The football world paid a collective final respect to John Madden this weekend. All 16 games featured scoreboard tributes and moments of silence in tribute to the former Oakland Raiders coach, longtime broadcaster and NFL video game pioneer.
But the team that naturally felt the greatest kinship with the legendary coach was his Raiders, now making their home in Las Vegas. The Raiders were on the road Sunday taking on the Indianapolis Colts, but the team paid tribute to Madden in its own special way. Part of the mythology of the 1970s Raiders that Madden coached was the way it often snatched victory from the jaws, or perhaps a sea of hands, of defeat.
Such late-game heroics have become a trademark of the 2021 Raiders, and they did it again Sunday to move Madden’s beloved franchise one huge step closer to the postseason.
The Raiders improbable run to a Wild Card berth coincided with Madden’s death
On Dec. 12, the Las Vegas Raiders suffered one of the worst defeats in its 60+ years of existence, and against its most despised foe. The Kansas City Chiefs simply demolished the Raiders, 48-9, dropping Las Vegas to 6-7 on the season and seemingly out of the AFC playoff picture.
Over 126 games in the rivalry that dated back to the earliest days of the American Football League and Madden’s coaching debut in Oakland, never had the Chiefs beaten the Raiders by that many points.
But if there was any sort of ethos that ran down through the decades from Madden’s era of the 1970s to the team of today, it was an attitude that no obstacle was too formidable to overcome. And so the Raiders, with virtually no room for error in a bid to get back into the postseason race, won their next game against the Browns after a two-day delay because of Covid-19 related issues.
The Raiders felt, as they always did under Al Davis, that the league was out to get them by allowing the Browns those two days to get key players back off the reserve list. And they used that motivation to stage a 16-14 victory on a Daniel Carlson field goal with no time left.
Their next game, on Dec. 26, the day after Fox debuted its now-iconic All Madden documentary, the Raiders kept their flickering hopes alive with a 17-13 win over the Denver Broncos to get back over .500 at 8-7.
Two days later, Madden died at age 85.
The football world was stunned, but the Raiders maintained their poise, then headed to Indianapolis needing to beat the favored Colts and MVP candidate Jonathan Taylor to keep their dream alive.
The 1977 ‘Ghost to the Post’ game against the Colts was Madden’s last postseason victory
The irony of the moment could not be ignored. The Raiders’ opponent on Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts, was the same franchise that proved the opponent for Madden’s final postseason victory as Raiders coach in 1977.
The Colts were in Baltimore and the Raiders were the defending Super Bowl champions and the two teams staged one of the greatest games in NFL history, going into double-overtime before the Raiders emerged victorious on a Ken Stabler to Dave Casper touchdown pass.
But it was a Stabler-to-Casper completion late in regulation that gave the game its forever name: The Ghost to the Post. Stabler hit Casper on a deep post pattern for the completion that set up the game-tying field goal at the end of regulation.
Now, 45 years later, after the pregame ceremony honored their former coach, the Raiders needed another drive in the final moments to set up a winning field goal, and Carlson came through again, hitting from 33-yards out with no time left for a 23-20 win and a 9-7 record with one game to play, leaving them tied with the Colts and Los Angeles Chargers for the final two AFC Wild Card slots.
Holy (Roller) Toledo! The Raiders can clinch a Wild Card berth against a familiar Madden foe: The Chargers
There are possible combinations that could throw a wrench into the drama that NFL has created for itself between the 1 p.m. kickoffs in Week 18 on Sunday and the final kickoff on Sunday Night Football. But the basic premise is this: The 9-7 Raiders face the 9-7 Los Angeles Chargers, with the winner clinching a postseason berth and the loser likely not making the cut.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars could possibly muddy the waters on that otherwise pristine, made-for-primetime matchup, but should the intended scenario hold up, the Raiders would have a chance to stage the best possible tribute to John Madden.
And while the moment had no direct postseason implications, who could possibly forget one of the last Madden-coached Raiders games ever against the former San Diego Chargers?
On Sept. 10, 1978, it was Stabler to Casper again for the winning score, but not via the pass. This was the “Holy Roller” play where Stabler, desperate for a score with the clock running out and trailing 20-14, “fumbled” the ball forward toward the Chargers goal line, where Casper further fumbled the ball forward before landing on it in the end zone for a touchdown. In the days before replay, the scoring play was upheld in one of the strangest endings to an NFL game in league history.
“Madden is on the field! he wants to know if it’s real!” legendary Raiders radio voice Bill King described, astonishment in his voice. “They said ‘Yes, get your big butt outta here!’ He does! Nothing is real in the world anymore!”
It is all very real for the Raiders in Week 18. Madden’s Ghost to the Postseason will be watching.