Raiders

Super Bowl XI Raiders break through

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Super Bowl XI Raiders break through

Programming Note: Watch Super Bowl XLVI live, Sunday at 3 p.m. on NBCSports.com. Pregame simulcast will kick off at 11 a.m.

John Cannon
CSNCalifornia.com

Much was made a few weeks ago about the 30th anniversary of The Catch, but this season is also a significant anniversary for the NFL team on the other side of the Bay. Thirty-five years ago, the Oakland Raiders won the first of their three Super Bowls, defeating the Minnesota Vikings 32-14.

For the Raiders, the victory was made sweeter by the fact that they had finally won The Big One after years of frustration. Oakland had played for a Super Bowl berth six times in the eight seasons between 1968 and 1975. It lost every one of those games and every single time, the victors went on to win the Super Bowl.

Thus, the 1976 season began with a huge weight on the shoulders of the Raiders, and especially coach John Madden and quarterback Ken Stabler. As fate would have it, their very first game was against the team that had ended their previous two seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers took a 21-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Raiders came storming back with 24 fourth-quarter points and won the game on a late field goal.

The Steelers and Raiders were famous for their dislike for one another, and things didnt get any better in this game. Raiders safety George Atkinson knocked Steelers receiver Lynn Swann out with a forearm to the back of the head -- on a running play. In fact, on the NFL Films highlight you can see Atkinson clock Swann -- then a second later Franco Harris barrels past on a 25-yard run!

The comeback win, and the Atkinson-Swann incident, set the tone for the Raiders season. They barely survived games against Kansas City and Houston, and took a shaky 3-0 record to New England to face the Patriots. The Raiders were blown out, as Steve Grogan threw two TD passes to Darryl Stingley and ran for two more scores. The final score was 48-17.

As it turned out, that was the only game the Raiders lost in 1976. They had a couple of close calls, the closest being when Bears kicker Bob Thomas hit the upright on what would have been a game-winning field goal. Their biggest blowout of the season was a 49-16 win over the expansion Tampa Buccaneers led by QB Steve Spurrier.

The Raiders were unconventional on both sides of the ball. On offense, they were left-handed, with a southpaw QB in Stabler and perennial All-Pros Gene Upshaw and Art Shell at left guard and left tackle, respectively. Tight End Dave Casper often lined up on the left side, which was highly unusual at the time. They controlled the ball on the ground with an incredible line and backs Mark Van Eeghen and Clarence Davis, with Pete Banaszak coming off the bench when it was time to stick it in the end zone.

When defenses cheated up to play the run, they paid a terrible price. Flanker Cliff Branch, one of the most underrated players in NFL history, had his best season in 1976. He averaged a stunning 24.15 yards per catch, and scored 12 TDs. While he was stretching the field vertically, sticky-fingered split-end Fred Biletnikoff and Casper were finding holes underneath. Stabler completed exactly two-thirds of his 291 passes, leading the league by a fairly wide margin.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Raiders had changed to a 3-4 defense, still a pretty novel concept at the time. The personnel was a combination of All-Pros (Ted Hendricks, Phil Villapiano, Willie Brown) and guys who came out of nowhere (Willie Hall, Monte Johnson, Skip Thomas). The result was a defense that was not easy to run on (10th in the NFL), which was a bigger deal back in 1976 than it is now.
There was little drama involving the AFC West, as the Raiders clinched the title in Week 12. The remaining intrigue in the regular season centered around Game 13, a Monday night matchup at home against the 9-3 Cincinnati Bengals. If Cincinnati won, the Steelers would have been eliminated from the playoffs, and more than one observer felt the Raiders would have been better served to lose to Cincinnati to avoid the red-hot Steel Curtain.

Madden, of course, was not interested in any such scenario, and he later called the 35-20 win over the Bengals one of the proudest of his career.

To start the playoffs, the Raiders had a rematch with the Patriots, the one team that had beaten them. The playoff game looked like a repeat, with New England taking a 21-10 lead into the 4th quarter in Oakland. Stabler dug into his bag of comebacks, however, and the Raiders survived to meet Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship for the third straight time.

Unfortunately for history, the Steeler team that played in Oakland that day was without both starting running backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, and the Raiders rolled 24-7.

After six failures on the doorstep, the Raiders werent going to be fussy about how they finally got to the Super Bowl. Instead, they dealt out some misery of their own, handing the Minnesota Vikings their fourth Super Bowl loss, controlling the game from start to finish. Biletnikoff was named the games MVP, although he didnt score any of the Raiders four TDs. He did have four catches for 79 yards, and three times was tackled at the Vikings 1-yard line.

It was a glorious day in Pasadena, the last outdoor day game in Super Bowl history, and as the Raiders carried John Madden off the field on their shoulders his grin was so wide that radio announcer Bill King said he looked like a split watermelon. It was the grin, finally, of a champion.
Media professional and Bay Area native John Cannon was a television and radio sportscaster in Phoenix and Las Vegas. Follow him on Twitter at @JCannonSports, or email him at JCannonSports@gmail.com.

How John Pagano plans to impact Raiders defense: ‘There is always room for change’

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USATSI

How John Pagano plans to impact Raiders defense: ‘There is always room for change’

ALAMEDA – John Pagano can’t implement his scheme in a week. He can’t import his plays and preferences cultivated during five seasons as Chargers defensive coordinator. Full offseason programs and training camps are required for that.

Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was fired on Tuesday. Pagano will call his first Raiders game five days later against Denver at Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders’ assistant head coach – defense believes he can impact how the Silver and Black does business.

“There’s always room for change and there’s always room for doing things better,” Pagano said Thursday. “Without telling you our game plan, it’s about how we go out and execute the call, bottom line.”

Head coach Jack Del Rio said the Raiders weren’t playing fast enough. They weren’t creating enough turnovers, weren’t doing well enough on third down and weren’t regularly affecting the quarterback due to a lack of both rush and coverage.

That’s why Norton had to go.

Pagano’s first objective, which must get accomplished in a few days, is getting the Raiders to play with confidence. Then he can add some design wrinkles with some of his personality.

“You have to have that ability of going out there, knowing your assignment and playing faster,” Pagano said. “It’s not to say that there have been times where we’ve simplified things, but taking the thinking out of the game and making them react is, I think, most important. Going out there and playing fast and that’s doing the little extra things, the attention to details of studying and getting those things processed. See ball, go get ball.”

That last sentence sums up how Pagano wants his guys to play. He’s a quality play caller and creative blitzer with a knack making simple plays look complex. He can find and exploit opposing weak links. His defenses have always been good creating pressure and turnovers alike. The Raiders need more of both.

To do that Pagano wants to relieve a player’s mental burden and keep them focused on using talent well.

“The one thing I’ve always stressed and always been about is technique, fundamentals and unbelievable effort,” Pagano said. “I think those three things can get you home.”

The Raiders haven’t been home much as a defense. They’re tied for last with 14 sacks. They’re dead last with six turnovers. They’ve gone 10 games without an interception, the longest single-season drought in NFL history.

A lack of big defensive plays has killed the Raiders this season. It obviously increases points allowed. Good field position has been hard to come by. The offense has to earn everything the hard way. That’s a recipe for losing football, a maddening turn after the Raiders finished second with 30 takeaways last year.

Pagano has a chart listing “MOPs,” short for missed opportunities. There have been many, especially in a secondary he oversaw before this week.

“I talked to these guys this week about we need to do simple better,” Pagano said. “What is simple? It’s fundamentals of covering. It’s tackling. It’s communicating. It’s catching the ball when it comes. We’ve had opportunities. It’s not like we’re out there struggling and straining to dive and layout for the thing. It’s hit us in the hands where we’ve had many, many opportunities.”

Missed opportunities have also plagued a pass rush featuring reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack. Pagano brought up a moment early in Sunday’s lost to New England, when Treyvon Hester forced a fumble near three teammates that the Patriots somehow recovered.

Pagano’s goal is to improve performance. Players must buy in to do that. Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin headline a large group close to Norton, one with enough pride and professionalism to get behind a new playcaller in Pagano, who could be here long term.

“There is a human element to this,” Pagano said. “We are family. It’s sad any time a member of your family gets dismissed or something. At the end of the day, we have the Broncos coming in here on Sunday and we have to get our minds right to go play this game. That’s something that they’ve done a great job with this week, truly focusing in on what we need to do.”

Irvin, Mack given a day off from Raiders practice

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USATSI

Irvin, Mack given a day off from Raiders practice

ALAMEDA – Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin were out at Raiders practice Wednesday for the stretching period. Both edge rushers left one-at-a-time during the individual period, which was open to the press, headed into the main building and did not return.

There was no perceived reaction, certainly no surprise, from the coaching staff or players on the field. Irvin and new defensive coordinator John Pagano were seen joking around on the field before practice began in earnest. 

Both Irvin and Mack were given a practice off. A Raiders official called it a day off/rest-type day that was not injury related. The Silver and Black typically practice in pads or shells on Wednesday, but were in jerseys and sweats in the interest of recovery.

This day off's timing did raise an eyebrow.

Wednesday marked the first practice Irvin has missed since training camp. Mack hasn’t missed one in months.

Mack and Irvin’s downtime also came a day after beloved defensive coordinator Ken Norton’s firing.

Several defensive players were upset about Norton's firing, but Mack and Irvin especially were among those loyal to Norton. Mack and Norton developed a bond after the coach was named defensive coordinator in 2015. Norton and Irvin go way back to their days together in Seattle. Irvin credits Norton for helping him get on the right path and stay there.

Neither player was happy Norton got the axe. Irvin made his displeasure clear, tweeting “BULLS***” shortly after news of Norton’s demise broke. Mack told ESPN “I like to keep my thoughts private.” Defensive stars declined comment Wednesday or didn't appear in the locker room when the media was present. 

It isn’t immediately clear if the non-injury related day off was related to Norton’s dismissal. Head coach Jack Del Rio won’t speak to the media again until Friday. New defensive coordinator John Pagano is scheduled to speak Thursday afternoon.

Del Rio addressed the media before Wednesday’s practice, and was asked how he’ll handle players unhappy with the in-season shake-up.

“I don’t try and 'handle' them,” Del Rio said. “I think the biggest thing is to understand the relationship, respect that, give him a little space and then at the end of the day, we’re going to get on with our work. But, I’m human. It wasn’t easy for me either.”