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“The 5 Best NFL Draft Classes in Raiders History; With Video Comments from Phil Villapiano, Madden, Atkinson, Tatum & Stabler”

 

villapiano game
Phil Villapiano

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NFL: Oakland Raiders-Jack Del Rio Press Conference

The NFL draft can make or break you.

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 to 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, let’s forget the drafts of today that might work out well, and look to the draft picks that did work out well often leading to wins and championships.

henry lawrence

#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, he, Biletnikoff, Cliff Branch, and Ken Stabler made one of the greatest passing combinations of all time.

mark van eeghen

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.

cliff branch
Cliff Branch scoring another Post Season touchdown this time against Washington in SB XVIII

#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.

skip thomas
Dr. Death Skip Thomas

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 good.

mike davis lester hayes
Mike Davis & Lester Hayes

#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 an excellent special teams player and backup RB.

 

sea of hands
Clarence Davis with the “Sea Of Hands” catch surrounded by 5 Dolphins

#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 Odom’s 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.

eerie magazine ken stabler
This is the 1979 popular Eerie Magazine cover paying homage to the Raiders and Ken Stabler

#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.

marv-hubbard
Marv Hubbard on the cover of Sports Illustrated

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.

rdheidi
Charlie Smith catching a pass and scoring the go ahead touchdown in the famous “Heidi” Game v.s. the New York Jets

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.

Jim’s Jamz:

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.

 

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“The Greatest Defensive Backfield of all time! The Oakland Raiders Soul Patrol”

soul patrolf

There will never be a defensive backfield like the Oakland Raiders Soul Patrol of the 1970’s ever again.  They were the most intimidating and greatest group of all time.

The 70’s will always be remembered as the greatest era for the NFL.  It’s the era when there were many great teams and great quarterbacks.  Without a salary cap some backups on the great teams could start elsewhere.  Defenses could do as they please with little to no protection for QB’s and WR’s.  Television helped make the Superbowl become a must see event.  Teams like the Raiders, Steelers, Dolphins, Chiefs, Cowboys and Vikings made this a decade of excellence.  The Steel Curtain, the No Name Defense, Doomsday, and the Purple People Eaters are all revered names in NFL lore.  When the Steelers met the Raiders in the mid 70’s, there were no less than 22 hall of fame coaches, owners, and players on the field at one time.  That will never happen again.

“There was nothing like them”, said HOF QB Fran Tarkenton about the Soul Patrol in a KNBR radio interview.  “In 1979 the NFL created the 5 yard chuck rule because of Atkinson, Tatum, Brown, Thomas and the Raiders.  Wide Receivers could not get off the line of scrimmage against them.  Atkinson and Tatum and the rest of the gang were so physical and strong that I’d have to wait and hope my guys could get open before I got killed”.

The wide receivers of the 70’s never get their due because their numbers weren’t the pinball numbers of today.  In today’s NFL, if you exhale near a receiver it is a penalty.  In the 1970’s it was literally survival of the fittest.  They had to worry about the great physical play of the era and you could not be a wide receiver unless you could go over the middle. I’ve seen pass interference penalties in today’s game where a defensive back literally brushed by a player.  The rules are so comical now that records are being broken almost weekly.  The 70’s on the other hand was an extremely brutal and tough era, and the most talented and toughest defensive backfield of them all was the Soul Patrol in Oakland.

Oakland the King of Professional Sports:

The center of the sporting world in the 70’s was Oakland California.  In 1975 a team lead by superstar Rick Barry silenced all the east coast and their writers by sweeping the Washington Bullets for the NBA title after writers practically laughed at their chances.  The Oakland A’s dynasty had an amazing 3 straight World Series Championships beating national league royalty in the Dodgers, Reds, and NY Mets.  And then oh by the way, for a 25 year stretch the Raiders were the winningest team in all of US sports with several division titles, and 3 superbowl wins.  No city ever had so many titles in such a short time.

The Soul Patrol embodied what the Oakland Raiders were all about.  They were tough, borderline dirty, intimidating and extremely confident.  Each member played their role in a defense that still today is revered.

atkinson4

George Atkinson Jr.:  (“Butch” 6’ 0”; 180 lbs.)

There may have never been a tougher Raider than George Atkinson.  Listed as 6 feet tall, many say it was more like 5’ 10” but no one had the guts to tell him that.

Atkinson was an intimidator that roamed the field like a lion ready to pounce.  He was the trash talker of the group often seen taunting and intimidating players that were much bigger than he was.  He once broke Russ Francis nose with a vicious forearm hit, and his hits against Lynn Swann of the Steelers are a part of NFL history.  He had blazing speed and in fact still holds the single game record for punt return yardage for the Raiders at 205 yards.

Atkinson took it very personally when someone tried to block him low.  He learned from Tatum to go after a Wide Receiver if they tried to hit their knees or ankles.  In some films you can actually see Raiders defensive backs going towards blockers to actually hit them after they tried to hit them low.  All time great Paul Warfield once said when you went over the middle against Oakland and didn’t account for Tatum and Atkinson, you would not be in the game long without being carried off the field.  Against the run, he could go through blockers and make amazingly hard tackles.  If you ran wide against the Raiders, their DB’s would make you pay.  Atkinson loved to make players pay.

willie brown

Willie Brown:  (6’ 1”; 195 lbs.)

Amazingly Hall of Famer Willie Brown was never drafted when he graduated from Grambling St.  He was signed by the Buffalo Bills who cut him and then he was picked up by the Denver Broncos.  He soon became an all star but was traded to the Raiders in 1967 where he played for the rest of his career.  Unlike the other 3 members of the soul patrol, Brown was fast, graceful and laid back.  He wasn’t a talker but a great defender who was a shut down corner. He had good size and played the run very well, but he was a master of the bump and run, man to man game that the Raiders loved so much.  His famous interception in the Superbowl with the great announcer Bill King’s call of old man Willie is as famous as any highlight NFL films has.

skip thomas

Skip Thomas CB (Dr. Death; 6’ 1”; 205 lb.):

In a day when cornerbacks were just as important in attacking the run as they did the pass, Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas role was to make everyone that came near him remember that he hit them.  What is funny is he was nicknamed Dr. Death by Raiders great Bob Brown who said Skip Thomas looked like the cartoon character Dr. Death.

Skip Thomas was a vicious tackler who was the king of the clothesline tackle.  Many times his padded arm was seen knocking the ball out of wide receivers hands.  When he hit people, sometimes he would actually launch his whole body and his arm swung like a Russian sickle.  It was intimidating, violent and sent the message to not come his way.  He had a two year stretch of 6 interceptions per year.  Due to the great talent of Willie Brown, teams would try to pick on Skip Thomas and usually the results were not good.

People forget that in the Super Bowl, Minnesota moved their fine wide receiver Sammy White around so that Thomas mostly guarded him in the first half.  White didn’t  catch a pass in the first half and Thomas was on him like glue.  As the great Raiders announcer Bill King once said, “the Raiders have 3 safeties when Dr. Death was playing cornerback”.

Sadly and ironically he passed away too soon in 2011 also at the age of 61, but he will always be remembered for his talent, toughness and personality as one of the great members of the Soul Patrol.

jack tatum

Jack Tatum Safety (Assassin; 5’ 10”, 205 lb.):

Ronnie Lott called him his inspiration and the standard bearer for NFL safeties.  John Clayton said there was never a harder hitting safety in the NFL.  Once during the Super Bowl break, the NFL show with Cris Collinsworth was discussing players that should be in the Hall of Fame, and to a man they all said the same name.   Chris Berman and many others kept bringing up one man; Jack Tatum.

He may have been the most intimidating force in NFL history this side of Dick Butkus. John Madden said many times he was mentally saddled with the hit on Darryl Stingley which paralyzed Stingley for the rest of his life.  Many close to Tatum said he really never got over it up to his death in 2010 at the age of 61 due to complications from diabetes.

Earl Campbell said no one ever hit him harder than his touchdown run where he and Tatum hit head on.  Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton said he thought Tatum knocked Sammy White’s head off in the Superbowl hit that Tatum laid on him when the Raiders dominated the Minnesota Vikings.  Even his counterpart George Atkinson said once, “he hit a tough Denver TE Riley Odoms so hard it sounded like a gun shot.  Odoms was in agony and his eyes rolled back.  I thought he had killed him”.

I remember a story that Ahmad Rashad told.  He said that days before the Vikings were to play the Raiders in the Superbowl, Tatum had walked into a room where the Vikings were relaxing and playing cards.  Tatum walked into the room and into the closet and just stood there for a couple of minutes.  He then walked out of the closet and left.  Rashad said that not one Viking laughed or said a word until they saw Tatum walking out of the building.  Rashad said that it was a mind game of intimidation and he said it worked.  He said, “we laughed; we just made sure Tatum couldn’t hear us”.

Tatum was a linebacker playing safety.  He also was dominating against the run and would take on guards and tackles at any given notice.  Many game films show Tatum chasing blockers trying to hit them before the blockers would try to block them.  Tatum was vicious, fearless and ready to hit anyone.  He epitomized the great physical play of the day, and what the Raiders defense always tried to do; stop the run and make the quarterback go down, and go down hard. With a good pass rush, the Raiders defense was hard to beat as was seen in their dominance.

Jim’s Jamz:

With today’s rules there will never be hits and aggressive play like the Soul Patrol did.  Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers pretty much do as they please and the Soul Patrol would not be allowed to do what they did best; intimidate, make plays, and be legends.  In the most physical era, the Soul Patrol was like a pack of wolves ready to take down any sized prey.  They remain the greatest defensive backfield of all time.