title game.
 
Oh, and then there was the loss that stung more than all the others: the defeat to Pittsburgh in the 1972 divisional playoffs, thanks to a miraculous and still controversial play known as the "Immaculate Reception." It was the first postseason victory in Steelers franchise history and the outcome of that contest, and the other playoff defeats that followed, seemed to confirm what many had felt: the Raiders, and Madden, could not win the proverbial "big game."
 
Madden finally stemmed this daunting organizational tide in 1976 with what is probably the best team in Oakland history. The 1976 Raiders didn't blow out many opponents, but they went 13-1 behind an amazing season from quarterback Kenny Stabler (103.4 passer rating in a year in which the league-wide passer rating was a mere 67.0).
 
Then the Raiders made up for their Immaculate Reception loss four years earlier with a controversial victory in the divisional round over the Patriots – a team that crushed Oakland, 48-17 earlier that year, its only blemish in an otherwise perfect season. New England defensive lineman Sugar Bear Hamilton was flagged with a questionable roughing the passer penalty late in the playoff rematch, giving the Raiders a first down that they quickly converted into the game-winning touchdown.
 
It was a watershed victory for the Raiders organization. They crushed their nemesis, Pittsburgh, 24-7, in the AFC title game the following week, with an offense that relentlessly pounded away at the best of all the Steel Curtain defenses (51 rushing attempts for 157 yards). Then the Raiders headed south to the Rose Bowl, where they  smashed the Vikings, 32-14, in Super Bowl XI. It was the crowning achievement in the successful yet frustrating histories for both Madden and the organization.
 
Madden retired after a disappointing 9-7 campaign in 1978, easily the worst season of his career. He yielded the floor to former Raiders quarterback Tom Flores, but with a reputation for organizational excellence fully entrenched, thanks to his remarkable .750 winning percentage over the course of a decade and the defining victory in Super Bowl XI.
 
It was that win that truly established Oakland as one of the leading organizations in sports, and launched the Golden Era of the Raiders. Four years later, Flores led Oakland to an upset victory over the Eagles in Super Bowl XV. He then orchestrated a truly stunning beatdown of the mighty Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII that perhaps replaced Madden's win in Super Bowl XI as the organization's signature performance.
 
But it was Madden – perhaps more than anybody, perhaps more than even Al Davis himself – who confirmed the Raiders as winners and, reversing the indignity of the Immaculate Reception, forged a team that seemed to possess a bit of pigskin pixie dust, pulling magic out of its ass in one big moment after another.
 
In fact, the most legendary moments in Raiders history all occurred on Madden's watch:
  • George Blanda's magical performance in 1970, who came off the bench to throw late touchdowns or kick late field goals to help the Raiders salvage four victories and one tie in five straight games, and went on to earn AFC player of the year honors at age 43 
  • The Clarence Davis TD in the "Sea of Hands" victory over the two-time defending champion Dolphins in the 1974 divisional playoffs, proclaimed by legendary broadcaster Curt Gowdy "the greatest game I have ever seen" (see the video here)
  • Fred Biletnikoff's amazing one-handed TD catch earlier in that same game (see the video here)
  • The epic "Ghost to the Post" double-overtime victory against Baltimore in the 1977 divisional playoffs
  • "Old Man" Willie Brown's interception return for a touchdown against the Vikings in Super Bowl XI, a moment captured with a zoom lens close-up from the end zone that serves as one of the iconic images in NFL Films history (see the game video here)
  • And, less dramatically because it happened in Week 2, the "Holy Roller" victory over San Diego in 1978 that caused the NFL to rewrite the rule on fumbles after the season (see video here)
Even the worst moment in Raiders history carried Madden's imprint: Oakland DB Jack Tatum's hit on New England's Darryl Stingley in a 1978 preseason game left the receiver paralyzed for life and seemed to entrench the Raiders outlaw image. The image, partially of Madden's making, also seemed to defy the man. Madden reportedly rushed to Stingley's bedside after the game and developed a long friendship with him.
 
But the enduring image of the Madden Era is of Madden himself, in the aftermath of the watershed victory in Super Bowl XI: being carried off the field in triumph by his players, his fist pumped in the air, a Texas-wide grin across his doughy face, a look of complete and indescribable joy. 
 
The Madden image should have been sealed that day.
 
Instead he took the joy that engulfed him back in January 1977 and shared it with the rest of us for 30 years: in his breezy pigskin primers we read as teenagers, in the video games that carried his name, in something as simple as the turkey legs he shared with the game's best players, and with America, on our national holiday, and in his distinctive, onomatopoeia-packed everyman broadcast style.
 
Pow! John Madden made quite an impact on pro football. Now he rides off the field, high upon the shoulders of the sport he loved.  

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