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A team of destiny

About the Author

Mike Beacom

msbeacom@yahoo.com
Contributing writer

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Posted Jan. 14, 2011 @ 10:56 a.m. ET
By Mike Beacom

Following the 1979 NFL season, the Oakland Raiders did a bit of a house cleaning. QB Ken Stabler's contract talks were going nowhere, so he was traded to Houston for Dan Pastorini. The Raiders also dealt safety Jack Tatum to Houston for second-year reserve RB Kenny King, and midway through the 1980 campaign TE Dave Casper joined his departed teammates with the Oilers. Three cornerstones from the Super Bowl XI squad had been shipped out, although several other building blocks remained.

LB Rod Martin was fresh off a season in which his teammates had voted him Raiders Defensive Player of the Year — no small task when you're surrounded by guys like John Matuszak, Ted Hendricks and Lester Hayes. A 12th-round draft choice out of USC in 1977, Martin still believed he had yet to arrive. He was going to make 1980 count. But a knee injury in the preseason put him on the bench, and Martin was forced to give up his starting spot to his roommate, Jeff Barnes.

"I was really frustrated because I had gotten hurt and I did not start the first four or five games of that season," says Martin today. "And we were losing, too, which made it even tougher."

Head coach Tom Flores inserted Jim Plunkett for an injured Pastorini in the Week Five contest against winless Kansas City. Plunkett guided the team to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns but it wasn't enough; Oakland had dropped three of its first five games, leaving the team tied for third place in the AFC West race. After 15 consecutive winning seasons it appeared owner Al Davis' Raiders had hit rock bottom.

But if there was a silver lining it was Plunkett's insertion and Martin's return from injury in that game. Says Martin, "After that, we started winning and it seemed like destiny was in our hands."

A six-game winning streak began with a 38-24 victory over San Diego. With the score knotted, 24-24, King exploded for an 89-yard touchdown — the longest run by any player in the league that year — to help Oakland out of its funk.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Oakland took it 8-3 mark to Philadelphia, where the 10-1 Eagles awaited. It was a classic defensive battle. Neither team scored in the first half and the clubs combined for five turnovers. The Raiders managed to contain all of the Eagles skill players except one — Wilbert Montgomery, who tallied 106 yards from scrimmage and scored the deciding touchdown in Philadelphia's 10-7 victory.

At 11-5, Oakland qualified for one of the AFC's two wild-card spots. In the opening round of the playoffs, the team met up with the Raiders of the South — Bum Phillips' Oilers. Says Martin, with Stabler, Casper and Tatum on the opposite sideline the game became personal. "We didn't want it to be close," he says. "Our defensive coordinator, Charlie Sumner, came up with a brilliant game plan."

Brilliant and basic — if you shut down NFL-leading rusher Earl Campbell, you shut down the Houston Oilers.

For the first time in his career, Martin was matched up across from Casper, one of the NFL's all-time great blocking tight ends. "During that whole week, Mr. Davis was telling me, 'Don't let Dave Casper block you, don't let him hook you.' It was all in my mind the whole game. I was determined not to let him block me and give up a big run."

Campbell scored from 10 yards out to give Houston a 7-3 lead in the first quarter, but they were the Oilers' only points in a 27-7 defeat. Campbell was held to just 3.4 yards per carry, and Hayes capped the game by picking off a Stabler pass and returning it 20 yards for a touchdown.

In the divisional-playoff round in Cleveland, Oakland knew it would need four quarters of solid football. The Browns — more affectionately known as the "Kardiac Kids" that year — had a habit of escaping defeat. They owned league MVP Brian Sipe and one of the game's premier tight ends, Ozzie Newsome. Cleveland also enjoyed home-field advantage on a miserable day. "Cold, and the field was just terrible," Martin recalls. "Icy dirt is what it was. I had to cover Greg Pruitt that day and it was no easy task."

The Browns' kicker, Don Cockcroft, had a horrible performance in the poor conditions. He made two field goals but missed two others and had a point-after try blocked. Trailing 14-12, Cleveland chose to pass the ball in the red zone instead of rely on another field-goal attempt. Known now as Red Right 88, Sipe's pass intended for Newsome was intercepted by Oakland's Mike Davis to preserve the Raiders' victory.

"Somebody had to make a play, and sure enough — a guy with some of the worst hands on the team — Mike Davis came up with a big interception in the endzone. We weren't surprised that they were going for it because that was their forte that season. The Kardiac Kids just ran out of life that day."

The Kids may have died, but 1980's Team of Destiny moved on.

In the AFC championship game, Oakland met San Diego for a third time.

"San Diego was one of our biggest rivals," Martin explains. "Dan Fouts and those guys were so explosive offensively. They had Kellen Winslow. They had John Jefferson. They had Charlie Joiner. We felt we were going to meet them again, and we sure did."

A tipped ball fell into TE Raymond Chester's hands for Oakland's first score, and by the end of the first quarter Oakland held a 21-7 lead. San Diego kept fighting, and in the second half pulled within four, 28-24, before Oakland got some breathing room thanks to two Chris Bahr field goals.

"The main thing was to get a rush on Fouts," Martin says. "A lot of teams tried to get to Fouts from the outside, but Sumner, again, came up with a great idea." Oakland put two men over the center to apply a middle pass rush and force Fouts to get the ball out quicker than usual. The AFC's best quarterback completed less than 50 percent of his attempts (22-of-45) and threw two interceptions.

In the NFC, Philadelphia was making an impressive run of its own. The Eagles tore apart Minnesota before upending conference-favorite Dallas, 20-7. Montgomery had become a one-man wrecking ball for a team that had given up just 222 points all season.

Watching reel after reel of game film in his New Orleans hotel room in the week leading up to Super Bowl XV, Martin had a feeling the Eagles' game plan on offense would be to attack the right side of the Raiders' defense — his side. To add a twist, Martin had shunned Philadelphia's Dick Vermeil when the coach had been the head man at UCLA.

"I was going to go to UCLA even before they hired Dick because I'd always been a basketball fan and I figured I could get some good seats for the UCLA basketball games," laughs Martin. "But John McKay convinced me to go to USC."

Oakland was determined not to get beat again by Montgomery. If they were to lose, it would have to be because Jaworski beat them with his arm.

The Raiders enjoyed themselves in New Orleans, but, says Martin "we also had some of our best practices of the season. We figured it was our time to win the Super Bowl." Away from the field, two people shared with Martin's sister that they had dreamt the Raiders' outside linebacker would collect an interception in the game.

Early into the contest, Martin made those dreams come to life.

"The first interception was a zone defense. I thought Jaws would try to throw it over my head, but actually he tried to throw it between (linebacker) Bob Nelson and myself. I curled back in and intercepted the pass." A short time later, Plunkett hit Cliff Branch for a two-yard score. Later in the quarter, Plunkett connected with King for an 80-yard touchdown catch-and-run. From there, Philadelphia never had a chance.

Martin picked off two more Jaworski passes, the last of which came near the end of the 27-10 blowout. His three interceptions remains a Super Bowl record. Martin also pounced on a loose ball when his teammate fumbled a kickoff in the second half. "The interceptions were great, but the fumble at the start of the second half that was probably more crucial," he says. "It could have been a big turnover for them, but fortunately I got to the ball."

In the locker room afterward, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle handed Davis the Lombardi Trophy — an awkward moment considering Davis was in the midst of trying to relocate his franchise to Los Angeles. The Team of Destiny celebrated its fate.

Plunkett was named the game's Most Valuable Player, even though many believed Martin was the obvious choice. Some fans even forget that he didn't win the award in the first place. "Still, to this day, people come up to me and say, 'Hey, Rod Martin, MVP of the Super Bowl.'"

No hard feelings. As Martin points out, King and Branch were also worthy in that game.

A year ago, the "Monday Night Football" crew was visiting San Francisco for a game and Jon Gruden looked up Martin, hoping he would make a surprise visit to a bar where Gruden had planned to bring his booth partner, Jaworski.

"I would have had I not made a prior engagement," Martin says. "It was the closest I've been to seeing (Jaworski) after all these years." Then Martin laughs a little, "He's lucky I had something else to do."

 

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).

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