Ken Stabler’s death, and the reportage of his death for that matter, were rather a metaphor for his career -– nobody was quite sure what was happening until the event was already well gone.
It took a Facebook confirmation from his family to produce the final evidence of his passing Wednesday at age 69 from complications of colon cancer. According to the family, he had been fighting the disease since learning he had Stage 4 cancer in February, and had agreed to have his brain and spinal cord donated to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center to support research in brain injury in athletes.
Stabler’s legacy, though, was as one of the central pillars in Oakland’s most glorious decade. On a team steeped in iconography, his face was as recognizable as Al Davis’ or the eyepatch on the logo. His numbers did not overwhelm, but his success rate did, and though win-loss records are fairly pointless when applied to a quarterback, the Raiders’ greatest years were with him behind center.
His greatness does not translate easily to the new metric world which we inhabit; he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in his career, as an example. But while it explains why he is a hard sell in the Pro Football Hall of Fame committee room, it does his time in Oakland a disservice.
Stabler’s ability to steer in and out of trouble was his signature. He was a quarterback of moments rather than full games, but the moments made him. The Sea Of Hands and The Holy Roller are capitalized moments in football history for one simple reason –- disaster had been cheated and turned into triumph because, and if this sounds too ethereal to you, beat with us, he was the improvisational genius who could turn it.
If there is a contemporary version of him, it would be Russell Wilson of Seattle, but the comparison mostly flatters Wilson. Stabler has the advantage of a full career while Wilson is still making his, but you can squint on Sundays this fall and see a bit of Stabler in Wilson.
Stabler was drafted out of Alabama and waited his turn while the Raiders finished the Daryle Lamonica Era, and he was as non-Lamonica as a quarterback could get, for the reasons enumerated above. Davis was never fully comfortable with Stabler because of that, but he certainly enjoyed the success, and he loved Stabler for his off-the-field swashbuckling. They were epic tales too, judging solely by the number of players who chose not to retell them Thursday.
But Stabler was a creature of his time as well as his surroundings. His genius was in making his surroundings conform to him; his teammates came to trust him implicitly from play call to execution, and luxuriated in his improvisational flights from the pocket. He was in many ways a quarterbacking shaman, a master of moments, and shamans don’t measure out easily with contemporary metrics.
Indeed, through 10 years of his career, Pro Football Reference puts him in a career class with the following seemingly unrelated figures: Ron Jaworski, Terry Bradshaw, Steve McNair, Joe Namath, Steve Grogan, Brian Sipe, Drew Bledsoe, Tony Romo, Ken Anderson and Randall Cunningham. Namath and Bradshaw are Hall of Famers; the others were superb quarterbacks of the next level.
But none really fit the Stabler mold because Stabler couldn’t be molded. He was as close to unique as a person in a derivative league could be – there is no accurate contemporary for him save Wilson, and that is only with some straining, and the only predecessor that leaps immediately to mind is Hall of Famer Bobby Layne.
But for Oakland, for the seventies, for a once-iconic franchise, Ken Stabler was, as John Madden said, perfect. The guy you’d bet on with utmost confidence when you needed one play made, as a fan, as a teammate or as a coach. He was Oakland when Oakland was at its best athletically.
Next to that the Hall of Fame seems almost like a dawdle.