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. 

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