The thing that made it so much fun was that Ken Stabler was real. How many times -- a hundred? -- did he do unreal things? Every Sunday on television, he threw passes right and left to take the Oakland Raiders to a touchdown in the fading, final, frantic seconds.
He threw them falling down. He threw them on the run. He threw them under bridges and over trees. He was majestic, as if born to the harrowing work of scording touchdowns in the last two minutes. He was the best ever at it.
"Still am," Stabler said today.
What has happened is that Stabler is as good as ever, maybe better, but the Oakland Raiders, once the fierce kings of all they surveyed, are now commoners scuffling at the back door of the Houston Oilers. Today, the Oilers beat the Raiders 31-17. Five years ago, Oakland thought of Houston as a day off from serious considerations.
"We can't make mistakes and beat these good teams," the coach said today.
The Oakland coach said that. Tom Flores said it without any indication, not so much as a lifted eyebrow, that he realized the irony of his words.
The right side of Oakland's offensive line is still learning the job, and the left side is growing old. The incomparable wide receiver, Fred Biletnikoff, is retired. The running backs, so important as pass blockers, are young and undependable.
"All that, and the other things," said Dave Casper, the Raiders' All-Pro tight end.
The allusion was to in-house bickering between Stabler and the Raiders' managing general partner "translation: dictator), Al Davis. Davis critized Stabler last year, and Stabler fired back that he wanted out of Oakland. The mess infected the team with morale problems that weren't helped any when Stabler said his offensive linemen weren't all that hot anymore.
Oakland won only nine games last year, its worst season in a decade. Stabler threw a career-high 30 interceptions, 10 more than ever before. Once upon a time he had been lionized as a hard-drinkin', hard-playin', hard-workin' good ol' boy, fearless always but braver than ever when it mattered most. Suddenly, those assets became liabilities in the public prints, where Stabler was painted as a quarterback who could no longer pass anything except a double scotch.
He is still a beautiful quarterback.
Someone who had seen his grand works on television came here today expecting to see only a shell of the Stabler that was.
Happily, someone was wrong.
Stabler drops back quickly, perhaps even a beat faster now than then, and he decorates the air with spirals-on-the-line, homing missiles ordered to catch Casper on the numbers.
Stabler completed 21 of 35 passes today for 239 yards and two touchdowns. He might have done better, except that his leading receiver, Raymond Chester, couldn't play the second half because of a knee injury. With Chester, Casper's tight end partner, out of the lineup, Houston took advantage of the Raiders' inexperienced linemen and backs to put relentless pressure on Stabler. He was sacked three times, dumped on his head 11 other times after passing.
"Kenny is playing really well," Casper said. "Perhaps we're not the team we were four years ago, but Kenny is probably just as good. Sometimes, he's better. He's just playing better, and he's in better shape."
"He is better," said Raider defensive end Pat Toomay, "and it is because he's in shape, maybe the best shape since his youth. They put us all on a weightlifting and running program right after the season ended last year."
Stabler believes he is pretty good still, but insists it has nothing to do with shape.
"None, whatsoever," he said. "I didn't do anything this offseason that I haven't done for 11 other offseasons. Everybody makes a big deal out of me being in shape, but I did the same things as always. One thing that's true is that I am lighter, about 201, but that's because of my knees. The older you get, the lighter you have to get for your knees. I used to play at 215, 216."
Because of a mysterious inconsistency in the offense -- six fumbles last week, five interceptions not long before that -- Oakland is "not as smooth a team as we used to be," Stabler said.
Why is that?
"You don't want to say you don't have the caliber of players you used to," Stabler said. "I think we do have the players now. But we're not playing consistently. We aren't solid. We make too many mistakes."
The perpetrators of those mistakes do not include Stabler in their number. As always, he is completing 60 percent of his passes.
"I'm throwing the ball as well as I ever have," he said.
Last season Stabler paid some of the dues owed by every quarterback. Quarterbacks draw both more credit and blame than they deserve. Though he played all season with a hairline fracture of a finger on his throwing hand, no one knew it because Stabler had quit talking to the media. He didn't like questions suggesting he drank too much, ran the streets too much.
It was as if he, the miracle worker, alone was at fault.
"After you do it so many times," Stabler said, speaking of the times he took the Raiders a mile in a minute, "they think you can do it anytime you want to.
"You can't. It takes 11 guys with all 11 guys doing things together. It's not easy."
Stabler sat on his locker seat. He put on his Super Bowl ring, the football-shaped diamonds all asparkle. He pulled on a T-shirt advertising the Lone Star Bar ("Best Honky Tonk North of Abilene").
"But," the quarterback said, "it is fun."
"The quarterback is like a race car driver," said Casper. "He's got to have a car to drive. Today we gave Kenny a car with four flat tires."
Lonnie Stabler, a football fan from College Station, Tex., stopped to see the quarterback, saying they were distantly related.
"This is my son, Randy," the Texan said.
"You a quarterback, podnah?" Stabler said.
"Don't play quarterback," Ken Stabler said "Play something easy." He smiled at the boy and added, "Naw, I'm just kidding."