John Madden coached in 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 at 85 years old — once said that his proudest moment as the Raiders coach came in a game that has received little to no fanfare. In fact, before the game, many expected the Raiders to lose on purpose.
On Dec. 6, 1976, Madden’s team hosted the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night in a game that had major playoff implications. If the Raiders won, that would put the Steelers — who had defeated the Raiders in the last two AFC Championship Games — in the playoffs. If the Raiders lost, the Bengals would make the playoffs while eliminating the Steelers.
“So the thinking was, ‘They don’t want to play Pittsburgh, they want to play Cincinnati, so they’re going to go lose,'” Madden recalled in an NFL Films documentary. “That’s the worst thing that you can say about someone, that they lose on purpose. Just for the sake of the organization, just for the sake of football, just for the sake of what’s right, you’ve got to go win.”
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The Raiders followed the lead of their coach. In front of a nationally televised audience, the Raiders won a 35-20 contest that featured a classic duel between quarterbacks Ken Stabler and Ken Anderson. Stabler completed 80% of his throws and threw four touchdown passes. His two touchdown passes to Dave Casper gave Oakland a 21-13 halftime lead. His 42-yard touchdown heave to Cliff Branch in the third quarter extended the Raiders’ lead, and his 7-yard strike to receiver Fred Biletnikoff put the game on ice.
While he threw for 281 yards, Anderson threw three interceptions against Oakland’s savvy secondary, led by Willie Brown, Jack Tatum and George Atkinson.
“We just kept pounding these guys,” recalled then-Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano. “Coach wanted them annihilated, and we did it to them.”
The win was just one of 103 regular-season victories for Madden, whose career winning percentage (.759) is the highest in NFL history of any coach with 100 or more wins. But because of the situation and how his team played on that night, that game was uniquely special to Madden.
“We knocked Cincinnati out of the playoffs, and we put Pittsburgh in,” Madden said. “That Monday night game was the most proud game that I ever coached in my life.”
The Raiders would ultimately face the Steelers once again in the AFC Championship Game. But this time, the Raiders came out on top 24-7 to clinch the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl berth. The ’76 Raiders capped off their 16-1 season with a 32-14 win over the Vikings in Super Bowl XI. Madden’s offense set then-Super Bowl records for rushing yards (266) total yards (429). His defense forced three turnovers that included Brown’s game-clinching pick-six of Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton.
“They can never take it away from you,” Madden said of his Super Bowl win. “Maybe the fact that we chased it so long made it bigger to us. It was the greatest feeling in the world. There’s nothing that can beat it.”
Super Bowl XI ended with Madden being carried off of the field by his players. And nearly three decades after his career-defining win, Madden joined many of his former players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.