As the Raiders await the start of the 2020 season, fans of the Silver & Black hope Jon Gruden’s club has turned a corner after improving by three wins from 2018 to 2019 — with the best yet to come in the team’s first year in Las Vegas.
Clearly, the Raiders of today must compete with the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West, as well as their other longtime rivals, the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers. (And the still-going COVID-19 pandemic, which could jeopardize everything from attendance to the actual season.)
But how will they stack up against the Raiders of old?
In the 60-year history of the Raiders, a dozen teams clearly stand out above the rest from a purely mathematical standpoint. Those squads won at least 11 games during the regular season and at least one round of the playoffs, giving them a measure of success both on the whole, and when it counted most.
Certainly, any fan can — and will — argue that picking the best Raiders teams involves more than simple math. But, given that the NFL season has expanded from 14 to 16 games (with two seasons shortened by labor disputes), and the postseason has grown in number of qualifying teams and rounds, winning percentage offers a good starting point.
Of course, since one of the team’s foundational principles is late owner Al Davis’ mantra, “Just Win, Baby,” winning a conference title and reaching the Super Bowl — and, more importantly, winning the pro football championship — certainly carries a great deal of weight.
(Ask the New York Giants and New England Patriots … the Patriots of 2007 were 19-0 going into Super Bowl XLVI, only to lose to the Giants … who beat the Pats again in Super Bowl XLII after going a measly 9-7 in the 2011 regular season.)
All of that said, a dozen teams stood out above the rest, either on regular-season success or by advancing deep into the playoffs.
(Photo: Jim Plunkett quarterbacked two of the Raiders’ best teams.)
Those dozen teams won at least 11 regular-season games — whether that was in 14 or 16 games — and at least one more in the playoffs.
(The only other team that really stood out was the squad that went 8-1 in the strike-shortened 1982 season, but lost in the second round of the expanded playoffs that season.)
Postseason success quickly separated the teams, as nine ended up falling short of the ultimate goal: seven losing in the AFL or AFC title game, and two more losing in the Super Bowl. The other three Raiders teams took home the NFL’s ultimate prize, winning a combined 15 or 16 regular-season and postseason games in the process — more than any other Silver & Black squads by sheer number of victories.
The challenge, mathematically, then becomes whether you measure teams by total wins (favoring postseason success) or winning percentage (favoring teams that had strong regular seasons).
Where to draw the line? Well, the Raiders’ “weakest” Super Bowl champion by winning percentage finished at .750, going 11-5 in the regular season and 4-0 in the playoffs for a total record of 15-5.
Five of the nine teams that ended on a losing note also fell short of that winning percentage, including four squads that lost the AFC Championship game and one Super Bowl loser, the 2002 team that fell in Super Bowl XXXVII after a comparatively unspectacular 11-5 regular season.
Drop those five from contention, and that leaves a lucky seven prospects.
But, how do you compare four teams that failed to win the Super Bowl, but won a higher percentage of their total games than some of the teams that did?
Luckily, one team rendered that question moot.
Before we reveal it, let’s look at the six contenders that gave it a good run for the crown of best Raiders team ever:
1983: 12-4 in the regular season plus 3-0 in the postseason for a total record of 15-4 (.789). Won AFC West, AFC Championship and Super Bowl XVIII.
The Raiders’ third (and most recent) Super Bowl champion featured Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen — whose 74-yard touchdown run is the stuff of legend. But the team, which dominated the NFC champion Washington Redskins in the big game, also featured four other Hall of Famers (Howie Long, Ted Hendricks, Mike Haynes and Ray Guy) along with several more all-time greats (Cliff Branch, Jim Plunkett, Matt Millen, Lester Hayes) and was coached by another all-time Raider, Tom Flores. The Los Angeles squad won the AFC West by three games and scored 30-plus points in all three postseason contests. In the regular season, the team led the NFL in scoring and sacks and finished second in offensive yardage and third in defensive yardage (outlasting a middle-of-the-pack scoring defense). It won the AFC West by three games and tied for the best record in the conference.
1980: 11-5 plus 4-0 for a total of 15-5 (.750). Finished 2nd in the AFC West, won the AFC Championship and Super Bowl XV as a wild card.
Flores’ first Super Bowl team suffers in comparison with some other great Raiders squads because of its 11-5 regular-season record, which only qualified it as a wild-card for the playoffs, as it lost the division title to the San Diego Chargers on a tiebreaker. But the Oakland team won four postseason games — including getting some revenge on the Chargers in the AFC title game — to become the first wild-card team to become Super Bowl champions. The left side of the offensive line featured Hall of Famers Art Shell and Gene Upshaw, while Plunkett took over as starter early in the season, throwing to Branch and Bob Chandler. Mark van Eeghen was the team’s leading rusher from the fullback position. The defense featured Hendricks and Hayes, along with Super Bowl record-setter Rod Martin (who picked off three passes from his linebacker spot). Guy rounded out the Hall of Fame contingent.
1967: 13-1 plus 1-1 for a total of 14-2 (.875). Won AFL West and AFL Championship, but lost Super Bowl II.
The Raiders’ first AFL championship team advanced to the second-ever Super Bowl after posting an AFL-best 13-1 regular season record — a stark reversal for a team that had losing seasons in four of its first five years in the league — and routing the Houston Oilers in the AFL championship. Although the Raiders were dominated in the Super Bowl by the defending champion Green Bay Packers, they were a force to be reckoned with in the upstart league, as no other AFL team won even 10 games. The Raiders led the league in scoring offense and finished second in scoring defense, behind only the Oilers. The team featured five Hall of Famers (Fred Biletnikoff, George Blanda, Willie Brown, Jim Otto and the rookie Upshaw) and stalwart Raiders like Pete Banaszak, Billy Cannon, Ben Davidson, “Mad Bomber” Daryle Lamonica and Kent McCloughan.
1969: 12-1-1 plus 1-1 for a total of 13-2-1 (.844). Won AFL West, but lost AFL Championship.
1968: 12-2 plus 1-1 for a total of 13-3 (.813). Tied for first in AFL West, but lost AFL Championship.
The two teams that followed the 1967 Super Bowl squad both advanced to the AFL championship game. Both teams won 12 regular-season games, with the 1968 squad tying for the AFC West title before defeating Kansas City in a playoff game to earn a berth in the AFL title tilt. The 1969 team’s 12 wins and 1 tie were good for an outright AFL West title, on the other hand, but an expanded playoff format meant the Raiders had to defeat Houston to earn a third straight spot in the AFL championship. The biggest change — one of the biggest in team history — took place when head coach John Rauch left the Raiders after the 1968 season, and Al Davis promoted future Hall of Famer John Madden to replace him.
1974: 12-2 plus 1-1 for a total of 13-3 (.813). Won AFC West, but lost AFC Championship.
The 1974 squad was one of the best in a string of Raiders teams that vied with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins for supremacy in the 1970s AFC. It won the second-most games of any Raiders team in the decade, but represented one of the five (!) Oakland teams that fell one step short of the Super Bowl — beaten in the AFC championship game, as the Raiders also were in 1970, 1973, 1975 and 1977. The 1974 team that lost to the Steelers featured Biletnikoff, Branch, Shell, Upshaw, Dave Casper and Hall of Fame quarterback Ken “Snake” Stabler, as well as plenty of other Raider legends, including Jack Tatum anchoring the “Soul Patrol” secondary with Atkinson, Brown and Skip Thomas.
Those teams, for all their success, could not match the one Raiders team that stands out above all others by achieving unparalleled success both in the regular season and postseason.
It is tied for the most wins in the regular season in team history, with 13 — despite playing a 14-game season — and was one of two Raiders teams to win three postseason games (a number exceeded only by the wild-card Super Bowl winners of 1980, who went 4-0).
That gave this squad a total of 16 wins, which is a mark unmatched in Raiders history, and, when combined with its single loss, gives the team the best winning percentage the franchise has ever seen, at .941.
(And, if you want to look beyond the mathematics, Sports Illustrated recently commemorated this squad as the best NFL team of all time.)
1976: 13-1 plus 3-0 for a total of 16-1 (.941). Won AFC West, AFC Championship and Super Bowl XI.
Madden’s Super Bowl XI champions won the AFC West by four games, finishing with the best record in the AFC by two games and ranking third in scoring offense and fifth in scoring defense. The Raiders then edged the New England Patriots in a playoff grudge match and dominated the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Steelers in the AFC title game. Only a Week 4 loss to the Patriots marred a perfect season. The individual names are the stuff of legend, in addition to Davis and Madden running the show. The offense included Branch, Shell, Upshaw, Casper, Biletnikoff, Stabler and others, while the defense boasted Hendricks, John Matuszak, Phil Villapiano and the “Soul Patrol.” Guy led the special teams, with kicker the only real weakness. Stabler was the NFL’s best passer, while van Eeghen rushed for more than 1,000 yards and Branch posted 1,111 receiving yards as one of three Raiders to top 40 catches.
The Raider Nation can only hope the 2020 edition earns a place alongside these great squads of the past.
(Editor’s Note: As we work to reboot and redesign the Raiders Research Project for 2020, early-year content may not reflect the final plans for the site in terms of both functionality and content. Please bear with us. ~ Ace)
Sources: Raiders publications.
All photos (except as noted) by Bob Carr Photography; used with permission.