Friday, November 16, 2012

A Kiick in the Pants

Oakland Raiders vs. Miami Dolphins at the Orange Bowl, September 22, 1975

There was a lot of history incumbent on this game, the first one on the Monday night schedule of 1975. In the 1974 playoffs, the Raiders had dethroned the two-time-champion Dolphins on the infamous Sea of Hands play, with a tumbling Ken Stabler finding Clarence Davis for the game-winning touchdown. Subsequent to that, the Dolphins lost Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to the Memphis Grizzlies; this would be their first game of the WFL era.

Blanda, Otto: Chuffed
For the Raiders, this was the first game in their entire history without longtime center Jim Otto, who had moved upstairs to become their business manager. Literally, this was the first Oakland Raiders game that Jim Otto didn't play in. Ever. (Howard Cosell noted that Otto was now reduced to complaining that dinner for the Raiders cost eighteen and a half bucks per man.) Otto didn’t exactly retire, and he didn’t get released: The team just started playing Dave Dalby at center, and let Otto sit on the sidelines in preseason until he got the message. He must have been totally chuffed to spend the evening on the sidelines talking to George Blanda, who was more than ten years older than Otto, but still had a slot on the team. Ray Guy, though, had taken over the kickoff duties.

The two constants for these teams were the coaches, Madden and Shula “his indomitability etched in his visage,” said Guess Who - maybe the most recognizable coaches in the game along with Landry and possibly Noll. The booth team talked about how Madden looked as dapper as ever, but I always thought he dressed like crap, white belt or no.

Jerry, Betty: Sloshed but unhit
Actual American history intruded on the game as well. That afternoon, Sara Jane Moore fired a shot in the direction of President Ford, following in the footsteps of assassination-minded babe Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme 17 days earlier, and the broadcast switched to Harry Reasoner for a full report at halftime. (This wasn’t on the tape I watched.) In the fourth quarter, ABC News broke away from the game to show President Ford addressing the press corps about the situation, a visibly sloshed Betty at his side, as we missed the guts of an ultimately futile Dolphins comeback drive.

This was Alex Karras’ second year in the MNF booth, and he had become the Otis Sistrunk bureau chief, after famously declaring Otis a graudate of the University of Mars the year before. In reality, Sistrunk, who grew up in a very poor family, was lucky to finish high school and had to go to work in a warehouse when he otherwise might have been playing college ball. Of course, Cosell needled Karras into saying something every time Sistrunk – his jersey majestically untucked- did something in the game, which he did with great regularity.

The game itself was kind of anticlimactic: The Raiders jumped out to a 17-0 lead, then held on for a 31-21 victory. Despite the legendary MNF production values, the broadast itself wasn’t very good. At the end of the third quarter, with the Dolphins mounting a furious comeback, Miami receiver Howard Twilley caught a pass right at the goal line as he was coming back toward Bob Griese. It looked like a touchdown to me – Howard Cosell belatedly agreed – but the ball was spotted at the one. Incredibly, there was no replay of any kind until after Don Nottingham crashed across the goal line on the next play, and then it was only the same inconclusive angle from which we had originally seen the play. They did however, get a good shot of a Dolphin assistant trainer, coming on to help Nat Moore off the field, wearing cutoff denim shorts. Hey, it was the '70s.

The broadcast's one shining moment was a brief segment with William Shatner in the booth. Shatner, fresh off his triumphant turn in Big Bad Mama, was starring in a new ABC series called Barbary Coast, which had premiered two weeks earlier. It didn’t even last as long as the NFL season.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Outlaw Country

Raiders vs. Falcons, October 14, 1979 at the Oakland Coliseum

On paper, it seemed like a good game: 1979 was part of a brief window of competence the Falcons displayed in the Steve Bartkowski era, and the Raiders in the 1970s were always fun. But not only was the game a blowout, but it wasn’t even particularly interesting. The Raiders were in transition; John Madden had retired before the start of the season, leaving Tom Flores with his blow-dried hair and lapels the size of a small child on the sidelines. Freddy Biletnikoff had retired. Otis Sistrunk had gone to wherever the Otis Sistrunks of the world go to.

Plus, Cliff Branch was absent with some sort of illness – Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier were highly suspicious of whatever was ailing Branch – leaving Rich Martini as the No. 1 wide receiver for Kenny Stabler. I never heard of him either. This was one of five  career starts for Martini, a rookie seventh-round pick out of Cal-Davis, and he hauled in six passes for a career high. (The Raiders did have Raymond Chester and Dave Casper starting in a two tight-end set, plus rookie Todd Christensen playing on special teams, which has gotta be the greatest collection of tight end talent any team has ever had.)

At one point, the cameras spotted Waylon Jennings, or someone looking an awful lot like him, on the sideline, producing the following conversation:
PAT: Waylon Jennings!
TOM: All right!
PAT: That is not of course Waylon Jennings. Oh, it is! That’s Martini [making a grab near the sidelines]. A couple of weeks ago, we had a person we thought was Captain Kangaroo, turned out not to be the Captain. And I wasn’t really sure if that was Waylon Jennings or not.
TOM: Couldn’t tell with the shades. I know that’s Ken Stabler.

There was a real C&W vibe to the entire proceedings. Falcons coach Leeman Bennett was not just wearing a trucker hat but had a big chaw in the side of his mouth, leaving him as a perfect emblem of Atlanta in the 1970s.

As far as the game goes, the Raiders leapt out to a 19-0 lead in the first half, as Falcon kicker Tim Mazzetti missed two field goals. They made it 26-0 on the opening drive of the second half, then stretched it out to 50-12 as Mazzetti missed two extra points. He finally converted on a garbage-time TD that made the final 50-19. I kind of assumed Mazzetti was going to be cut after that performance, but Bennett kept him around, and kept him even though the next week against the 49ers, Mazzetti went 0-for-2 on extra points. He hung on kicking for Atlanta all the way through the 1980 season.

The biggest thing about this game was that the newly retired Madden, who was already doing games for CBS, did a brief interview at halftime, then sat in with Brookshier and Summerall for the entire second half. He wasn’t a finished product – he didn’t say doink even once – but he was clearly, right out of the gate, an astonishingly good broadcaster. He knew everything the Raiders were trying to do, and why it was likely to succeed or not, without ever coming off as a know-it-all, or even trading all that much on his position as their former coach. He was just very observant, very good with the language, and a lot of fun.  
According to an unconfirmed report I saw on Wikipedia, CBS decided at this point that Madden needed to be on their A broadcasting team, and the only question was who to pair him with. The decision came down to Summerall or Vin Scully, and they decided the laconic Summerall would mesh well with the loquacious Madden. That was probably the right choice, although Scully was also extremely good at football. The most important thing about this game is that here, October 14, 1979, is where Summerall and Madden first worked as a team.