With the passing of Buffalo Bills superfan Ezra Castro AKA Pancho Billa, the NFL fandom was reminded just how fragile life can be. Fans and players of all teams came together to mourn a man that loved his team, family, & everyone that came in contact with him.
Thirty nine years is not enough for most people, but in those years Ezra gave a lifetime worth of kindness and love. After every kind act shown to him, Ezra was shocked & often humbled at the kindness that people gave him. He never got that people thought he was a big deal and downplayed his importance. In a social media world where the need for attention and self importance is the norm, Ezra was a regular guy and a breath of fresh air.
When Greg Dresko and I did our podcast with Ezra, it was obvious he did not feel good but he rarely cancelled anything. Even on his bad days he would do interviews with a smile. After our podcast I created a prayer night for him that Greg & I promoted. Literally thousands of people got involved praying for Pancho and all of those battling cancer. We did a second one not too long ago that was also greatly supported. People really cared and it was inspiring.
Buffalo was the perfect team for Ezra. It is a team that is set back in the time of the old AFL. A team that has not yet been ruined by the greed of NFL owners who’s only loyalty is to the money they can make. They have an old stadium, the second lowest ticket prices in the NFL, and a raucous loyal fan base. While everyone else changed, Buffalo didn’t. It is a special place.
With fancy, expensive stadiums pricing out many fans, the Bills are stuck in a wonderful time warp that allows for a foundation that continues to come to the games year after year. A loyal following that braves bitter cold and wind to support their Bills. From Jack Kemp to Joe Ferguson, to Jim Kelly to Andre Reed, the Bills rich tradition is steeped in a blue collar us against the world mentality. What an amazing place.
I don’t think any fan base or team other than Buffalo could have survived losing 4 Super Bowls while still coming back with dignity and grace. Through all of the jokes and taunting, winning 4 conference championships is still among one of the greatest achievements in NFL history & they are very proud of it.
Ezra & the Spirit of Buffalo:
In true Buffalo Bill spirit, Pancho Billa battled until the end. Just like Steve Tasker making an amazing play in a Super Bowl that had long been lost, Ezra never gave up. Adversity was what Ezra faced each day after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Even in his darkest days he would show a positive, caring spirit that inspired so many. We DM’d each other on Twitter and his last message to me was a smiling emoji with a halo over his head. He knew. He also though remained positive asking people to never quit praying for a miracle. Giving up was never an option.
In reality the biggest gift Pancho Billa gave to people was the way he handled his illness. Even with social media bringing out the worst in people, he showed a spirit of pride and kindness that touched so many. He remained positive at the worst of times inspiring us all to not take ourselves too seriously. In a world where many get angry at the drop of a hat, he showed a calm passion and compassion for others during his fight.
The Power of NFL Fans:
Ezra reminded NFL fans everywhere that we are not gang members or part of a football militia that should hate anything not affiliated with our teams. He showed that in reality we are all on the same team of life and that football is a fun outlet & family to belong to. Happiness, health & supporting each other during the best and worst of times is what life is about. We all saw how our hearts are more powerful than any owners money or new stadium. It’s about the fans and the amazing relationships that we create from being fans. The simplest of things.
How I’ll Remember Ezra & You:
What I’ll remember most about Ezra, was how he brought everyone together. For a moment in time fans in New England and Oakland were on the same team. Dallas and Philly fans prayed for a miracle together and people began to realize all of the petty arguments and hate was not what being a fan was about. It’s a willingness to help when hope is hard to find, and being there to support and love someone during great times as well as their darkest hour.
Many of you have really touched me with your sincerity and compassion and I’m very proud of everyone. Your kindness touched Ezra and helped him and his family get through such an unspeakable tragedy. As much of a gift people felt Pancho was, he felt the same about you. He brought out the best in all of us and it sure felt good.
How to Keep His Legacy Alive:
If you really want to keep his legacy alive, lets be like him. Give as much as you can to others and show kindness with a calm spirit. As Ezra once said, “don’t bring flowers to my funeral. I hate flowers. Bring backpacks full of school supplies for kids”. Think of others first, and show love and appreciation and support to one another. Most of all do it without judgement or opinion. Love completely without complete understanding. What an amazing legacy that would be. And nothing would be more pleasing to the great Pancho Billa.
After the last Super Bowl, I made a decision to write more on a national level. Even though I knew something on every team, I realized I had to have in depth knowledge on all of them so I’ve spent the last 6 months analyzing each team.
As many of my new followers are finding out, I think for myself. I’m not a homer and I just don’t go by what others say. I actually try to do research and base my decisions on facts and not hope or any biases I may have. It doesn’t matter if I like or dislike the player or the team; I tell it like it is. In today’s sports world that is rare, and at times not very popular but that’s why people follow me. Be entertaining, be right, and be honest I say.
First off I love history and I LOVE the AFL. It was before my time but I’m fascinated by it and Buffalo was definitely a part of those AFL days. They’ve also put their stamp on the modern game as well. From Jack Kemp to Joe Ferguson to Joe DeLamielleure to Jim Kelly, the Bills have an amazing tradition. John Madden says to this day if an old AFL team gets into the Super Bowl, surviving members of the AFL will often call them before the game to wish them luck. It still matters.
Even though a dreaded ex is from upstate NY, I’ve learned to really appreciate the people there. Resilient and hearty and they love their football. When it comes to the NFL it’s hard to find better fans. With some of the worst weather in the country, to be a football fan in Buffalo means to be there through wind, rain or snow. I’ve forgiven Scott Norwood but boy I wish they would have won one of those Super Bowls.
When I began looking into the Buffalo Bills 2018-19 season a few months ago, it was amazing for me to see how so many national publications and writers had them doing so badly in 2018. Sports Illustrated was the harshest. They eventually had the Bills going 2-14 and getting the #1 pick for next years draft after being the worst team in the NFL. I read other national publications and they didn’t have much better of a tale. Even biased Bills fans that were writers were not very happy with their prospects. I decided to again, look into the Bills of 2018-19 to see if I had missed something because I never thought they were that bad. Let’s take a look at their position players and see if we can figure out if they are as bad as the experts say and if I dropped the ball on this one.
How to Prognosticate a Teams Season:
The problem with 90% of prognosticators in my opinion is that they only look at how good the team is. I think it’s more complicated than that. I think you evaluate an upcoming season by 3 things; how good is the team, how tough is their schedule, and how tough is their division. Take the Raiders for instance. Two years ago they had the second easiest schedule in the NFL and went 12-4. They won a lot of close games against a lot of bad teams. Last year they had the second hardest schedule and went 6-10. Let’s face it, if you have a bad game it’s a lot easier to beat the Cleveland Browns than the Eagles or Patriots. Now lets look at these 3 things in regards to the Bills.
The Bills signed free agent AJ McCarron. Most feel he’s a stopgap for the Bills and I agree. I see him more as a backup than a starter but he will do in a pinch. I never thought Nathan Peterman was much of a prospect to start in the NFL, but wow I still remember his game at Death Valley when Pittsburgh beat Clemson for their only loss of the year. Tyrod Taylor was never the answer in my mind and the Bills agreed, but is Josh Allen?
There are two camps for Josh Allen; those that think he will do well, and those that think he has bust written all over him. I personally think he was a horrible pick but time will tell. In his last year at Wyoming he was average at best. Three times he threw for under 92 yards in a game and only once did he throw for over 234 yards and that was against Gardner-Webb University. I just don’t get how a QB can be average in a smaller college conference and then all of a sudden be a world beater in the NFL. Again, time will tell who is right. He has a powerful arm and that can’t be debated, but accuracy and reading defenses will be his challenge.
ESPN did a great article showing just how bad the NFL experts and teams had become in drafting players and the position they drafted the worst was quarterback. If you are tall and have a big arm, it seems that you are an NFL QB prospect.
I still remember years ago being kicked off of a large Oakland Raiders website for pointing out how newly drafted Jamarcus Russell was going to be a big bust because he struggled so badly against pro style defenses in the SEC. Three years later that site apologized to me and asked me to come back (always follow people that are right most of the time). That being said I think McCarron handles the QB position for at least part of the year if not most of it. Injuries do happen though and I’m sure Allen will play some this year.
In the last 3 years, Buffalo’s running backs have lead the entire NFL with 4.6 yards per carry. New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will have to rely on LeSean McCoy to man this offense like he did last year. McCoy is still one of the best in the league. A very underrated signing that Bills writers need to talk more about is the signing of veteran Chris Ivory. He’s a physical runner who makes plays and is a great backup for McCoy.
If Kelvin Benjamin is your third option you have a nice array of WR’s but when he’s the #1 option, you may have problems. The wildcard is Zay Jones who has been a huge disappointment so far and had a bizarre domestic issue to deal with. Tight Ends Charles Clay and Nick O’Leary will definitely get their targets with a very average group of veteran WR’s in the fold.
Here is where most experts say the Bills are in trouble. Some feel versatile Ryan Groy will take over at center if newly signed Russell Bodine doesn’t work out. Bodine didn’t exactly wow the NFL starting for the Bengals. After guard John Miller struggled and was benched, Vlad Ducasse took over at right guard for the rest of the season and played fairly well, but in the spring he’s been at mostly left guard. If Groy goes to center, Ducasse will be a key player at the guard position. Rookie Dion Dawkins played well at left tackle last year. There are still questions on who plays where and the pre season will clear that up.
Now let’s look at the bright spots of the Bills and it starts with the DL. The Bills way overpaid for DL Star Lotulelei, but he’s good against the run and that was a weakness last year for the Bills. Harrison Phillips out of Stanford was a sleeper pick in the third round. As with most Cardinals, he is well coached, physical and makes plays. He’s not much of a pass rusher but he’s excellent stopping the run. I love this pick and with he and Star in the game, running against Buffalo probably just got a lot tougher. Bill’s fans will love Phillips personality as well. He was a fan favorite at Stanford.
Kyle Williams has lost a step but he’s still an excellent player. Trent Murphy has to get healthy but he can help if and when he gets on the field. Shaq Lawson is the key. The hopes are for him to have a breakout season to help the pass rush and I like him to improve his numbers.
Buffalo traded up for Tremaine Edmunds and head coach Sean McDermott has handed the keys of the defense over to the 20 year old. Edmunds was an uber athlete at Virginia Tech with an amazing football IQ. As a kid he actually began breaking down film with his father, ex NFL tight-end Ferrell Edmunds. The Bills hope he will be a mainstay at MLB for years to come. Matt Milano was a pleasant surprise and he will man the left side spot and hope to continue to improve. The right side will be wide open for competition with 34-year-old Lorenzo Alexander hoping to start.
The Bills have excellent versatility with safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer leading the way. They are good in coverage and against the run. Tre’Davious White had a great rookie year and he can only get better. Vontae Davis was signed in the off-season and is recovering from groin surgery which sidelined him for much of last year. With the depth of the Bills DB’s, this will be one of the best groups in the NFL if Davis can regain form.
I like their coaching staff, and if they can stop the run and put consistent pressure on the QB, this could be a really good defense. There are a lot of holes in their offense and that is going to be an issue off and on all year.
Schedule & Division:
Now the bad news. The first 8 games of the Bills schedule are brutal. They will have road games with Baltimore, Green Bay, Minnesota, and Houston, and then have home games with New England, San Diego and Tennessee. If some how and some way the Bills can go 3-5 or 4-4, they could get into the playoffs. In the final 8 games, they have very winnable contests playing the Jets and Dolphins twice each, and hosting the Bears and the Lions. They will also host Jacksonville and play at New England.
The AFC East scares no one outside of New England and even they are not the same team they once were. The Patriots should win the division but the Bills could sneak into the playoffs with some breaks and a huge year by their offense. These are all big ifs. If Tom Brady gets hurt or breaks down at 41 years old, this division is very wide open.
At 9-7 last year, the Bills snapped a 17-year playoff drought but it wasn’t as magical as some are laying it out to be. The AFC last year was not very good and it took a miracle 50-yard TD pass by Bengals QB Andy Dalton on 4th and 12 with 49 seconds to go in Baltimore for the Bills to get in.
That being said I see a 7-9 season. I think if McCarron plays over his head and they get some momentum in the first half of the season, a miracle playoff journey could happen with a 9-7 record. Worst-case scenario is they tank in the first 6 games and struggle the rest of the way and go 5-11. With this defense I doubt that happens. The Bills are also one of those teams that always seem to have their share of injuries and bad luck so it could get ugly fast if they don’t stay healthy.
That first half schedule though is a killer and you will know what kind of season the Bills will have after week 6. Next year the Josh Allen show will start and you will see what the near future will hold. It won’t be pretty but the Bill’s hope to shock all the experts and grind out as many wins as possible in 2018-19 in the hopes for another taste at the post season. Everyone in the AFC has some sort of issue so there is much hope in Buffalo. This is the NFL kids and even though it may look like a pipe dream, crazier things have happened.
On his show on 95.7 The Game, Greg Papa answered any and all questions about his departure from the Raiders. It was definitely must listen to radio.
Marc Badain the President of the Oakland Raiders texted Greg Papa on July 2nd stating that they had to meet in person. Papa met Marc on July 5th and at lunch Marc said they were not going to bring Papa back. Greg wondered why now and Badain said he bought Greg a few years by defending him. I’m thinking this firing in late July is a big bite me to Greg. It’s near impossible for him to get a gig doing NFL games so late in the year other than a few here and there.
“On January of 2014 I heard the Raiders were going to interview Mike Shanahan for head coach. The interview didn’t go great so I didn’t think it would happen, but I said it was beyond my comprehension that Mike Shanahan could be interviewed because Al loathed him. Rod Woodsen and Bill Romanowski were campaigning for Shanahan to be the head coach and I couldn’t believe it”.
In his first meeting with Badain when he was first hired, Badain said that Greg had to patch things up with Mark Davis. Greg stated that he called Mark Davis early the next morning. He said the call did not go well after he said he would not apologize to Mark for his comments about Mike Shanahan. Davis hung up on him. Papa has admitted that he warned the Raiders that he would quit if Shanahan was hired and that put Mark over the edge. He said that he felt like he was public enemy number one after that and was taken off some of the things that Al had always wanted him to do. He saw Davis once and said hi to him and Davis ignored him and just walked on by.
Papa Calls Out Blogger’s/Podcaster’s With the Wrong Information:
Greg said the misinformation that was written about by bloggers was comically wrong. “I’m not much into social media but Boy, some of the crazy stories were so wrong”. He stated that he never was asked to go to Las Vegas and he never said that he would not go. In fact he admitted that he would have gone and that flying to Vegas for the weekend and doing a game was no big deal to him.
Why Greg Is So Loyal To Al Davis:
Al was loyal to the end. Former Raider executive John Herrera probably said it best in a 2012 interview with SFGATE. “Al was so demanding. He would sometimes call you at 1 am just to see if you were on the ball and if you did what he asked you to do. There were no cell phones back in the day so we had to be around our home phones when we weren’t at work. Once he trusted you and knew you’d do a good job though, you had a friend for life. He helped people financially, personally and if you didn’t need help he made sure you got tickets when you wanted them”. These stories are still refreshing in a day and age when few can do something nice without posting a video of it on social media.
That’s the relationship Greg Papa had with Al Davis. Unlike the great Bill King, Al became close to Greg. Greg was the new guard in announcers. Fans started to change and most wanted their announcers to be more “homers” than objective and Greg fit right into that mold. He would criticize at times, but rarely was he super negative about the Raiders where Bill King at times would be brutally honest if they played poorly. Greg became very close to Al who appreciated his loyalty and some publications have stated that Greg was a possible front office hire for the Raiders in the future. “Al was like a second father to me,” Papa said. Many in the media said Greg was the semi mouthpiece of Al when Mr. Davis became very ill.
It must have been hard for Mark Davis to watch his father be so close to some people. The stories about how Al treated Mark at times are uncomfortable to listen to. Let’s face it; if Al thought a lot about his son he would have been in an important job in some capacity. Instead the only job Mark Davis has really ever had in his life is some minor PR jobs for the Raiders.
Who Is In the Wrong:
Probably no one. I don’t think that Mark Davis is a bad guy but he had pretty much little to no work history and now he owns an NFL team. To be fair, running a business is really difficult even with a lot of experience. Mark Davis wanted respect and loyalty from Papa and let’s face it; Papa doesn’t respect him.
I get what Greg is saying. I love my dad and I’m loyal to the nines. In fact in my first 2 years in business, 2 businesses my father despised wanted to work with us and I declined. Let’s be real; Mark and Al Davis probably weren’t Ward Cleaver and the Beaver, and Mark’s actions prove it. Like I always say, actions show a man’s heart, and their words are the B.S. to cover over those actions.
I greatly respect Greg Papa and I understand. You remember being down or just starting out and someone takes a chance on you and you make it and it’s something you never forget. In today’s world that type of loyalty means little to nothing to some people. People only look at if that person can help them or not. To Papa it meant everything.
Greg also see’s one of the greatest minds in pro football history pass away and his new boss is his son who never had much to do with the team and has little or no job history in 6 decades of life. I’m sure underneath Greg wasn’t too happy, or impressed.
I feel bad for Mark in a way. I can also see Mark’s side and it must have been hard to watch Greg get so close to his father. I don’t blame Mark Davis for wanting to be his own man but I think there are a lot more motives to all these changes than that.
Greg Papa has now gone the way of Hue Jackson, Amy Trask and John Herrera. The changing of the Al Davis guard is pretty complete. The 300-pound gorilla in the room that no one wants to talk about is the complicated relationship between Mark Davis and his father. He wants to literally start over in Las Vegas while pushing the reset button. Davis needs to realize in the NFL world he has to earn his way and earn respect. With popular Greg Papa, he obviously didn’t.
Mark Davis is trying to find himself as a person and as an owner. Today’s cynical and shallow age is a hard place to do it in especially if you are in your 60’s. And what I found out is that a radio announcer would lose a job he loves beyond measure for the loyalty of a man, and the very person who is firing him for his loyalty is the son of that man. This is a lot deeper than anyone wants to admit.
With the announcement of Oakland Raiders star pass rusher Khalil Mack’s hold out, some began to worry if there was a possibility the Raiders may eventually lose Mack after this season. I love social media and it already has many comments on the subject. Some are tweeting Mack is done with the Raiders and others are saying he won’t be there week 1. As we always do, let’s be realistic about this situation.
I said after the Super Bowl that if I was Khalil Mack, I would not play another play without a long term deal. If Mack plays the last year of his contract and gets hurt, he will lose money, and maybe a lot of it.
Some said that they want Mack to just show up and play because he is making a good salary now but that would be ridiculous. At 27 years old, this will be Mack’s biggest contract signing of his career, so he needs to cash in on it big time.
Last year the Rams all world DT Aaron Donald held out until the day before the season started wanting a new contract. Rams fans/writers were losing their minds saying he ruined his season and he was done in Los Angeles. After a few weeks Donald was back to form terrorizing offenses while being double teamed most of the year. I do agree that it remains to be seen if the Rams burned a bridge with him but the hopes there is that they can work out a long term deal.
Le’Veon Bell didn’t show up for Pittsburgh until September 1st and after a sluggish start, began to dominate in week 4 becoming maybe the best all around RB in the NFL. After the season ended, ridiculous rumors started popping up that the Raiders were in the lead to get Bell. I reminded a national writer and several local writers that this was nonsense. For a year Pittsburgh said that they were going to franchise Bell and that was that. Well, that is exactly what happened.
You have to think these things through and not just throw things on the wall to get a rise out of people. Thus when you hear rumors, read the people you trust and do your own homework and see that most rumors are nothing to worry about.
The Reggie McKenzie Factor:
Just like with Derek Carr, Reggie McKenzie isn’t the type to want to wait until the last second to sign a player. They want to sign Mack quickly before his final year begins. Both sides are reasonable, want to have a relationship, and feel good about getting it done. Remember that Derek Carr signed on June 22nd of last year so there is no need to panic. I would not overreact to all of the nasty nipping and fighting that may occur during these types of negotiations. When a deal is done, most everything is forgiven no matter how nasty the negotiations.
Last year in a nice interview with NBC Bay Area, Mack stated that he knows this is a business. He also said he wanted to be a Raider for life and that it’s a no-brainer for him to stay with Oakland for the rest of his career. Mack has shown himself to be honest and level headed. Nothing has changed and I see Mack signing something long term most likely sooner than later.
Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald are playing a cat and mouse game to see who signs first, so the other player can get an idea of what to ask for. As for head coach Jon Gruden, he just wants him on the field again. Even in a couple of press conferences this week, Gruden said that what the Raiders do in contracts is private, but he said they would like to have Mack back signed as quickly as possible and he’s hopeful they can reach an agreement. He also commented that part of coming back as a coach was to coach for Mack.
Should Raider fans be worried right now? No. If I was Mack I’d hold out until the season started if needed, and then I’d tell the Raiders the time to talk ended and I’m opting out for free agency at the end of the season. Of course during the season I’d still be negotiating and trying to sign a deal.
I personally think Mack will sign in late June or even July. I don’t think it could play out until August but who knows. Either way I’d be shocked and stunned if he kept holding out. It’s the same thing I told fans back when Derek Carr signed and people got worried. If Khalil doesn’t have a contract after the season starts then I’d worry, but even then I wouldn’t lose my mind.
The Raiders are not going to be pushovers and just cave in to his demands but as long as he’s not hurt, Mack is holding all of the aces. With him there are still some big questions on defense for the Raiders but without him there are HUGE issues. The Raiders are not going to let him go because they need him big time. This is not Jr. High School loyalty folks, this is the NFL and it’s business. In the end I see Mack playing for the Raiders for a long, long time and I’d worry more about other things in life like what you are having for dinner and who will win the World Cup.
The NFL draft has always been fascinating to me. It’s an amazing thing to see how teams choose who they want to create the foundation of their team. It’s not a coincidence though that with the greatness of the Raiders of the 1960’s into early 1980’s, most of their drafts were excellent getting at least 2 good starters in many drafts. Director of Player Personnel Ron Wolf was a key element of these drafts and he is now in the HOF. As John Madden said, “Al listened to only one person and that was Ron Wolf”.
To establish a great team you have to have excellent drafts. Back in the day, a guy that could scout and pick out a good player was worth their weight in gold. A recent ESPN study showed just how bad the NFL teams of today draft, especially missing on so many QB’s that it’s ruined some franchises for years. In the olden days they relied on game films and occasional interviews with the players and their coaches. Now they over analyze and see things that aren’t there and refuse to see things that are. Paralysis by analysis. If you look at something long enough you begin to see flaws.
For now though, and look to the draft picks that did work out well often leading to wins and championships.
#5: 1974 Draft:
1st Henry Lawrence T
2nd Dave Casper TE
3rd Mark Van Eeghen
4th Morris Bradshaw
Henry Lawrence was a pillar in the OL for 13 years for the Raiders with much of it being as a starter. He has 3 Super Bowl rings and in the last 2 Raider titles he was a starting tackle. Dave Casper is a HOF player and was one of the best all around tight ends in history. With his tough and physical blocking and his amazing hands; Casper, Biletnikoff, Cliff Branch, and Ken Stabler made one of the greatest passing combinations of all time.
Mark Van Eeghen took over for Marv Hubbard and could do it all. He wasn’t fast, but he was amazing at following his blockers and soon became one of the best all around RB’s in the NFL. A great pass catcher, Mark also was a key pass protector for his ability to pick up blitzing LB’s. Even though he ran for over 1,000 yards in the 1976 season, Oakland’s game plan was for Mark to be the lead blocker for most of the game and the speedy Clarence Davis (who ran for 516 yards the same year) would get the bulk of the carries against an older Minnesota Vikings team. The plan worked to perfection as Mark had an amazing game blocking and Davis ran 16 times for 137 yards. Van Eeghen ran for 73 yards and the Raiders rushed for 266 yards which is still the 3rd highest Super Bowl rushing game in history. You wonder if players of today would sacrifice like that.
In the 4th Round the Raiders got WR Morris Bradshaw who became a key member of their special teams unit for 8 years. He also was a part time starter with his best year being 1978 when he caught 40 passes for 552 yards.
#4: 1972 Draft:
1st Mike Siani WR
2nd John Vella OL
4th Cliff Branch WR
4th Dave Dalby OL
7th Alonzo “Skip” Thomas DB
To be honest you could interchange the #4 and #3 drafts and still have winners. What a problem to have. Mike Siani was a poor man’s Fred Biletnikoff and while he never lived up to his #1 status, he was a vital contributor in the Raiders passing game with many key pass catches in important games. John Vella and Dave Dalby were part of what many consider the greatest offensive line of all time. Their size and toughness wore opponents down. Dr. Death Skip Thomas was a key member of the famous “Soul Patrol” that many feel is the greatest defensive backfield in NFL history.
Cliff Branch will eventually get into the Hall of Fame but he remains one of the greatest deep threats the NFL has ever seen. During a talk show Raiders great Ken Stabler said, “I had a great offensive line, Casper, Biletnikoff who caught anything and Cliff Branch who could outrun half of the cars in the parking lot”. This amazing draft class is just another reason why the Raiders were so dominating.
#3: 1977 Draft:
2nd Mike Davis
4th Mickey Marvin
5th Lester Hayes
5th Jeff Barnes
8th Terry Robiskie
12th Rod Martin
Maybe this draft didn’t have the iconic talent of other drafts, but it definitely filled a lot of holes with excellent players. Mike Davis was a key member at safety and his interception against the Cleveland Browns in the playoffs helped propel the Raiders to eventually win a Super Bowl. Mickey Marvin was an excellent OL for years. Lester Hayes started out slow, but eventually became one of the best cover corners in the game and should be in the HOF. Jeff Barnes and Rod Martin were excellent LB’s that helped the Raiders shore up their defense after the Villapiano, Willie Hall and Monte Johnson era. Terry Robiskie was a great special teams player and backup RB.
#2: 1971 Draft:
1st Jack Tatum DB
2nd Phil Villapiano LB
4th Clarence Davis
5th Bob Moore
12th Horace Jones
“They changed the rules because of Tatum and Atkinson”, said HOF QB Fran Tarkenton on San Francisco’s KNBR radio. “The 5 yard chuck rule was created because of them and the other Raiders DB’s because the WR’s literally could not get off of the line against them. They were so physically imposing and strong.”
Jack Tatum hit harder than any DB in history and should no doubt be in the HOF. Phil Villapiano said, “Tatum’s shots just sounded different. His hits sounded like a car wreck”. George Atkinson added, “I once saw Jack hit Denver’s Riley Odoms so hard that I thought he killed him. It sounded like a car wreck”. He was a star at Ohio St. where Woody Hayes loved his hard hitting style and instinct to be where he needed to be, and he brought that to the Oakland Raiders. Jack’s timing was unmatched. If it wasn’t for the Darryl Stingley hit, Tatum would already be in the HOF. RIP to both of them.
A huge get was Phil Villapiano. Supposedly an undersized LB out of Bowling Green, most teams had him as being too small. Almost everyone had him as a possible 3rd round pick, but most had him going into the 4th round. The Raiders; who were the only team that would not share information with other teams; picked him in the second round. They knew that Phil was really 225 and not the 210 that everyone else said he was. Villapiano became a key element shoring up their back 7 on defense. He could tackle and stop the run, and with his lateral speed and timing he was a great pass defender. There are many that feel Phil should be in the HOF as well. His personality and fun spirit is classic Raider. The below video shows Phil Villapiano leading the Raiders on and off the field.
Clarence Davis was a fast and clutch player. His catch in the famous “Sea of Hands” game and his amazing performances in post season including his 137 yards rushing in the Super Bowl win against Minnesota are immortalized. Bob Moore was a solid NFL back up tight end and Horace Jones was an important defensive starter for four of the 5 years he played for the Raiders.
#1: 1968 Draft:
2nd Ken Stabler QB
3rd Art Shell T
4th Charlie Smith RB
7th George Atkinson DB
11th Marv Hubbard
Now finally the greatest draft in Oakland Raiders history, the 1968 draft. If you can draft 2 quality starters in your draft, usually your draft is considered pretty good. Draft 5 key starters and 2 Hall of Famer’s and I’d say your draft was awesome.
In 1967 the Raiders drafted HOF guard Gene Upshaw who would help anchor an amazing offensive line. In 1968, they chose other big pieces that would lay a foundation for their success in the 1970’s.
This draft was the key to the Raiders success in the 60’s and 70’s and this draft topped them all. They now had one of the greatest QB’s in history in Ken Stabler, and another HOF player on the OL in Art Shell. With Charlie Smith and Marv Hubbard they had a set of starting RB’s that could run and catch the ball. All 4 players were big parts of the success of the Raiders in the 1970’s and late 1960’s.
Then oh by the way add 7th round pick George Atkinson who was considered too small to be a full time safety. What teams didn’t get is that Atkinson was as tough as nails, hit like a ton of bricks, had a bad attitude on the field and was as fast as lightning. Early in his career he was a great kick returner on both punts and kickoffs and held records for a number of years in the return game. He was also the voice of the famous “Soul Patrol” defensive backfield.
So there you have it. These are the 5 greatest draft classes in Raiders history. The hope of all fans is that their favorite teams draft choices will reach their full potential and step up to be great players. In the following years we will find out how the draft choices of the new millennium rank. History shows us that if you consistently draft poorly, you will eventually erode your foundation and have to start over. If you excel in the draft, you create a winning team for years to come. When the Raiders had great drafts, they succeeded and were the winningest franchise in U.S. sports. When they didn’t, they failed and struggled breaking records for futility. Here’s to a future of great draft picks and great success to this amazing franchise.
“Hanx” gets it. When so many athletes and celebrities get very full of themselves due to their fame, Tom Hanks knows his place in this world. He never looks down on people and treats people with respect and that is rare among the rich and famous. Tom Hanks is a true Oakland Raider fan, and a good guy.
(Below the late Michael Clarke Duncan thanks Tom Hanks for his humble support)
As I said in many writings, some Raider fans don’t fit in with the rest of the NFL fandom, and neither did Tom. In interviews he talked about growing up and how he was disliked by students and teachers alike, and that he was geeky and unpopular. Even though he was extremely shy, he was also the one that would blurt out something funny during a film or class activity. He said he was responsible, and didn’t get into much trouble though. He purposely would go to plays by himself always reading the program and then engulfing himself into the story and the moment. He worked hard at his craft.
He went to Skyline High in Oakland during the early to mid 70’s when there was a lot of turmoil in society. He then went to Chabot College in Hayward before going to Sacramento State. He loved the Raiders his entire life.
The NFL and Hollywood:
I did a lot of research on the NFL and Hollywood and it’s pretty amazing how many players have been in the movies and on the television screen. In the 1970’s Merlin Olsen was epic as Jonathon Garvey on the Little House on the Prairie Series with Michael Landon. He was so naturally talented as an actor they gave him his own short lived series in Father Murphy. A member of the fearsome foursome in family television.
Then you have the great Alex Karras who also was a gifted actor. He played the father on Webster and was in Blazing Saddles and Victor Victoria. A little known fact is that he was the one of the final cuts to play Carlo Rizzi in the Godfather.
(below is Ben Davidson as Rexor v.s. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. Ben and Rexor have become cult icons with a huge following)
The Iconic Jim Brown was in the Dirty Dozen and many other films, and Vikings running back Ed Marinaro was amazing in one of the greatest shows of all time, Hill Street Blues. There are a lot more that in the future I will write about. No team in history though has more people in the big or small screen than the Raiders.
Raiders Invade Hollywood:
Fred Williamson is the Raiders and NFL icon all-time when it comes to Hollywood. The “Hammer” and ex-Raider has been in over 115 movies and tv shows and is still working at 80 years old. Carl Weathers, the former Raiders linebacker became famous playing Apollo Creed in the Rocky classics. Ben Davidson was in the M.A.S.H. movie as well as Conan The Barbarian. He also made waves when he did a porn movie (he was fully clothed and did no sex) which got him hate mail from across the country. Many other Raiders have been in films and television and they were hugely popular on talk shows and commercials. Even with the Raiders glory years decades past, Tom Hanks put the icing on the cake in honoring his team in the 1996 film, “That Thing You Do”.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s Tom Hanks was at a crossroads. After his meteoric rise, he had 4 straight flops and was looking to get back on top. In 1992, he asked talented director Penny Marshall for a chance to play Jimmy Dugan in the movie “A League of Their Own”. Dugan was a washed up ex-baseball star whose career was cut short by his drinking. Marshall; who is as soft and sweet as a cactus at times; gave him the part and made him earn his way through the movie. Tom Hanks hit a home run in this classic, and from there went on to do some of his timeless films.
In 1996, Tom took to writing and directing his first film in “That Thing You Do”. A sweet movie about a musical group going from garage band to stars. He needed to choose a place for the musical numbers that had history and that could show how the 1960’s music scene really was during those times.
Hanx chose the famous Palomino Club in North Hollywood. In keeping with the history of the club, he honored ex Oakland Raiders LB Phil Villapiano by naming it after him. Villapiano’s became a key place in the film. Here is the famous fight scene from the movie at Villapiano’s.
Here is Tom Hanks mentioning Villapiano’s on the Red Carpet with his lovely wife Rita Wilson.
Why is This So Important and Where is Villapiano’s?:
What’s funny is that online movie fans have argued, what venue was used as Villapiano’s and where is it? I’ve searched various sites and did some digging and the site for Villapiano’s eventually was found out to be the iconic Palomino’s, and he couldn’t have picked a better place to name Villapiano’s. This place was once called The Grand Ol’ Opry West. Just like the Whiskey a Go Go and many other LA hotspots back in the day, this launched many a musical career and was the place to be.
The history of this place is historic. In true Raider form, the Palomino was originally called the MuleKick. Before the Palomino opened in 1949, the MuleKick was a blue collar neighborhood bar that was frequented often by the ex-country and western film actors and stuntmen of the 1930’s and 1940’s that mostly lived there. The clientele was friendly but gruff, hard working and hard drinking. Country Music Star Hank Penny bought the place and changed the name to the Palomino.
Many famous stars like Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson performed to packed crowds. Below is a rare shot of Willie Nelson performing at the Palomino in 1970.
Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan and even Elvis Pressley would play unannounced sets to the crowds whenever they would drop in. In the 70’s and 80’s it became a haven for the Hair Band and rock band era with many of the hottest bands in the country playing there. Bands like Quiet Riot and the Red Hot Chili Peppers would hone their craft and create a groundswell of support, launching their careers.
(Below is a great performance from the Palomino Club by Jerry Lee Lewis with a very candid interview of the “Killer” afterward.)
Tom Hanks knew the history of the Palomino, and it was a match made in heaven to choose this venue to call Villapiano’s. Hanx grew up in the east bay during the Santa Rosa Oakland Raiders training camp days and no team was as hard drinking and hard living as the Oakland Raiders and their ring leader Phil Villapiano. Ben Davidson, Phil and Ken Stabler would have fit in this bar like a fish to water.
For anyone that grew up in the 1970’s, they remember how the Raiders were everywhere. Their winning was done in such a charismatic way that it attracted fans, the NFL, and Hollywood. For Tom to use Phil’s name in the movie just shows how much he loves the team of his youth.
So grab a glass of your favorite adult beverage, put on your favorite Raider jersey and check out “That Thing You Do” if you haven’t already. And most of all give a toast to Tom Hanks and Phil Villapiano and all of the Raiders of the past. And enjoy the fact that Tom Hanks immortalized the Raiders and Phil Villapiano, in a way only Hollywood can.
Friends used to ask who do you want on a podcast or even to just have a beer with. The 4 people remain the same. Ken Stabler, Bill King, John Madden, and Phil Villapiano. Today I’m writing about one of the most popular Raider players of all time, and one of my dad’s favorites in Phil Villapiano. “Foo” was a Raider from the start.
From Day One:
When Phil Villapiano was drafted, most teams had him going in the 3rd or 4th round. The Raiders drafted him in the 2nd round out of Bowling Green which was a surprise to some. Many teams had Villapiano listed at only 210 pounds, being too small to play linebacker. Back then there was no NFL combines or official weigh ins, so most teams would share information with each other to save money and time. The Raiders refused to share information.
What the Raiders knew about Villapiano was that he was legitimately 225 pounds. He was an instinctive player who loved to hit. His speed laterally was excellent and a big part of his game. He could play every down and had great feel in pass coverage. In the same draft Oakland selected Jack Tatum, Clarence Davis, and backup tight end Bob Moore. With Tatum and Villapiano, they had 2 hard hitters to go with another that loved contact in George Atkinson. The Raiders added Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas in the following draft and their back 7 was as physical and skilled as any in the history of the game.
The Raiders offenses were awesome but most forget that in 3 Super Bowl wins the Raiders only gave up 33 points and had three great QB’s in Fran Tarkenton, Ron Jaworski & Joe Theismann running for their lives most of the time. In fact all 4 teams in last years AFC and NFC Championship games were in the top 5 scoring defenses in the entire NFL. It isn’t sexy but defense still wins championships.
Phil’s Coming Out Party:
In week 3 of the 1971 season, rookie Villapiano was thrown into the fire and he had to start due to injuries at linebacker. Phil had an amazing game on national television against the Browns in front of 84,000 screaming Cleveland fans. To the dismay of every fan outside of Oakland, Howard Cosell raved about Phil during the Raiders 34-20 win, making him a household name over night and announce another weapon for the hated Oakland Raiders.
A Key Member of the Raiders Defense:
Phil soon became a mainstay in the Raiders physical style of play. He could cover all parts of the field, and his violent play was just what the Raiders wanted. In front of the famous “Soul Patrol” and behind an aggressive and relentless defensive line, Monte Johnson, Ted Hendricks, Willie Hall, and Villapiano manned one of the more underrated LB crews and defenses in the NFL. Al Davis and Ron Wolf’s motto for their defense was one thing; the QB must go down, and go down hard. Raider fans loved seeing Villapiano slowly and methodically hitting his arm pad on the line of scrimmage letting opponents know that he was coming and he was going to hit somebody.
(A video showing the brutality of the Raiders defense and Phil Villapiano’s team “activities”)
The renegade Raiders were by far the king of bay area sports and they capped off their success in 1976 with a dominating performance in Super Bowl 11 with a win over the Minnesota Vikings, 32-14. There were some sweaty palms at the start of the game though. The Raiders took the opening kickoff and went down the field but kicker Errol Mann missed a 29 yard field goal. Later in the 1st, Viking great Fred McNeil blocked a Ray Guy punt for Guy’s first blocked punt in his career. Minnesota recovered it on the Raiders 3 yard line and Raider fans began to worry. On third down, Villapiano forced a fumble from RB Brent McClanahan which fellow LB Willie Hall recovered and the Raiders went on a long drive for a short FG. Phil’s key play changed the momentum of the game.
(Phil is even clutch during a fun time at the 2009 Biletnikoff Celebrity Golf Tournament)
The Wild Days In Oakland:
Along with their amazing winning ways, Oakland also lead the league in having fun. The Raiders off the field craziness was unequalled, with Phil Villapiano being the unofficial ring leader of all of the antics. The stories of the Raiders training camp days in Santa Rosa are of legend. So many fans enjoyed spending time with players at North Bay hotspots and one of their favorites to party with was Villapiano and Ken Stabler.
(Phil’s interview on his foundation to save the Jersey Shore after hurricane Sandy)
He would set up activities and games to break the monotony of training camp. And as many players have said, cheating was not only encouraged but a necessity. Players drank with fans, outcasts, and anyone else that was considered part of the Raider family. Hells Angels and the Black Panthers would befriend some Raiders, and even a few shady figures would emerge. While most celebrities loved glamorous teams like the Cowboys, actors like James Garner became friends with the Raiders of the 70’s along with owner Al Davis.
From paying a woman to run naked across the practice field, to setting a small fire to stop the monotony of training camp, the pranks were wild and Phil was usually the instigator. Phil once even helped put on a wedding at one of the restaurants with some of the Raiders helping with the direction and officiating of the nuptials. After passing the hat around they helped the couple go on a honeymoon. Of course the wedding was bogus, and to this day no one knew if the couple ever found out they really weren’t married.
Phil & the Raiders Legacy:
I fought with some old time NFL fans and writers last year who tried to downplay how good the Raiders were. We all know how I love facts so I was loaded for bear. Daryle Lamonica was 38-4-1 in his first 43 starts for Oakland. Ken Stabler was 50-11-1 in his first 62 starts and the Raiders were 18-1-1 in their first 20 Monday night football games. No offense, but if Derek Carr and the Raiders had those stats today, with the fervor of social media, they would be erecting statues for them.
The Facts About The Raiders & the 1970’s:
The Raiders won more games than any other team in the NFL in the 1970’s, the greatest decade in NFL history. During the 1970-75 dynasty of the Miami Dolphins, the Raiders were 4-2 against the mighty Dolphins including 2-1 in the playoffs. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970’s, the Raiders were the only team with success owning a 6-5 record. They were 2-3 against Pittsburgh in the playoffs but one of those wins was the Immaculate Reception, and another was the 16-10 loss in Pittsburgh, where “somehow” outside the hash-marks the field had become completely frozen after the Steelers groundskeepers allegedly watered it down in the frigid cold of a Pennsylvania winter day. One of the few players Pittsburgh Hall of Famer Mel Blount struggled with was Cliff Branch. Al Davis got in an argument, yelling at Pete Rozelle before the game on the field saying how this now limited Cliff Branch’s speed. And they say the Raiders cheated!
In an online contest created by the NFL on their website, the 1976 Raiders were voted the greatest team in NFL history by over 5.2 million fans.
Phil was a big part of all this success. In fact most felt the Raiders were better in 1977 but Phil and OL John Vella had season ending injuries. The beat up Raiders were never healthy for the rest of the decade. Eventually he was traded to Buffalo not long after he made comments that the Raiders needed to stay in Oakland. He said that he never felt those comments got Al Davis mad, but Phil is a nicer guy than I am and I’m not so sure.
Phil is Just as Good Off the Field:
First off, congratulations to Phil who just won the Jersey Shore’s greatest Sports Personality in the last 50 years! We hope that this is not the last HOF he gets into. Again, please go to his Facebook page to support his Hall of Fame run.
When I first worked for the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation in honor of my cousin Celestina, I was so happy to see Phil Villapiano being such a huge contributor for them. Phil has lent himself to many charities and he is beloved by fans and organizations alike. Phil is in various Hall of Fames and his other charities include saving the Jersey Shore after hurricane Sandy and MDA & ALS.
He also has bravely offered his brain to CTE research as well. Players like Jim Plunkett and George Atkinson have discussed the issue and the struggles they are having, and Phil also has done several interviews on the effects that football has had on his body.
Phil joins the ranks of so many special Raider players. Their love of life, football and their fellow man is both inspiring and endearing. Born in Long Branch, New Jersey and raised in Asbury Park, Phil has left his mark on many hearts around the country. He has seen pain and tragedy but through it all he lives life with joy and a smile. Graduating from Bowling Green and making a name on the national scene in Oakland, he is more than a college icon, former NFL Rookie of the Year, 2 time all NFL player, or 5 time all AFC player. A lot more.
I was once asked on a podcast why the Raiders players relationship with the fans was so special because they said they just didn’t understand it. I said, “Most people look at the players as celebrity athletes. It’s their team. Even though I was too little to understand anything, in Oakland the Raiders were not celebrities but they were considered family. The players were underpaid so many worked, played and were socially active with the fans. They also genuinely enjoyed and cared for each other, and the players were a part of the community. From Al Davis who the NFL and most owners hated; to the great Bill King who the networks and the Warriors took off of tv for looking like the Devil; neither they, the players or the fans really fit in anywhere. Except in Oakland”.
“They worked hard and played hard and loved their families. They were outcasts and throw aways that made sense to no one. The players were always too old, wild, or too slow or not big enough. Al Davis would see their heart and take them in. Then you put them all together with an East Bay attitude under an overcast, grey sky in Oakland on a crisp fall day, and together they all made sense. They won and they dominated. The pride; the winning; the diversity in race and religion; it was the best relationship in sports. No stadium was louder, no bond stronger”.
From New Jersey to California, Phil has never lost who he was and who was there for the ride. His loyalty and love for fans and family is contagious. And anyone that could put a smile on my mom and dad’s face has my loyalty.
(The Amazing run of the Raiders; The Rebels of Oakland)
They say never meet your heroes, and when I first started my medical business in the bay area, I was able to meet some A-List athletes and celebrities that I admired. Most were ok, but a couple turned out to be arrogant, self absorbed and just plain strange and it hurt. Raider fans are lucky because for the most part they are never disappointed. Meet Lester Hayes or Jim Otto or Phil Villapiano, and they will have you leaving with a smile. Phil is a fan favorite due to his whit, love of life, and passionate heart. He’s never really received the credit he deserved on the field, but let’s be real, many Raiders haven’t. People forget the east coast media dominated sports at the time. I’m sorry but waiting this long for Cliff Branch, Lester Hayes, Jack Tatum and Phil Villapiano is unacceptable and I’ve told the NFL writers as such. (Don’t get me started on Ken Stabler). Phil is already in our HOF and I hope Phil truly knows just how special he is to the bay area.
So if you are having a rough day, open your favorite adult beverage and go on youtube and enjoy the Super Bowl and championship games all over again. Check out Phil’s interviews that will leave you inspired and always laughing. Reminisce about the players and friends and family that you shared these amazing times with. Remember loved ones that are no longer with us that you shared so much with and who started your journey as a Raider fan. The Sea of Hands; The Holy Roller; the Ghost to the Post; the Heidi Game; and all that winning. For me, every time I watch these videos and see the feelings of joy in the fans and the players, it’s as exciting as the Klondike, flying over the Atlantic, or the story of the White Whale.
How innocent were those days….how rich we are to have known them.