The Oakland Raiders were at 0-1 as they faced their downstate rivals, the San Diego Chargers, on September 10, 1978. In their tenth season under Head Coach John Madden, the Raiders had reached the playoffs six straight times and were the NFL Champions in 1976. QB Ken “The Snake” Stabler had a lesser year in ’77 but remained tough in the clutch. There was a good stable of running backs led by FB Mark van Eeghen as well as a receiving corps that included All-Pro TE Dave Casper. The line remained solid and the defense seasoned and looking forward to the return of LB Phil Villapiano from a knee injury. They had lost to Denver, the team that had moved past them in the AFC West the previous year, in the opening week and needed to even their record.
San Diego, coached by Tommy Prothro, had won at Seattle to start the season, and was coming off of a 7-7 record that was the club’s best since 1969, its last year in the AFL. The offense, led by the up-and-coming QB Dan Fouts, was developing and the defense was especially adept at rushing enemy passers. The Chargers had beaten Oakland for the first time in 18 games (including two ties) in their last meeting the previous year and they were looking to do it again.
There were 51,653 fans in attendance at San Diego Stadium. Neither team was able to score in the early going, but both had opportunities. The normally-reliable Rolf Benirschke missed a 28-yard field goal attempt for the Chargers while kicking from the dirt in the baseball infield portion of the field. Oakland drove once into scoring territory but Mark van Eeghen fumbled the ball away at the ten.
Early in the second quarter, Dan Fouts tossed a pass that was deflected by SS Mike Davis and caught by TE Pat Curran for a 14-yard TD. Benirschke added the extra point for the 7-0 lead. Oakland finally got on the board as well. Dave Casper caught a Stabler pass on his fingertips for a 44-yard gain, and that set up another Stabler to Casper throw for a six-yard TD. Errol Mann converted to tie the score.
The Chargers moved back in front later in the period on a one-yard carry by short-yardage specialist HB Hank Bauer, but Benirschke hooked the extra point attempt. The significance of that failure was not yet apparent and the home team took a 13-7 lead into halftime.
San Diego dominated time of possession in the third quarter, but didn’t score again until early in the fourth quarter when FB Bo Matthews broke away for a 28-yard gain to set up Bauer’s two-yard touchdown carry. This time Benirschke added the point after, and the Chargers appeared to be in command with a 20-7 lead. Facing an upset, the Raiders came through with a big play as Stabler went long to WR Morris Bradshaw and the result was a 44-yard touchdown. Mann converted and San Diego’s margin was reduced to six with 8:26 left to play.
It seemed as though the margin would hold up when the Chargers managed to hold on to the ball for five minutes and the Raiders finally regained possession at their 20 with 1:07 left on the clock. Oakland, with all three timeouts available, advanced down the field as Stabler completed passes to Bradshaw for 13 yards and HB Pete Banaszak for 14. A long completion to TE Raymond Chester gained 27 yards and a fourth completion, to WR Fred Biletnikoff, picked up another 13 yards.
With the clock down to ten seconds and the ball at the San Diego 14, Stabler was hit from behind by LB Woodrow Lowe as he was setting up to pass. The ball bounced forward toward the end zone and players from both teams scrambled after it, with Banaszak batting it along. TE Dave Casper also rolled the ball forward (pictured at top) before he fell on it in the end zone for a touchdown and, with Errol Mann’s all-important extra point, the Raiders, having advanced 81 yards in eight plays, came away winners by a final score of 21-20.
A furious Coach Tommy Prothro insisted that the play should have been ruled an incomplete pass since the ball had traveled forward after leaving Stabler’s hand. There was also a question pertaining to Oakland players helping to propel it forward. The existing rule was clear on the matter: “A player may not bat or push a loose ball in the field of play toward the opposition’s goal line”. But it was a judgment call by the officials, led by referee Jerry Markbreit, and there was no replay option available to challenge the ruling. The touchdown on the play that came to be known as the “Holy Roller” stood.
“Somebody grabbed me and I was trying to throw the ball about the time I got hit,” said Stabler of the climactic play. “I fumbled it on purpose, yes, I was trying to fumble.”
“Sure I batted it,” added Pete Banaszak of his role in propelling the ball along. “I could see a San Diego guy right alongside of me. If I picked it up, he would have tackled me and the game would have been over.”
The Chargers had the edge in total yards (372 to 364), with 197 on the ground, and first downs (24 to 18). Oakland turned the ball over four times, to none by San Diego, and the Chargers recorded four sacks, with none recorded by the Raiders. But the home team failed to score more points when it had opportunities, including the missed field goal and extra point.
Ken Stabler completed just 15 of 35 passes, but they were good for 307 yards and two touchdowns while giving up three interceptions. Dave Casper had five catches for 100 yards and a TD and Morris Bradshaw (pictured at left) gained 107 yards on his four pass receptions that also included a score. Mark van Eeghen rushed for 72 yards on 12 carries.
For the Chargers, Dan Fouts was successful on 17 of 29 throws for 175 yards and a TD with none intercepted. Bo Matthews ran for 78 yards on 20 attempts and FB Don Woods contributed 66 yards on 17 carries while each caught four passes, for 25 and 51 yards, respectively. On defense, FS Glen Edwards accounted for two of the team’s three interceptions.
The Raiders won five of their next six games and were at 8-4 before losing three straight and finishing with a 9-7 record. It was respectable and placed second in the AFC West, but Oakland missed the postseason. Coach Madden resigned, citing health concerns. Tommy Prothro was gone from the Chargers sooner as San Diego lost its next four games. He was replaced by Don Coryell, formerly of San Diego State and the St. Louis Cardinals, and the team went 7-1 in the second half of the season to also come in at 9-7.
As for the “Holy Roller”, the NFL addressed the issue in the offseason. The new language on advancing forward fumbles was “a fourth down fumble anywhere may be advanced only by the player who fumbled the ball. Any fumble on any down after the two-minute warning of a half can be advanced only by the player who fumbled the ball.”