Week 15 Crystal Ball - Thursday: Chargers-Raiders Evokes a Play that Changed the Game
My friends, THE GURU is ready for some football, even if it is a pair of 5-8 squads slugging it out with the Chargers visiting the Raiders this evening. Kickoff is at 8:15 pm on Amazon Prime with Al Michaels,1 Kirk Herbstreit and Kaylee Hartung on the call.
As Bezos sits back and dreams of the billions his creation will rake in over the holiday season, LA and Vegas have to get through the final four weeks of the season. Chargers head coach Brandon Staley is certainly embattled and, with the Raiders, no one knows if interim man Antonio Pierce will get the nod to lead the team in 2024.
If you’re a provincial East Coaster or someone who believes the NFL began when Tom Brady joined the league, you may be unaware of the magnitude of this rivalry. Well, let me assure you that it is every bit as intense as THE TRE MAN in the Chipotle line.
The rancor dates to 1960 when the teams began playing one another as part of the old American Football League and, frankly, it’s continued ever since. The Raiders hold a 68-58-2 lead in the series but the most important measure - bitterness - is a dead heat.
When I think of Raiders-Chargers, my memory takes me back to Week Two of the 1978 NFL season with Oakland (0-1) visiting San Diego (1-0) on September 10th in an intriguing early-season matchup. The Raiders were coming off their fifth straight AFC Championship game appearance and were once again expected to be a force in the battle for the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, the Chargers were looking for their first winning season in nine years and time was running short for head coach Tommy Prothro, an extraordinarily successful college coach who had taken San Diego from miserable to respectable in four seasons. The team was 7-7 in 1977 - their best year since the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970 - and was excited about the prospect of beating the Raiders to take a two-game lead in the AFC West standings.
But, first, let’s back up a moment, for history’s sake.
When Prothro came to the Chargers in 1974, he inherited a meandering, two-win team that hadn’t beaten the Raiders since 1968, a span of 11 games. As he built the program, San Diego absorbed seven more successive losses to Oakland before finally breaking through with a 12-7 victory over John Madden’s defending Super Bowl champs on Nov. 20, 1977. It was a landmark win for Coach Prothro – and the franchise – and showcased how far the team had come in four seasons.
The late-season triumph was impressive on several levels, especially considering who the Chargers started at quarterback that day: a deep-on-the-bench rookie named Cliff Olander, a young man who’d been picked in the fifth round of the ’77 draft and hadn’t started an NFL game.
The box score indicates that the kid had a pretty rough day tossing the pill with five completions in 13 attempts and a pair of interceptions for good measure. Did Oakland cover the ball in petroleum jelly or banana peels? Was Olander blindfolded? We’re left to speculate though we do know this: playing QB in the NFL is difficult to do so props to Olander for the effort.
Numbers aside, the rookie still got the “W” as San Diego ran for 263 yards with Rickey Young and Joe Washington leading the way with their one-game rushing total more than doubling the team’s season average. Even better, it dwarfed the 59 yards that SD managed on the ground in their loss to the Raiders earlier that season.
With the victory, Olander went out on a high note though his career didn’t conclude that afternoon. He played two more years with San Diego, spent a couple of seasons with the New York Giants, won a Grey Cup as Warren Moon’s backup in Edmonton and even tried out for a few United States Football League squads.
Another fact, which perhaps only interests Olander’s family and yours truly: when he went to the Giants, Olander joined the late, great Ray Perkins in 1980, taking a roster spot vacated by Joe Pisarcik,2 the quarterback whose career was unfairly tarred and feathered with “The Miracle at the Meadowlands,” as Eagles fans call it.
I beg your pardon for the digression. Back to 1978.
When the season began, the Chargers were set at QB with Oregon alum Dan Fouts, a role that the bearded one wouldn’t relinquish until retiring nine years later. He was supported by a strong roster, including a solid offensive line, elite wideouts in Charlie Joiner and John Jefferson, and a defense that included a trio of star linemen - Louie Kelcher, Gary “Big Hands” Johnson and future Hall of Famer Fred Dean. Impressively, Prothro selected all three of the d-linemen in the same 1975 draft, providing a hint of the coach’s keen eye for talent (and there’s more to come on that in a bit).
With the roster in good shape, the stage was set for Sept. 10, 1978, and San Diego came out like a house afire, outplaying Oakland for much of the afternoon. Fouts threw a first-quarter TD pass to Pat Curran, short-yardage specialist Hank Bauer pounded home two scoring runs and the hosts led, 20-7, in the fourth quarter though a missed Rolf Benirschke extra point kept it from being a 14-point lead. Then, yes, that old (Silver &) Black magic reared its head.
First, Oakland QB Ken “Snake” Stabler threw a 44-yard touchdown bomb to Morris Bradshaw with 8:26 to go. Then, with just 1:19 remaining, the Raiders got the ball back on their own 19-yard line and matriculated the ball down the field, settling at the Chargers 14-yard line with 10 seconds left.
That’s when the unimaginable happened.
Here’s how legendary play-by-play man Bill King described it.
"Stabler back, here comes the rush. He sidesteps. Can he throw? He can’t! The ball, flipped forward, is loose! A wild scramble, two seconds on the clock, Casper grabbing the ball - it is ruled a fumble! Casper has recovered in the end zone! The Oakland Raiders have scored on the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play. Madden is on the field. He wants to know if it's real. They said ‘yes,’ get your big butt out of here! He does! There's nothing real in the world anymore! The Raiders have won the football game!... Fifty-two thousand people minus a few lonely Raider fans are stunned...A man would be a fool to ever try and write a drama and make you believe it. This one will be relived forever!"
The play was made possible by the quick thinking of Raiders running back Pete Banaszak, who flipped the ball towards the end zone after Stabler tossed it forward. Still, King didn’t mention him in describing the action and the Associated Press, the news authority of the day, failed to note his role in this detailed game recap.
Yet, the play wouldn’t have happened without Banaszak serving as the middleman and knocking the ball towards the end zone from about the 13-yard line. And the game, it should be said, would’ve never been christened “The Holy Roller.”
If King had focused his attention on Banaszak, instead of on the ball, here’s how he might’ve described it:
"Stabler back, Banaszak misses the block on Woody Lowe and here comes the rush. He sidesteps. Can he throw? He can’t! The ball, flipped forward, is loose! A wild scramble, and Banaszak bats the ball forward, towards the end zone, two seconds on the clock, Casper grabbing the ball - it is ruled a fumble! Casper has recovered Banaszak’s batted ball in the end zone! The Oakland Raiders have scored on the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play and it was made possible by the hustle of Banaszak, who missed the block on Lowe and then, like Franco Harris with ‘The Immaculate Reception,’ used his instincts and made a play. Madden is on the field. He wants to know if it's real. They said ‘yes,’ get your big butt out of here! He does! There's nothing real in the world anymore! Oakland has won the football game thanks to the heroics of three wily veterans – Stabler, Banaszak and Casper!... Fifty-two thousand people minus a few lonely Raider fans are stunned...A man would be a fool to ever try and write a drama and make you believe it. This one will be relived forever!"
Kicker Errol Mann then trotted on to the field and kicked perhaps the most exciting extra point of his 11-year career.
Of course, players like Banaszak, the middlemen, the bridge guys, aren’t as worried about individual success, about notoriety, as they are about getting the job done, the end result. They take the longest of long views and are team-first individuals.
Besides the final play, Banaszak only touched the ball once during the game, a 14-yard catch. In fact, he only had 50 touches – 43 carries and seven receptions – during the 16-week regular season, the final year of his 13-year pro career. An apropos ending for a lunch pail-type of guy that didn’t care about individual accolades3.
In all, Banaszak played 13 years, finished seventh in franchise history in rushing yards and second in career rushing touchdowns, trailing only Marcus Allen. He earned a Super Bowl ring, an AFL championship, and played a central role in one of the most iconic plays in history, one that led to a significant change in NFL rules.
Indeed, as it stands today, the only offensive player who can advance a fumbled ball in the game’s final two minutes is the player who fumbled the ball. Thank you, Messrs. Stabler, Banaszak and Casper.
“Iconic” probably wasn’t the first word that came to Prothro’s mind when asked about the end of the 1978 game as he believed his team was robbed. After tough losses the next two weeks, the coaching lifer decided to resign and the Chargers quickly hired Don Coryell, who launched the most important era in franchise history, and one of the most influential bodies of work in NFL annals.
As you might expect given the midseason change, Coryell kept Prothro’s offensive coordinator on board for the rest of the year. It was Ray Perkins, the same guy who’d head to New York after the season to replace John McVay, who lost his job partly as a result of the aforementioned Miracle at the Meadowlands.
How’s that for full circle, my friends?
I’d say it’s fair to call Prothro a bridge between the San Diego/LA franchise’s post-1969 struggles and its 1980s heyday. And don’t forget the seminal role he played as a talent evaluator with the Chargers selecting cornerstones such as Dean, Jefferson, Johnson, Kelcher, Lowe, Washington, Young, and more.
His success at picking players was no fluke as, before coming to San Diego, Prothro did a heck of a job as head coach of the Rams, reinvigorating the roster with young bucks4 like running back Lawrence McCutcheon, linebackers Hacksaw Reynolds and Isiah Robertson, and defensive end Jack Youngblood. He further displayed his player personnel acumen during three seasons with the Cleveland Browns front office (1979-81) as they became a contender.5
Prothro knew how to build football teams, and that wasn’t all. The coach was an interesting cat who reportedly smoked four packs of cigarettes a day and was a heck of a competitive bridge player, partnering with none other than the famed actor Omar Sharif.
A great bridge guy. Seems applicable to both Prothro and Banaszak, doesn’t it?
Tonight’s battle between the Chargers and the Raiders finds each team in need of a Prothro and multiple Banaszaks. They need a visionary leader who excels at picking players and competitors with toughness and fortitude. Perhaps Vegas has found the former in the aforementioned Pierce.
There’s an old NFL saying that “the desperate team always wins” and, if that’s the case, these teams have an equal shot at victory. Since I have to make a pick and the Raiders are at home with a slightly more game-experienced QB, I’m rolling Vegas. Call it 15-12.6
P.S. The Week Fourteen record was 10-6, leaving the season mark at 127-76 (.626). I’ll be in touch this weekend. Enjoy tonight and God bless!
In case you’re living under a rock which, incidentally, means TOMMY BIRD is a likely neighbor, you’ve heard the news that the legendary Michaels has been removed from NBC’s playoff coverage. A legend treated like yesterday’s news.
Oddly enough, for what it’s worth, both men played collegiately at New Mexico State. The Aggies, by the way, may be the greatest story in college football this year with coach Jerry Kill engineering an epic turnaround.
Hailing from the anonymous burg of Crivitz, Wis., population 984, Banaszak was a good enough player at the University of Miami (1963-65) to earn induction into its Sports Hall of Fame. In his three years, he rOddly enough, for what it’s worth, both men played their college ball at New Mexico State. an for a combined 1,107 yards while catching 35 passes and scoring 12 total touchdowns. Not Heisman Trophy-material but pretty darn good for a boy from Crivitz.
Unfortunately, team success eluded Banaszak at U of M as there were no bowl appearances, and the Canes were 12-16-2. The highlight was his senior season when the squad managed to topple two top-10 teams (Syracuse, Florida) and tie a third (Notre Dame) on the way to an otherwise unimpressive 5-4-1 record.
After being selected by the Raiders in the fifth round of the 1966 AFL Draft, Banaszak set off on a pro career that must’ve been beyond his wildest dreams.
In respective order: a terrific running back, a vicious linebacker who sawed his car in half in college to earn the nickname “Hacksaw,” a hard-hitting LB who unfortunately may be best known for nearly being impaled by Earl Campbell, and a Hall of Famer who played a playoff game on a broken leg. That’s quite a crew.
Of course, Prothro’s pro success wouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone who saw him coach in college as he put strong teams together at previously moribund Oregon State (1955-64) and blueblood UCLA (1965-70). He took OSU to two Rose Bowls – an almost-impossible-to-believe feat in Corvallis – and returned the Bruins to respectability before moving to the pros.
The Week Fourteen record was 10-6, putting the season mark at 135-76 (.640). Last year at this point, the numbers were 123-83 (.597).