Oakland's comeback boys waltz into the championship

Listen, if an ex-sportscaster can become president, you had to believe the Oakland Raiders could win pro football's 15th Super Bowl, even if few others did.

When all was said and done Sunday evening, no one needed to wait for an electoral college to seal the deal; the Superdome scoreboard made it official -- Oakland 27, Philadelphia 10.

Al Davis, the owner who has made this team into one that always seems cast in the villain's role, called the victory the franchise's "finest hour." Oddly, it could also have been the team's last representing Oakland. Davis hopes to move the team to Los Angeles next season, a defiant act that could come to pass if the club wins an antitrust suit against the National Football League.

Most observers don't anticipate that happening, but then again, hardly anyone thought Oakland would see the light of this season's playoffs, either.

Some so-called experts even projected the Raiders as last-place finishers in their division, pretty grim stuff for a team that had strung together 15 winning seasons. At one point, Oakland indeed appeared headed for a quick knockout, reeling with a 2-3 record and wondering how to regroup around quarter- back Jim Plunkett, the replacement for injured starter Dan Pastorini.

"It would have been easy to let things slide at that point and play out the string," linebacker Bob Nelson said. "But too many guys weren't willing to give up. It's been a crazy year."

The raiders fought back to win 9 of their remaining 11 games in the regular season plus an unprecedented 4 in the playoffs. In doing so, Oakland became the first "wild card" team, or nondivision winner, ever to triumph in the Super Bowl.

Coach Tom Flores called the performance of his team "courageous," particularly citing the play of Plunkett, the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XV.

Ironically, Plunkett had begun his pro career a decade earlier by leading the thendowntrodden New England Patriots over the heavily favored Raiders. This auspicious start created unrealistic expectations which led to his downfall with New England, a trade to San Francisco, and eventual release by the 49ers two years ago.

As tight end Raymond Chester is fond of saying, "Some people's discard is another person's delight." The Raiders put Plunkett in the "delight" category, along with a bunch of other players given up on by other teams, but recycled by Oakland, including defensive starters John Matuszak, Burgess Owens, and Ted Hendricks.

Flores labeled Jim's superbust-to-Super Bowl odyssey as "one of the greatest pro football stories of all time."

The piece de resistance came on Super Sunday when the former Heisman Trophy winner from Stanford hurled three touchdown passes, completed 13 of 21 tosses overall, and had none intercepted. Ron Jaworski, his counterpart on the Eagles, didn't fare nearly so well, hitting tight end Keith Krepfle for Philadelphia's lone touchdown in the fourth quarter, but throwing three passes into the hands of Raider linebacker Rod Martin.

The first interception was especially costly, since it gave Oakland possession 30 yards from the goal line less than two minutes into the game.Unsurpassed opportunists, the resourceful Raiders got a quick score when Plunkett found Cliff Branch on one of two TD grabs by the blazing wide receiver. The importance of ringing up those first points can't be overlooked, since, so far at least, the team that has struck first in the Super Bowl has almost always gone on to victory.

The winning score, as it turned out, occurred right before the opening period ended. It was storybook stuff.

Scrambling away from a covey of sackminded rushers, Plunkett found halfback Kenny King, who improvised by cutting up the sideline. King, a speedster acquired from Houston in the off-season, made the catch beyond Herman Edwards's outstretched fingers, then raced 80 yards for the longest TD completion in Super Bowl history.

The Eagles hadn't come this far to quit, but not being a flashy, high-scoring team, they must have had much of their pregame confidence sapped by so suddenly finding themselves on the wrong end of a 14-point deficit.

For odd as it may seem, especially considering the franchise's recent "Death Valley" era, Philadelphia truly believed it would become one of the few teams ever to win a Super Bowl debut.

"First-time excitement will help get us motivated," said Dick Vermeil, the Eagles' fiery coach. Placing emphasis on hard work, discipline, and finding players with character, the dynamic Californian had molded a 40-10 team into a preseason Super Bowl pick in the space of five years.

Looking to revive some long-forgotten glory days, he had even hired Chuck Bednarik, a two-way star on Philadelphia's 1960 NFL champions, as an "honorary coach." The Eagles were also riding along on the winning currents that would make Philadelphia "the city of champions" -- the basketball 76ers and hockey Flyers both having reached the finals of their playoffs last season, and of course the Phillies winning baseball's World Series in October.

As things turned out, though, the Eagles' high-water mark came in their 20-7 victory over Dallas in the National Football Conference championship game. That encounter saw a wrecking ball defense demolish the league's highest-scoring offense, while Philadelphia halfback Wilbert Montgomery rushed for 194 yards to spearhead a relentless attack.

Thrust into "the city that care forgot," however, the workaholic Eagles may have become a tad too tight.

While the Raiders were off enjoying themselves in the French Quarter on their first day in town, the Eagles went through a 2 1/2-hour workout. Said Commander Vermeil: "We're not here to have a good time.A good time for us means winning, and that's what we're looking for Sunday."

Of course, it's not easy to stay loose when you're preparing to play one game before a worldwide TV audience for the season's ultimate championship. But the team with the previous Super Bowl experience supposedly knows the ropes and is better prepared to cope with the game's dizzying surroundings.

Theoretically, therefore, the Raiders had the advantage since they were making their third Super Bowl appearance, and second in five years. Yet, surprisingly, Oakland returned just 11 of the players from the team that beat Minnesota in Super Bowl XI. This was basically a new team, though with the same old Raider mystique.

The perpetuator of this mystique, the person who links the first Oakland Super Bowl team in 1968 to the present one, is Davis, a shrewd operator with a Fonz haircut.

He has achieved a lot of notoriety as the resident thorn in the NFL's side, but at the same time he's never forgotten how to piece together teams that can throw the bomb and intimidate defensively.

The physical play of Oakland's defensive backs has become a team trademark. This season quarterback Lester Hayes stamped himself as one of the best bump-and-run artists in the game's history. With a heavy helping of stickum on his hands, Lester intercepted 13 passes during the regular season (one shy of the NFL record) and boasted he'd catch more of Jaworski's Super Bowl passes than 6 ft. 8 in. Eagle receiver Harold Carmichael.

Hayes made no heists on Sunday, but his presence made Philadelphia wary of throwing his way. Meanwhile, the rest of the defense shut down the run, allowing less than three yards per carry, and applied constant pressure on Jaworski, who had to hurry his throws. Plunkett, on the other hand, often had loads of time to spot a target, a far cry from the eight-sack nightmare he lived through in Philadelphia's 10-7 regular-season defeat of the Raiders.

The Eagles were the team that came unhinged this time, committing an uncharacteristic succession of infractions, turnovers, and mental errors at all the wrong junctures.

Not even a large and vocal contingent of Philadelphia fans, some in green wigs and face paint, could reverse the negative momentum. It was just Oakland's day.

Even so, with a touch of sarcasm, Raider guard Gene Upshaw said afterward, "If we played [collegiate champion] Georgia tomorrow, we'd likely be the underdog." Upshaw and the Raiders probably wouldn't want it any other way.

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