In the 1970s, the Oakland Raiders were the stepchild of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The greatest post-merger dynasty in pro football history eclipsed just about every other NFL accomplishment of that decade … unless, of course, you happened to be the first team ever to go undefeated (Miami Dolphins, 1972). And the Steelers seemed to have the Raiders figured out, both from the standpoint of tactics (see: the Steel Curtain defense) to luck (see: the Immaculate Reception).
What's more, when it was their year, the 1976 Raiders fought to get a headline. The country was celebrating the Bicentennial. Tall ships sailed into New York Harbor. The Democratic National Convention caused a big stir at Madison Square Garden. Jimmy Carter was elected president, changing the guard at the White House. Big history and bigger political changes dominated the cultural landscape. The Raiders, a team playing in the second city in San Francisco's Bay Area … who cared?
But the 1976 Raiders were a truly great Super Bowl team that simply never got much recognition. And their accomplishment is fading over time. And that's why they are the most underrated Super Bowl winners of all time.
In 1976, the Raiders finished 13-1 and captured their first Super Bowl title, drubbing a Minnesota Vikings team that went to four Super Bowls in the 1970s. During the 1976 season, the Purple People Eaters surrendered only 176 points, second only to the Steel Curtain (138 points). Indeed, in the AFC Championship Game that year, the Raiders beat Pittsburgh, scoring 24 points on a team that gave up 9.8 points a game.
In Super Bowl XI, Oakland jumped out to a 32-7 lead before the Vikings added a meaningless fourth-quarter touchdown. Against one of the most celebrated defenses in league history, the Raiders' Ken Stabler had a quarterback rating of 111.7, better than the Super Bowl MVP performances of John Elway, Kurt Warner, Tom Brady (twice) and Peyton Manning.
And the '76 Raiders had real star power. Six players from that team would go on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff (MVP of Super Bowl XI), cornerback Willie Brown, guard Gene Upshaw, offensive left tackle Art Shell, tight end Dave Casper and linebacker Ted Hendricks. So would the man who put the team together, owner/general manager Al Davis, and coach John Madden.
The '76 Raiders could easily have two more Hall of Famers: Phil Villapiano, who played defensive end in Super Bowl XI but went to four Pro Bowls as a linebacker later in his career, and Ray Guy, considered the greatest punter of all time.
Granted, this team had only one meteoric flash of brilliance. But in the 1974 and 1975 AFC Championship Games, the Raiders lost to one of the best teams ever assembled. In 1977, Oakland was poised to go back to the Super Bowl. But in the AFC Championship Game against Denver, the Raiders were victimized by divine stupidity. They had three turnovers, losing to the Broncos 20-17, after not scoring a touchdown until the fourth quarter.
So this was another team with dynasty written all over it that failed to close the deal. Still, unlike the '85 Bears, for example, the '76 Raiders never get into the conversation as a great Super Bowl team. They should. It was a team just as dominant for just as short a period of time. Each team had only one loss. Both teams thoroughly dominated the postseason.
And the Raiders had much tougher playoff opposition. In fact, it's not even close. In the AFC Championship Game, Oakland had to finally bring down the Steel Curtain. The Bears in 1985 had to play the Los Angeles Rams, whose quarterback was Dieter Brock.
Then the '85 Bears, who had only three players go to the Hall of Fame, had to beat the Cinderella New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. The Patriots' quarterback was Tony Eason. The Raiders faced future Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, who retired in 1978 with an NFL-record 342 touchdown passes. Against the Raiders' defense in Super Bowl XI, Tarkenton was 17-of-35 with one TD pass and two interceptions.
In 2006, an NFL Films panel voted the '76 Raiders the 10th-best Super Bowl team in history. So a morsel of respect was finally thrown their way. They should get much more.
Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN. His new book is "How Football Explains America."