Ken Stabler, the charismatic quarterback who propelled the Oakland Raiders to prominence in the 1970s and led his team to a Super Bowl victory in 1977, died July 8 in Gulfport, Miss. He was 69.
His family announced his death in a statement posted on Facebook. The cause was colon cancer.
Gritty and resourceful, Mr. Stabler was the leader of the shaggy, swashbuckling Raiders, a team of hard-living renegades known for their swagger on the field and off. Nicknamed “Snake” for his slithering running style, Mr. Stabler won the National Football League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1974. He is sometimes called the greatest quarterback not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He starred at the University of Alabama under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1973 that Mr. Stabler took over as starting quarterback for the Raiders. He turned around a losing season and led Oakland, under head coach John Madden, to five straight playoff appearances.
Throwing to receivers Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff and tight end Dave Casper, Mr. Stabler guided the team to an NFL-best record of 13-1 in 1976, followed by two more playoff wins to reach the Super Bowl. The Raiders easily dispatched the Minnesota Vikings, 32-14, for their first Super Bowl championship.
Widely known for his lax approach to training and his love of nightlife, Mr. Stabler once said, “There’s nothing wrong with reading the game plan by the light of a jukebox.”
Team owner Al Davis didn’t mind as long as his band of rogues followed his only rule: “Just win, baby!”
Known for his improvisatory style and last-minute heroics, Mr. Stabler exuded an unflappable calmness under pressure and inspired confidence in his teammates.
“Snake would just say, ‘Keep it close, keep it close,’ ” Oakland linebacker Phil Villapiano said in an NFL Films production. “And we’d keep it close and, bingo, we’d win the game.”
Mr. Stabler’s craftiness led to several renowned plays that have entered football lore. In 1974, he engineered a playoff victory against the Miami Dolphins when, while being tackled from behind, he lobbed a soft, awkward pass into the end zone. The Raiders’ Clarence Davis caught the ball surrounded by so many defenders that the play became known as the “Sea of Hands.”
In a 1977 playoff game, Mr. Stabler threw a long pass that Casper, nicknamed “The Ghost,” caught over his head between two Baltimore Colts defenders. The “Ghost to the Post” play led to a Raiders victory in overtime.
Finally, in a 1978 playoff game against the San Diego Chargers, Mr. Stabler fumbled the ball in the game’s final seconds. The ball was batted and kicked forward until Casper recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. After the controversial “Holy Roller” play, the NFL enacted a rule prohibiting a team from advancing a fumbled ball.
Thirty years later, Mr. Stabler admitted he deliberately — and illegally — flipped the ball ahead, hoping a teammate would pick it up.
“What else was I going to do with it?” he said.
Mr. Stabler played 10 years for the Raiders and is still the team’s all-time leader in passing yardage and touchdown passes. He played another five years with the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints before retiring in 1984 with 194 career touchdown passes. His 59.8 completion percentage was the second-highest in NFL history at the time he retired.
“He had a great ability not to worry when a bad thing happened on the field,” Madden told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “He would call a play, and if it didn’t go right, when they came back to the huddle, he’d say, ‘Easy to call, hard to run.’ ”
Ken Michael Stabler was born Dec. 25, 1945, in Foley, Ala. His father was a car mechanic, his mother a nurse.
In high school, Mr. Stabler led his football team to a three-year record of 29-1. He averaged 29 points a game in basketball and was a first-round baseball draft choice of the Houston Astros as a pitcher.
At the University of Alabama, Mr. Stabler inherited the No. 12 worn by Joe Namath, who led the Crimson Tide to a national championship in 1964.
Mr. Stabler guided the Crimson Tide to a perfect 11-0 record in 1966 — a No. 3 ranking, behind Notre Dame and Michigan State — but he sometimes clashed with Bryant, his hard-nosed coach.
“The best schooling in the world was Coach Bryant,” Mr. Stabler said in 1987. “He and I had our problems. He made me what I am as an athlete and had a heck of a lot to do with making me what I am as a person.”
In 1992, Alabama fans voted Mr. Stabler and Namath the best quarterbacks in Crimson Tide history.
Mr. Stabler was married and divorced three times. Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage; two daughters from his third marriage; a sister; and two grandsons.
Mr. Stabler lived in Alabama in his later years and had a wide array of business interests. In 2006, he was sued by the federal government for more than $500,000 in back taxes. After his third arrest for drunken driving, he was dismissed from his job as a radio analyst of Alabama football in 2008.
“People think all I do is drink, raise hell and stay out all night,” he wrote in a best-selling 1985 autobiography, “and they’re pretty close to the truth.”
Nonetheless, the free-spirited Mr. Stabler lasted 15 years in the NFL, and his omission from the Hall of Fame has provoked vigorous debate. Two of his receivers, two of his offensive linemen and his coach are in the Hall of Fame, but the gates have not opened for Mr. Stabler.
“He played in the days before coaches called the plays, one of the last guys who was a real field general,” Madden said in 1989. “He was as good at that as anyone.”