By 1970, few teams believed George Blanda could still play football, and only the Raiders were crazy enough to position the 43-year-old as their backup quarterback. Truth be told, Blanda had been prolific up to that point, but his legacy really hadn't fully taken shape.
At the University of Kentucky, under the guidance of Bear Bryant, Blanda started at quarterback his final two seasons. But due to the presence of Sid Luckman and Johnny Lujack, the Chicago Bears didn't really use Blanda under center until 1953 — his fifth year in the league. From there, Blanda's passing career was a series of ups and downs. He led the league in yards (3,330) and touchdowns (36) in 1961 and the Associated Press voted him its AFL's Player of the Year; the following season he threw an NFL-record 42 interceptions and went on to lead the league in that category for four consecutive seasons.
He reached the Raiders in 1967, the same year the team picked up Buffalo cast-off Daryle Lamonica. The team gave the starting job to its 26-year-old "Mad Bomber," allowing Blanda to focus on placekicking duties. Lamonica was his league's player of the year that season and again in 1969 — a stretch during which Blanda finished among the top three in scoring all three seasons.
The 1970 season was the year in which the game's two leagues had become one, and the newly constructed American Football Conference was wide open. Oakland was loaded on offense and defense, and primed to finally get over the hump.
Unfortunately, John Madden's squad dropped its first contest against Cincinnati that year, then gave up 14 unanswered points to San Diego the next week for a 27-27 tie. A loss to Miami in Week Three left Oakland at 0-2-1. Lamonica went on a tear the next two weeks — with 596 passing yards and seven touchdowns — to bring Oakland back into contention.
That's when the 1970 Raiders hopped on the roller coaster and Blanda's career forever changed. … When Blanda relieved an injured Lamonica early on against Pittsburgh, Oakland was ahead 7-0. In the second quarter, Blanda hit Warren Wells for a 44-yard score, kicked a 27-yard field goal and connected on the first of his two scoring strikes to Raymond Chester … for a guy who had thrown all of 13 passes the year prior, Blanda had offered a solid performance in the 31-14 victory (7-of-12 for 148 yards, three touchdowns and one interception).
"I guess the Steelers didn't realize we like people to blitz us," he later told a reporter. "When they blitz, they have to use single coverage on our receivers and nobody can do that."
The following week, Lamonica was back under center, and thanks to Blanda's 48-yard field goal in the final seconds the Raiders tied Kansas City. Against Cleveland, Blanda was again asked to step in for Lamonica, completing 7-of-12 passes for 101 yards with one TD and one INT, and again had to make a long kick at the end of the game — this time a 52-yarder with three seconds on the clock for a 23-20 win.
Heading into the final quarter of Week Nine, Oakland held a 17-6 lead over Denver. But thanks to the Broncos' quarterback, Pete Liske, Denver scored a pair of touchdowns — the second coming with just four minutes to play — to pull ahead, 19-17. Again it was Blanda to the rescue. No one knows if Madden called on Blanda because Lamonica's shoulder was acting up again, or just because he believed in Blanda's magic. And after the game, no one really cared. The gray-haired general guided Oakland deep into Denver territory where he had all but assured his team he could win the game with his leg. But instead of playing it safe, on second down Blanda launched a 20-yard pass to Fred Biletnikoff for a touchdown. It gave Oakland a 5-2-2 record and the lead in the AFC West race.
Wrote Sports Illustrated's Tex Maule the following week, "A conservative man might have called three running plays and then taken the field goal, but Blanda is not a conservative man."
Oakland won three of its remaining five to claim the division, including another dramatic win the week after the Broncos victory when Blanda booted a 16-yard field goal with eight seconds left to beat San Diego, then knocked off Don Shula's Dolphins in the divisional playoffs. When Lamonica pulled a groin muscle in the AFC title game against Baltimore, Madden went back to Blanda, but the veteran's three interceptions overshadowed his 271 yards and two touchdowns, and Oakland lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Colts.
It was a bitter end to what had been Blanda's best season — if not statistically, then in terms of his overall impact on his team's success.
The Bert Bell Award — given since 1959 to the NFL's top player — went to Blanda in 1970 even though he attempted just 55 passes and scored just 84 points — his lowest total since his quarterbacking days in Houston. It wasn't about numbers. Blanda had relied on his trusty leg and experience in the pocket to help Oakland become one of the AFC's best teams. And his efforts that season no doubt helped him extend his stay in the Raiders' organization until 1975 when, at the age of 48, he retired as the game's all-time leading scorer with 2,002 points.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).