August 24, 2011
Following the 1981 NFL season, there were plenty of doubts that QB Ken “The Snake” Stabler had much, if any, of a pro football career left. At age 36, he was the most accurate passer in NFL history for anyone who had thrown at least 1500 career passes, with a completion percentage of 60.3. But with bad knees that were getting even worse with age and following a largely ineffective season with a declining Houston Oilers team, he was released. To make matters worse, published reports had linked Stabler to a known gambler and he was briefly under investigation by the league.
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle gave clearance for teams to approach the wily lefthanded quarterback, and the very next day, August 24, 1982, he signed with the New Orleans Saints, reuniting him with former Oilers Head Coach Bum Phillips.
Phillips had been coaching at Houston when Stabler arrived in a celebrated trade with Oakland for veteran QB Dan Pastorini in 1980. It seemed like a huge acquisition at the time - after taking over as the starting quarterback for the Raiders in 1973, Stabler had been exciting and successful, gaining selection to the Pro Bowl four times, twice garnering MVP recognition (the second while leading the 1976 Raiders to an NFL Championship), and leading the league twice each in completion percentage and TD passes and once in passer rating.
The Oilers were a strong team that had lost the AFC Championship games following the 1978 and ’79 seasons to the division-rival Pittsburgh Steelers, and were looking for an upgrade at quarterback to push them over the top. Alas, it was not to be as Stabler threw more than twice as many interceptions (28) as touchdown passes (13). Still, with star RB Earl Campbell pacing the running attack, and while utilizing a double tight end offense after another Raider stalwart, TE Dave Casper, was obtained during the season to pair with TE Mike Barber, the Oilers made it into the playoffs with an 11-5 record. However, they fell in the Wild Card round to, ironically, the Raiders (where an injured Pastorini had been supplanted at quarterback by a resurgent Jim Plunkett), costing Phillips his job.
With Ed Biles as head coach in ’81, the aging club dropped off to 7-9. Stabler had briefly retired during the preseason but came back when his replacement, Gifford Nielsen, suffered a shoulder injury. Often in conflict with his new head coach, Stabler suffered through the difficult year that culminated in his release. From there, he sought a rebirth in New Orleans.
The Saints had an aging quarterback of their own, 33-year-old Archie Manning, as well as his longtime backup, Bobby Scott. But Dave Wilson, the player they had taken with the first choice in the supplemental draft out of Illinois to be their quarterback of the future, underwent knee surgery, creating an opening.
The arrival of Stabler meant the departure of QB Craig Bradshaw, brother of Pittsburgh’s star QB Terry Bradshaw, who was cut along with WR Ike Harris while Wilson and FS Tom Myers were put on injured reserve. Scott would later also be placed on injured reserve and was released after the season – he would resurface in the USFL.
“I've never walked on the field when I thought I was going to be a backup quarterback,” said Stabler following his signing. “I may wind up being one, but I'm not taking that approach.”
He was not a backup in 1982, beating out Manning, who was dealt to Houston during the strike-shortened season. The team was 1-1 when the strike occurred and won its first two games when play resumed before losing three straight that included a 29-of-43, 333-yard performance by the veteran quarterback against Tampa Bay. Still, they won the finale and, even with a 4-5 record, barely missed the postseason.
Stabler provided not only passing proficiency but leadership to the offense, which was damaged by an injury to RB George Rogers, who had led the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 1981. “The Snake” completed a healthy 61.9 % of his passes for 1343 yards with six touchdowns and 10 interceptions. While his 7.1 yards per attempt and 71.8 passer rating were both less than his career averages, they were improvements over his numbers with the Oilers, as was his interception percentage of 5.3.
While there was speculation that the battle-worn veteran would retire, he was back for another season with the Saints in 1983. A knee injury in the season-opening game hobbled him further, and the numbers dropped off – he threw twice as many interceptions (18) as TD passes (9) and his passer rating dropped a full ten points to 61.4. However, the team went 8-8 for only its second .500 finish, helped along by an improving defense.
The Saints dealt for QB Richard Todd from the New York Jets in the offseason, and while “The Snake” saw some action, he was largely a backup in 1984, his last year. Altogether in New Orleans, Stabler completed 57.2 % of his passes for 3670 yards with 17 touchdowns, but also 33 interceptions. The team broke even at 11-11 in his starts, which was an improvement for the perennially losing Saints, and his veteran leadership proved stabilizing. It was not an altogether bad postscript to Stabler’s outstanding career, but he no longer had enough left physically to lift the Saints further.
At the time of his retirement, Stabler ranked second all-time in pass completion percentage at just under sixty percent (59.85). While his TD passes (194) were outnumbered by his interceptions (222), he passed for a total of 27,938 yards and, most importantly, had an overall regular season record of 96-49-1 as a starting quarterback in the NFL.