It was a moment when careers could be made or lost, when coaches become geniuses or fools, when quarterbacks become heroes or goats.
It was a moment of high tension, heavy pressure and terrifying responsibility.
It was the kind of moment Ken Stabler lived for.
It was Christmas Eve, 1977. Memorial Stadium in Baltimore was decorated brightly to reflect the mood of the holiday, but the fanatical faithful of the Colts were in anything but a festive mood. They howled and booed and vented their anger at an Oakland team that remained tied with their beloved Colts, 31-31, in the opening minute of the sixth period of an AFC divisional playoff game.
The Raiders had driven to the Baltimore 10-yard line, the elusive victory nearly within their grasp heading into the 76th minute.
As Madden tried to speak to his quarterback, he realized Stabler was staring into the crowd.
Had the fatigue and the cold and the tension finally gotten to the man they called Snake?
As Madden prepared to rattle off Stabler's options, the quarterback turned to him, a grin on his face, and said, in that soft Southern drawl of his, "You know, we are sure giving these fans their money's worth today."
With that, Stabler trotted back to the huddle and, on the next play, the second play of the second overtime, calmly threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Dave Casper to win the game, 37-31.
The mood was a far cry from the tension-filled moments on the sideline in Miami last month when Los Angeles Raider Coach Art Shell, a teammate of Stabler's, and current quarterback Jeff Hostetler engaged in an ugly shouting match over play-calling.
But this is a different era, an era when the play-calling is done by committee, when owner Al Davis and offensive coordinator Tom Walsh and Shell all have input during the week in forging a game plan. If things are more complicated now than they were in Stabler's day, it's a reflection of the times. In this age when defensive players constantly shuttle in and out, when there are specialists for every situation, when computers spit out reams of information on every tendency of every team in every possible circumstance, it may be too much to put the entire game plan on the shoulders of the quarterback.
Stabler likes what he has seen from afar of Hostetler.
"He wants to win bad," Stabler said. "He's been there before and I think he can get them there again. That team has a lot of talent and a lot of speed, but it lacks an intangible thing."
Stabler can sense it just from watching games on television, including the Miami game.
"Art (Shell) doesn't seem to be comfortable with the people around him," Stabler said. "You see a ton of frustration and pressure. That whole sideline looks like it is ready to explode."
It sure was different when the Snake was in the league.
Stabler, now 48 and living back home in Alabama when he's not traveling the country making personal appearances, talked about the difference between the two eras recently while in town to promote a flag football game, to be held in Miami on Super Bowl weekend to benefit The Miami Project To Cure Paralysis.
"The whole scenario was real smooth and easy," said Stabler of the '70s, his era with the Raiders. "There was a great relationship between Al and the players and Madden and the players. It was a happy locker room. Basically John let us do whatever we wanted to do on the field. He let me run 85 to 90% of the game in that system most of the time. But I had a lot of tools to work with."
That he did, an offensive line that included Hall of Famers Shell and Gene Upshaw, center Dave Dalby, and receivers Fred Biletnikoff, Cliff Branch and Casper.
Stabler didn't have a strong arm, but he was a master at reading the defense, finding the open receiver and using the whole field and all the people at his disposal.
In a typical timeout, Stabler would come over and Madden, who always had a sideline credential dangling from his belt--as if he'd get ejected without one--would be nervously running his hands through his hair as he talked to his assistants up in the press box.
"What do you want to do?" he would ask Stabler.
The quarterback would tell him.
"Well, go do it," Madden would reply.
"He threw me the playbook," Stabler said, "and told me, 'Go win. Do whatever.' We were all basically in the damn thing together, but I ran the game. John never said a word to me about play-calling. He never yelled at me. John let me do whatever the hell I wanted to do and he backed me up."
And what interaction was there between Stabler and Davis?
"He'd say, 'Do you know what the hell you're doing this week?' " recalled Stabler of the owner. "And I'd say, 'Yeah, I know what we're doing.' "
That he did. Stabler played 15 years in the NFL, including from 1970-79 with the Raiders, throwing for 27,938 yards and 192 touchdowns in his career while completing 59.8% of his passes. His best year was 1976 when he led the Raiders to a 13-1 regular-season mark and a victory in Super Bowl XI.
Stabler would make much more money playing today but figures he wouldn't get as much enjoyment out of the game.
"I wouldn't like playing like that," he said of today's intricate chain of command. "I'm glad I played when I played. I'm glad I got the opportunity to call the plays and run the show the way that I wanted to. Win or lose, it was my decision. I made an airplane out of my game plan. I flew by the seat of my pants. I didn't study game plans. I didn't study film. I didn't do any of that stuff. I just wanted to know if it was zone (defense) or man, and who their good players were.
"You can't put a bit in a racehorse's mouth. You've got to let him run if he's going to be the best horse he can be. You've got to turn him loose and let the SOB go and, if he's got any heart and pride about him, he'll run on Sunday. I think the quarterback could probably do as good a job as some of the people upstairs if they turned the game back over to the quarterback. It'd be fun to watch and see."