John Madden has coached some of the most iconic games in NFL history, those that included the “Immaculate Reception”, the “Sea of Hands”, the “Ghost to the Post” and the “Holy Roller”. Madden also led the Raiders to the franchise’s first championship, a triumph over the Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
But Madden – who died Tuesday aged 85 – once said his proudest moment as a Raiders coach came in a game that received little to no fanfare. In fact, before the game many expected the Raiders to lose on purpose.
On December 6, 1976, Madden’s team hosted the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night in a game that had major playoff implications. If the Raiders won, it would put the Steelers – who had beaten the Raiders in the last two AFC Championship games – in the playoffs. If the Raiders lost, the Bengals would make the playoffs while knocking out the Steelers.
“So the thought was, ‘They don’t want to play Pittsburgh, they want to play Cincinnati, so they’re going to lose,” Madden recalls in an NFL Films documentary. “It’s the worst thing you can say about someone, that they lose on purpose. Just for the good of the organization, just for the football, just for what’s right, you have to win.”
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The Raiders have followed their coach’s lead. In front of a nationally televised audience, the Raiders won a 35-20 contest that included a classic duel between quarterbacks Ken Stabler and Ken Anderson. Stabler made 80% of his throws and made four touchdown passes. His two touchdown passes to Dave Casper gave Oakland a 21-13 halftime lead. His 42-yard touchdown at Cliff Branch in the third quarter extended the Raiders’ lead, and his 7-yard strike to receiver Fred Biletnikoff put the game on ice.
As he threw for 281 yards, Anderson threw three interceptions against the savvy Oakland secondary, led by Willie Brown, Jack Tatum and George Atkinson.
“We kept beating these guys,” recalls then Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano. “The coach wanted them to be wiped out, and we did it for them.”
The win was just one of 103 regular season wins for Madden, whose career winning percentage (0.759) is the highest in NFL history among any coach with 100 or more wins. But due to the situation and the way his team played that night, this game was especially special for Madden.
“We took Cincinnati out of the playoffs and put Pittsburgh in,” said Madden. “This Monday night game was the proudest game I have ever coached in my life.”
The Raiders would face the Steelers again in the AFC Championship game. But this time the Raiders came out on top 24-7 to clinch the franchise’s very first Super Bowl spot. The 76 Raiders closed their season 16-1 with a 32-14 victory over the Vikings in Super Bowl XI. Madden’s offense set Super Bowl records for rushing yards (266) total yards (429). His defense forced three turnovers that included Brown’s decisive choice of Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton.
“They can never take it away from you,” Madden said of her Super Bowl victory. “Maybe the fact that we chased him for so long made him bigger for us. It was the greatest feeling in the world. There is nothing that can beat it.”
Super Bowl XI ended when Madden was taken off the field by his players. And nearly three decades after his career-defining victory, Madden has joined many of his former players in the Professional Football Hall of Fame.