October 25, 2010

1970: Blanda Comes Off Bench for First of Five Straight Clutch Performances

Entering the 1970 NFL season, Oakland’s 43-year-old George Blanda was typically viewed as an over-the-hill backup quarterback who was still able to play pro football because of his placekicking ability. He had thrown just 13 passes in 1969 in relief of Daryle Lamonica, who had been selected Player of the Year by UPI in the American Football League’s last season and was still in his prime at age 29. Moreover, Ken Stabler had been drafted out of Alabama in the second round in ’68, and while injuries had kept him sidelined, he was expected to be ready for a more active role in ’70.

Blanda had been around for 20 years after being taken in the 12th round of the 1949 NFL draft out of Kentucky by the Chicago Bears. In 10 years with the Bears (he was briefly dealt to the Colts in 1950 but was brought back after just a week), he had a contentious relationship with owner/Head Coach George Halas and battled for playing time at quarterback. He handled the placekicking competently and even had occasion to play at linebacker and in the defensive backfield.

Blanda retired from the Bears following the 1958 season but returned to pro football in ’60 with the Houston Oilers of the new American Football League. The Oilers won the first two league championships with Blanda at the helm, and he set a then-record with 36 touchdown passes in 1961 (he set a more dubious record by tossing 42 interceptions in ’62). The Oilers released him after the 1966 season and he signed with the Raiders as a placekicker/backup QB. Behind Lamonica, he started one game in three years.

The Raiders were off to a slow start in ’70 and were 2-2-1 as they hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 25. In the second quarter, with the score tied at 7-7, Lamonica was sidelined with a bad back. Head Coach John Madden, who at 34 was nine years younger than the 21st-year veteran, sent Blanda into the game. An apparent scoring pass to TE Raymond Chester was called back due to a penalty, but on the next series a 44-yard pass to WR Warren Wells counted for a touchdown and put the Raiders ahead at 14-7. Before the half was over, Blanda kicked a 27-yard field goal and tossed another TD pass, of 19 yards to Chester.

In the third quarter, Blanda tossed a second touchdown pass to Chester that covered 43 yards and Oakland cruised to a 31-14 win. Blanda had come off the bench to complete 7 of 12 passes for 148 yards with three touchdowns against one interception. But the heroics were only just beginning.

The following week at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, Lamonica was back behind center as the Raiders were locked in a tight struggle against the defending-champion Chiefs. With eight seconds left to play, Kansas City was ahead by a 17-14 score, but Blanda was successful on a 48-yard field goal into the wind that salvaged a 17-17 tie.

The Raiders were now in first place as they hosted the Cleveland Browns on November 8. Early on, it seemed as though Oakland had the contest in hand as they took a 13-0 lead in the second quarter, thanks to two Blanda field goals of nine and 42 yards with a 27-yard touchdown pass from Lamonica to HB Charlie Smith in between. But Cleveland scored on a 10-yard pass from QB Bill Nelsen to HB Leroy Kelly and then Don Cockroft booted a 42-yard field goal to narrow the Raiders’ lead to 13-10 at halftime.

On the last play of the third quarter, Browns FB Bo Scott took off on a 63-yard touchdown run that put Cleveland in the lead by 17-13. On the next Oakland series, Browns DE Ron Snidow blind-sided Lamonica, causing him to leave the game with an injured shoulder. The Raiders punted, but CB Nemiah Wilson intercepted a pass deep in his own territory. However, it seemed as though the Blanda luck had run out when the old pro immediately tossed an interception in return.

Four plays after Blanda was picked off, Cockroft kicked a 32-yard field goal to extend the Cleveland lead to 20-13. Oakland’s offense took over with 4:11 remaining on the clock. Blanda completed three passes, and on a key fourth-and-16 play at the Browns’ 31 yard line threw an off-balance pass that WR Fred Biletnikoff caught for 17 yards and a first down. On the next play, Blanda threw for the end zone and connected with Wells for a 14-yard touchdown. Blanda kicked the extra point, and the game was tied at 20-20 with only a little over a minute remaining.

It looked as though the Raiders might end up with a tie for the second straight week (regular season overtime in the NFL was still four years away), but CB Kent McCloughan intercepted a Nelsen pass and returned it to the Oakland 46. Now down to 34 seconds and no time outs left, Blanda threw two incomplete passes – and was hit hard by DE Jack Gregory after each. A pass to FB Hewritt Dixon gained nine yards to the Cleveland 45 and with three seconds remaining, Blanda attempted a 52-yard field goal – his longest as a Raider. The kick was good, to the wild delirium of the crowd at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and Oakland came away with a stunning 23-20 win.

The heroics continued for a fourth straight week at Denver’s Mile High Stadium. Once again, Lamonica threw two TD passes and Blanda kicked a field goal to stake the Raiders to a 17-6 lead after three quarters. The Broncos rallied, with QB Pete Liske throwing a 10-yard TD pass to TE Jim Whalen and then running the ball over on a quarterback sneak to take a 19-17 advantage. And once more, Blanda rallied the Raiders in the last minute on a drive that culminated in a 20-yard touchdown pass to Biletnikoff and 24-19 win.

Finally, while Lamonica went the distance in a home game against the San Diego Chargers, it was Blanda breaking a 17-17 tie in the fourth quarter with a 16-yard field goal that produced a 20-17 victory for the Raiders. Over the course of five consecutive weeks, the 43-year-old veteran had made the game-saving plays that allowed Oakland to go 4-0-1 in that span. The streak caught the imagination of football fans across the country, making the gruff veteran something of a modern folk hero.

It all ended with a loss at Detroit, and the Raiders split their remaining games to end up topping the AFC West with a record of 8-4-2. They defeated Miami in the Divisional round but lost to the Baltimore Colts in the first AFC Championship game – even Blanda’s relief efforts couldn’t overcome the tough Baltimore defense.

George Blanda appeared as a quarterback in six games and completed 29 of 55 passes (52.7 %) for 461 yards (8.4 yards per attempt) with six touchdowns and five interceptions. He was, of course, the placekicker in all 14 contests and was successful on 16 of 29 field goals and all 36 extra point attempts for a total of 84 points. Even with his limited play at quarterback in addition to the kicking, Blanda received the Bert Bell trophy as NFL MVP from the Maxwell Club.

Blanda went on to play another five years, even seeing brief action at quarterback in his final season at the age of 48. At the end of his career in 1975, he was the NFL’s all-time scoring leader (counting his AFL seasons as well) with 2002 points. He also held the career record for field goals (335) and extra points (943), as well as passes intercepted (277). Except for the career extra points, all of those have since been eclipsed (he lived to see Brett Favre break the record for career interception passes, one he was glad to no longer hold) but perhaps most significantly, his record for most seasons played (26) remains. Blanda was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.