Ryan Mavity has written for the Cape Gazette in Lewes, Del. since 2007. He’s working on his first book, about the Colts of the 1970’s, “Ghosts of 33rd Street: The Final Glory Days of the Baltimore Colts.” This is an excerpt from that book.
The game was scheduled for Christmas Eve and ticket sales, surprisingly, were not brisk. The week of the game, plenty of tickets were available as fans were wary of the Christmas Eve gameday. But strong walkup business resulted in a sellout.
The day of the game was relatively balmy for Baltimore in December: 41 degrees with minimal wind, something Lydell Mitchell took as something of an omen.
“We were hoping that it would be real cold, these guys coming in from the West Coast to play and they’re going to be worried about their hands, being cold. That would make them a little uneasy. It ended up being a great day as far as temperature goes.”
The Colts got their first break of the game on the second play from scrimmage as van Eeghen fumbled and Blackwood recovered near midfield. But as would become the theme for the game, the offense would go nowhere, as two Mitchell runs and a Jones incompletion ended the Colts drive.
The game settled into a feeling out process with the defenses controlling the action. Oakland’s drives were short-circuited by penalties, while the Colts drives were being shut down by Oakland’s front seven. The Colts came out trying to run the ball. Jones said he thought the Colts could run on Oakland to open up the passing game.
“We were definitely establishing a run game and planning on it happening, but it didn’t.”
The Raiders typically ran the ball to their left, behind Shell and Upshaw, right at Ehrmann, Dutton and White.
Late in the first quarter, the Raiders got things going, starting with a 15-yard square in catch by Biletnikoff, followed by two runs by Van Eeghen that gained 15 more yards. On the Raiders’ fourth play of the drive, Stabler handed to Davis who bounced a play off the left side. Getting around White, Davis broke four Colts tackles – and a Laird facemask – to score a 30-yard touchdown and stake Oakland to a 7-0 lead.
Meanwhile, the Colts offense continued to be going the wrong way. The last drive of the first quarter saw Jones nearly intercepted by Oakland linebacker Willie Hall and then sacked on third down by Raiders pass rush specialist Pat Toomay. The Colts ended the first quarter with negative passing yards and Jones was sacked twice.
With the offense struggling, it would be the Colts defense that would get them right back into the game.
On Oakland’s first drive of the second quarter, Stabler was intercepted in the flat by Laird, who took the ball down the left sideline untouched for a 60-yard touchdown.
“Ken Stabler didn’t know whether we were in zone or man,” Laird said. “It all looks the same for two seconds. You have to read where we’re going. We’d disguise and window dress so many things. I baited him. I flew out of there and just waited for him to give that look then planted and ran back in there and picked it off his hip.”
“I got to be very close to Kenny, we did a lot of things together throughout the years and we did the ESPN special and he would just go, ‘You little [expletive]. You picked my pocket.’ I go, ‘I did. I did my friend!’”
Van Eeghan, the intended receiver on the play, blamed himself for the interception.
“I remember not running a flat enough pattern,” he said. “I went to the sidelines kinda pissed at myself. I didn’t run the crispest of routes. I was very rarely out in pass patterns. I ran a less than precise pattern that enabled the safety to intercept it and I gave him the space to do that.”
Laird’s pick-six got the crowd back into the game, hitting a loud C-O-L-T-S cheer as the defense quickly got the Raiders off the field on their ensuing drive. The offense looked like it was about to take advantage of the momentum, using two runs by Roosevelt Leaks, a facemask penalty, three Mitchell runs and a 9-yard pass from Jones to Mitchell to move the ball down the field. But on third-and-3, Monte Johnson sacked Jones for a 16-yard loss to knock the Colts out of scoring range.
Just before the half, the offense would embark on its best drive of the game up to that point. Jones was able to open up the Raider defense with a 27-yard completion to Scott. Runs by Mitchell, Jones and Leaks got the Colts across midfield and then Jones hit McCauley out of the backfield for a 13-yard gain to convert a third-and-9. The drive stalled at the Oakland 23-yard line however, with the Colts fortunate to avoid disaster when Jones threw a pass to Doughty near the goal line that hit Tatum right in the chest. But the Raider safety started running with the ball before he had secured possession and the Colts were able to take a 10-7 lead on a 36-yard Toni Linhart field goal.
Oakland tried to answer before the half, as Stabler hit passes to Davis, Biletnikoff and van Eeghen to get the Raiders into field goal range. But on a second-and-4 in Colt territory, Davis took the handoff and ran to his right. Davis was surrounded by Mike Barnes and Tom MacLeod, who hit Davis and forced him to fumble. The ball popped right into the hands of Dutton for the third Oakland turnover of the first half. The Colts would run out the clock and go into halftime leading 10-7.
It was a lead they probably shouldn’t have had, as the Raiders had outplayed the Colts, particularly on offense, with the Colts only having 14 yards passing for the half. Jones was sacked three times and the run game struggled to get on track.
The Colts began the second half with a three-and-out and the Raiders would take the ball on their 31-yard line.
The Raiders were known for throwing the bomb deep down the field, but at this point in the game, they hadn’t really taken their shot. That changed on the second play of Oakland’s first second half possession as Stabler launched one deep down the left sideline for Branch, who made an acrobatic catch over Nelson Munsey for a 41-yard gain. Left one-on-one with Branch, Munsey was with his man, but he couldn’t track the ball before Branch and the Raiders were in business on their side of the field.
The game’s first big turn would come on the next play. Van Eeghen took a handoff and ran off his left side, rumbling down the field into the Colts red zone. As Blackwood squared up to tackle van Eeghen, Laird came from the side and brought the former Colgate Red Raider to the turf. But Laird’s momentum caused him to collide with Blackwood’s leg, rolling up Blackwood’s ankle and leaving the Texan in serious pain on the turf.
“He was the glue,” Laird said. “He was my bro and you know what, when you play together with somebody so many games and you have that mental connection. We didn’t speak. We had hand signals for stuff. We had to come in with a young guy that hadn’t had much experience and really wasn’t a free safety, he was more of a strong safety. Big kid, good kid, tries hard but yeah, we lost our mojo.”
“I played that year hurt,” Blackwood said. “It was a C-4, C-5 stinger and every time I would hit anybody I would have severe pain and my arm would go limp. I can’t remember what game it was, it was against Buffalo, Vern Holland was the receiver and he’s coming across the middle and I hit him and the cornerback and knocked all three of us out and separated my shoulder and got a stinger. It never left me. I couldn’t tackle, so I started arm tackling, just to be in the game. I couldn’t hit with my head because it would pinch that nerve and my arm would go dead and I would be in tremendous pain.”
“Mark van Eeghen broke loose and I was trying to arm tackle him and when I did he rolled up my ankle and just popped it,” Blackwood said.
Blackwood’s injury brought in second-year man Tim Baylor. Known as “Stickman,” for his tall (6-foot-6) and slender build (he was 190 pounds when he joined the team) Baylor was a 10th round draft pick in 1976 from nearby Morgan State. A native of Washington, D.C., Baylor had not intended on becoming an NFL player. He wanted to be a physical therapist after college. He was a key member of the special teams but had played very little on defense. Now he was going to come in cold, in the biggest game of the season.
“’Oh shit,’ was my first response,” Baylor said. “It was really my first time getting some real action so it was baptism by fire if you will. I wanted to get the right assignment and I didn’t want to let my teammates down. It was fear, but once I got in, some of the instincts take over and you start to think about what I am supposed to do. For me at the time, it was a matter of survival.”
After a 2-yard run by van Eeghen, the Raiders had the ball on the Colts 8-yard line. Stabler dropped back to pass and had an eternity to throw. Standing like a statue in the pocket, Stabler looked like he could order a pizza back there. He stepped up and flung a dart to Casper over the middle in the end zone for a touchdown and a 14-10 lead.
Thus kicked off the craziest five minutes of the game.
On the ensuing kickoff, Marshall Johnson, subbing for injured returner Howard Stevens, took Errol Mann’s kickoff at his own 13-yard line and behind a picture perfect wedge and a crushing block by backup tight end Jimmy Kennedy, raced untouched down his left sideline for an 87-yard touchdown.
Johnson was an unlikely hero. A 1975 draft pick from Houston, Johnson had spent the better part of two years nursing knee injuries. Healthy late in the 1977 season, Johnson saw kick return duties and used his great speed to outrun the Oakland coverage team to give the Colts a 17-14 lead.
“Everything broke just right,” said linebacker and special teamer Dan Dickel. “It was a big play and exciting. Marshall was fast and had good hands.”
On Oakland’s next drive, Stabler looked to Casper on the sideline, but Laird jumped the route and snagged his second interception of the game.
With the ball at the Oakland 38-yard line and up by three, the Colts had a chance to seize control of the game. But the Colts offensive series turned into a disaster. First, Mitchell was stuffed for no gain on first down. Then, Jones had his pass batted by Oakland’s Dave Rowe and plucked out of mid-air by Pratt, who prevented an interception but also lost two yards. On third down, Jones was sacked for a 13-yard loss by the Raiders Otis Sistrunk, knocking the Colts out of field goal range.
That sent out veteran David Lee to do the punting. Lee was the longest tenured member of the Colts, having been with the squad since 1966. He was known for taking long strides into the ball, almost looking like he was going to walk halfway to Dundalk before he kicked. The Raiders wont was to line up with 10 men on the line of scrimmage to pressure the punter. They nearly blocked Lee’s first punt in the first quarter.
No one in the league was better at spiking kicks than ex-Colt Ted Hendricks. The man known as “The Mad Stork” or “Kick ‘Em In The Head Ted” was 6-feet-8 and had a knack for making big plays on special teams.
As Lee took his long strides into the ball, Hendricks and Lester Hayes charged towards the punter. Hendricks, taking an outside rush, stuck his long arm out and blocked Lee’s kick.
“He was a very unique athlete, no doubt. It was more individual effort on his behalf than so much a breakdown in what we were doing,” Dickel said.
The ball bounced into the hands of Raider linebacker Jeff Barnes, who returned the ball to the Colts 16-yard line.
It took the Raiders only three plays to cash in on the blocked kick and steal the Colts momentum. On a third-and-4, Stabler dropped back to throw, again had all day to find a receiver, pump faked and found Casper wide open at the one-yard line. The former Golden Domer from Notre Dame walked across the goal line for his second score of the game and a 21-17 Raider lead.
“Where Casper really hurt us was inside the 10-yard line, where he was covered mostly by linebackers,” Laird said. ”We didn’t think Dave – great hands don’t get me wrong – but he couldn’t run out of a shoebox. Our thing was to take away all the big-play guys and then beat up on all the little guys.”
The Colts offense looked to come right back on their next drive. On first down, Jones hit Freddie Scott over the middle for a 20-yard gain. Scott was drilled by Monte Johnson as he bobbled the ball but managed to hold on. The hit left Scott with a concussion and he was woozy going back to the huddle.
“All I can think about it is, ‘I just need a play or two and I’ll be OK.’ I remember Raymond saying ‘Bones, get out of here.’ My rationale was, ‘Ok, it’s a 1st down, we always run the ball on 1st down. I just need a play and I’ll be Ok.’ I get in the huddle and they call another pass. I remember the route, it was an in route, but I never remember seeing the ball and it went right through my arms. I was running knocked out.”
The drive stalled after Jones was sacked for the sixth time, this time by Hendricks. But the Raiders were unable to do anything on offense and as the fourth quarter began, the Colts began to open it up offensively and mounted their most impressive drive of the game.
Jones hit Doughty on a first down for 20 yards along the sideline in front of Hayes. Then on third-and-10, he hit Mitchell over the middle for 21 more. Looking to change things up in the running game, Marchibroda inserted second year man Ron Lee into the game.
At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds with great speed, Lee was the most physically impressive member of the Colts backfield.
“He was fast. He was big. I just thought any time he was going to break out. I was surprised Ron Lee didn’t have a tremendous NFL career because of the talent level. He was a talented guy. He had all the tools,” said Mendenhall.
Lee took his first carry seven yards then gained another five to set the Colts up deep in Oakland territory. After five straight run plays, Jones went for the shot down the field to Doughty. His pass fell incomplete, but Hayes was called for pass interference in the end zone, setting up the Colts with first and goal at the Raiders 1-yard line.
Three straight plunges by Lee and McCauley failed to get in for the touchdown, leaving Marchibroda with a decision whether to go for it on fourth down.
“You don’t get there by kissing your sister,” Jones told NFL Films in 2001.
There was no hesitation, as the Colts decided to go for it on fourth and goal. At the snap, the Raiders crashed the middle of the line, but Lee found a sliver of daylight and barely made it over the goalline for the touchdown.
The Colts latest three-point lead would not last long.
After a great return by Garrett to the Raiders 47-yard line, Stabler threw two incompletions to Biletnikoff, blanketed both times by Thompson.
“The challenge with Freddie is just his moves. He comes out and you wonder where he’s going to go. If you get impatient, then he has you. You just have to go with his moves. He wasn’t the fastest guy but he would try to set you up and he was good at it. He wasn’t a guy you had to worry about running by you,” Thompson said.
On third and 10, Stabler dropped back to pass and had loads of time. Unable to find anyone down field, Stabler checked the ball down to van Eeghen, who evaded MacLeod and picked up a huge 22 yards. It’s a play MacLeod still kicks himself about.
“Worst game of my career. God, that was frustrating,” he said.
Following van Eeghan’s first down, Stabler went for the bomb again to Branch. He underthrew the ball, causing Munsey to run into Branch in the end zone, drawing a pass interference call.
“The worst play that game when Nelson Munsey was called for that pass interference in the end zone on Branch. It was the worst call I’ve ever seen. He played it perfectly,” Laird said.
The very next play, Oakland’s short yardage specialist, veteran Pete Banaszak, plunged in from the one-yard line to give the Raiders the lead again, 28-24.
It was the Colts offense’s turn again, and again they delivered, with Jones hitting Chester for 30 yards down the middle and then Lee on the outside for another 16 yards. Lee took the ball the rest of the way, first with a 14-yard gain and then with a 13-yard run for a touchdown, giving the Colts the lead again, 31-28. The touchdown run was an outstanding bit of patience by Lee, as he started to his left, then cut back against the grain and had a wide open hole to the end zone.
“When he got those legs going it’s like, ‘Wow! What up?’” Laird said.
“He did have a couple of big runs in that game. We knew he had speed. We knew he had skill. At that point in time, it was really the first game he really showed all those things,” Jones said.
“I remember Al Locasale, Al Davis’ assistant, came over to me,” Accorsi said. “They didn’t even know who he was. We hardly played him. He said, ‘Who the hell is that?’”
There were less than seven minutes to go in the game, and on Oakland’s next drive, the defense began to take command of the game. The Sack Pack, to that point held sackless, got their first takedown of Stabler to snuff out Oakland’s possession.
At this point in the game, the Colts offense had got untracked by passing to set up the run. Now, they were in a position of where they could either stick with that strategy or try to work the clock. After opening things up to jump start their flailing attack, the Colts would now go Ted Cruz-level conservative.
“We were scoring points, play-action and all that stuff is working pretty well,” Mitchell recalled. “I remember Ted Marchibroda calling Bert and myself over and saying, ‘We just want to run the ball. Just run the ball.’ We disagreed with him, but how are you going to argue with the coach? We just run it, run it, as opposed to keep doing what we’re doing. We got off our game. We got too conservative at the end there. The reason we got conservative is because Ted told us to take our foot off the gas.”
When asked if he thought the Colts got too conservative, Jones, the offensive playcaller, said, “In hindsight, the answer is yes. But at the time, it was our thought process of what we needed to do. Unfortunately it didn’t work.”
“It was just a matter of if we could keep them within range and we could get a few breaks, and we did, we got all kinds of breaks,” Laird said. “I don’t know what happened to BJ. He didn’t play a bad game but he didn’t play one of his good games. We needed to throw the football against these guys. They were kind of a man-based team but again, we didn’t have Rog. But we had to throw the football. We kept trying to run the football against that front and they were pretty good themselves.”
Still, the Colt defense would hold and force the Raiders to punt. Oakland’s Ray Guy, who had been one of Oakland’s unsung heroes that game with his booming punts, lined up to kick again. As Guy took the snap, Dickel broke through the line and nearly blocked Guy’s punt. In a day full of missed opportunities for the Colts, this is one Dickel still thinks about 40 years later.
“My fingertips touched the ball off his foot but not enough to make any difference. I was that close though. I still recall that it would have been in our territory, we would have been in great field position and thinking how close that was, that’s how close games are sometimes. To think if had 2 more inches that could have determined a different outcome for that game versus it scraping the end of my fingers and no one even knowing I touched it.”
The Colts had the ball with five minutes to go and a chance to run out the clock.
But the Colts running game would be snuffed out by John Matuszak, aka The Tooz, a 6’8″ monster known for his hard partying ways. Matuszak had been the man picked ahead of Bert Jones in the 1973 draft and he’d flamed out at stops in Houston and Kansas City before joining the NFL’s Island of Misfit Toys in Oakland. Matuszak, who’d later gain a new level of fame portraying Sloth in the 1985 cult classic “The Goonies,” impressed even the Colts with his sheer size.
“I remember him laying on top of me once and he’s the biggest man I’ve ever seen. In his stance he was as big as I was,” McCauley said.
“I’d known John a long time,” said Kunz. “John was a nice guy. I don’t think John was ever happy with the idea he was drafted as high as he was and didn’t perform at the level that he thought he should. He was a good solid player. He was huge. I was running a race with him one time and he was out there in front of everybody. He was a super athlete.”
“I remember coming to the line of scrimmage and they had John Matuszak on the left side. He was over George and the first time we broke the huddle I started laughing because the guy was huge. I had never seen someone that big. I look at George and I’m laughing like, ‘What are we going to do?’” said guard Ken Huff.
Kunz was one of the few Colts today who does not think the team got too conservative at the end of the game.
“Ted was trying to keep control of the ball and keep the clock running. That’s what I thought was going on. I understand what he was trying to do. We just didn’t get it done.”
“That’s a coach’s decision. Ted was a conservative guy. He got us there with what he did. He’s the boss and Bert’s the boss. They knew we were going to run, which makes it a lot harder to get first downs. We just needed to get two or three first downs and we would have been going to Denver,” said Pratt.
The Colts were forced to punt again, giving Stabler the ball with less than three minutes on the clock. Needless to say, the defense was not pleased by the offense’s failure to put the game away.
“We gave the ball back to the offense with a three point lead three times and they couldn’t make a first down. By then, I was [cursing] them so bad. You have no idea. It was nasty. It was bad. I’m talking to guys I love and they’re coming off the field and I was just irate. ‘One [expletive] first down! Not one! You can’t get me one! [expletives]! Throw the football!’” Laird said.
“Once again, Ted had the last say in that,” Mitchell said. “I think if he had to do it all over again, that’s one thing he probably would have changed. If it’s working, don’t change it. Make them make you change it. They didn’t make us change it. We changed it on our own.”
Even the Raiders noticed the Colts vanilla offensive approach.
“They went away from the stuff that they were doing and doing well to trying to play a run the clock out game. Trying to keep the ball from us instead of trying to score again. I think the play calling and approach to the game as it was going forward when they had the lead did change,” van Eeghen said.
Handing the ball to Stabler with the game on the line was a prospect that made a lot of the Colts very, very nervous.
“The idea of Snake with the ball in the last two minutes of a game, I was devastated because I knew we were going to go to the prevent and I knew what Kenny Stabler could do against prevent. You got Freddie Biletnikoff, Clarence Davis, Cliff Branch, I knew we were in big trouble,” said Chester.
“I don’t think I ever saw him hyped or nervous,” van Eeghen said. “He always had this deadly look in his eye when its 3rd-and-9 and we had to go for it. He was intense, intense but not loud. Not loud and not verbal. He led by his actions. Kenny was more than just a teammate. He was the head coach. We knew he was giving everything he could. If we could help him, we would win the game because he wanted to win.”
The Ghost to the Post/Overtime
With 2:55 to go, Stabler started the Raiders drive at their 30-yard line with a pitch and catch to Davis for 14 yards. On first down again, Stabler looked for Davis, this time in the left flat and underthrew him, leading to second-and-10 from the Oakland 44 yard line. This set the stage for play that gave this game its name.
The Raiders called 91 In, a play that called for Branch and Biletnikoff to both run square-in patterns into the middle of the field. On the play, Casper, the tight end, was to run a post in order to clear out the safeties and open up the middle. The Raiders had called the play multiple times in the game up to that point, but according to Madden, Tom Flores, the Raiders offensive coordinator, noticed Baylor cheating up to take away the in pattern. Coming out of the timeout, Flores instructed Stabler to take a peek at Ghost to the Post, referring to the post pattern run by Casper, whose nickname was Ghost.
With 2:17 left in the game, Stabler lined up under center. The Colts defense had five along the line, with MacLeod head up on Casper. At the snap, Stabler took a five-step drop and pump faked to his left.
Looking downfield, Stabler unleashed a bomb deep into the Colts secondary just before Dutton could get to him.
As the ball fluttered downfield, Casper was running towards the post, but as he looked up to track the flight of the ball, he saw the pass going towards the sideline. Casper put his head down and chased down the ball, catching it over his shoulder, Willie Mays-style, at the Colts 25-yard line and ran another 10 yards before Munsey and Baylor tracked him down.
Forty years later, the Ghost to the Post play still rankles the Colts.
“I couldn’t believe our safety was going to let him catch that pass. No question, it shouldn’t have happened. But it did. It was a backbreaker for sure,” said Jones.
“If I was a coach I’d kill somebody and then I’d kill myself,” said linebacker Ed Simonini.
“One [expletive] play,” Nettles said.
“I was pissed. First and foremost, he had way too much time to throw. It’s called cover-2, corner jams Blietnikoff, I have Biletnikoff man-to-man, free safety comes over – which would have been Lyle – comes over and takes Casper man-to-man. The weak side corner is alone on Branch, which we did to Nelson quite a bit that game. I said to Tim, I said ‘Timmy, just relax, get over there.’ But Ken had so much time. I don’t know what Dave was running but then he just broke off his route and Ken threw up a lollipop. I don’t know what the hell he was doing throwing it. I looked at that and said, ‘We’re [screwed].’” Laird said.
Watching from the stands, the injured Stevens said, “It was a duck. It was a high ball that Casper ran under. It was not one of those crisp little darts Stabler was capable of throwing.”
Watching the play in the locker room, the injured Blackwood cursed himself for not being able to be on the field.
“Because I wasn’t in the game it hurt. Because I wasn’t going to play the next week, it hurt. For me, I played hurt all year long but I couldn’t play hurt with this. If I could have played I would have. For me, I kind of felt like I let the team down. Physically I knew I was done at that point,” he said.
So how did one of the most famous and oft-replayed moments in NFL history unfold for the Colts? White said at the snap, MacLeod jammed Casper hard, knocking the tight end off his route so much that Baylor did not think Casper was going out into the pattern.
MacLeod doesn’t recall jamming Casper at the line and that the play was more a function of Baylor’s inexperience.
“No offense to Tim Baylor, but he didn’t know what he was doing. Young guy who hadn’t played much. It was a situation where it was just a bad break. But that’s the way it goes.”
Baylor recalled, “It was man coverage. I was playing free safety and if I recognized it was going to be a pass and if he released, he released to the outside, I had to exaggerate getting over to him to cover him. I was at somewhat of a disadvantage because I was out of position from the start. So when he came down the field I was already to his inside and it was actually a corner pattern, it wasn’t a post, when he broke to the corner. He had a couple of steps on me and he was able to catch the ball over his shoulder.”
“My perspective was 30 to 35 yards behind it,” van Eeghen said. “I had no blitz pickup so I was just helping our offensive linemen out if they needed it and they didn’t need it that play. I turned back and I saw Kenny throw the ball and I think I was directly in line with Snake’s toss to Ghost and I had a perfect view of Ghost catching that. His head went back, it tilted to the right a little bit and directly back and the ball came directly over his head. I had the best view in the house, although I was ground level. I just watched the ball and when he caught it I raised my arms in the air and just started running.”
The catch left the ball at the Colts 14-yard line. Three runs by Banaszak gained eight yards, setting the Raiders up at the Colts 6-yard line, leaving decision time for Madden.
On fourth down and short, Madden decided against going for it, reasoning that with a 22-yard field goal, he could buy his team more playing time. Errol Mann’s kick was good and the game went into overtime.
In a game in which they had gotten their fair share of breaks, the Colts got two more to start overtime. They won the toss and elected to receive. Guy’s kick was short and McCauley returned the ball to the Colts 38-yard line, good starting field position.
On first down, the Colts started with a Mitchell running play in which Mitchell had a crease, but Oakland’s Lester Hayes charged up from his cornerback position to upend Mitchell for only a two yard gain.
The next play, Jones dropped back to throw an out route to Doughty beyond the first down marker. Doughty caught the ball but Jones led him just a little long and Doughty couldn’t get his feet down in bounds.
Third-and-8 and this would be the play the Colts would kick themselves over for the next 40 years.
Jones dropped back and had time. He lofted a pass down the left sideline towards Chester. The Colts tight end had cleared the Oakland defenders by 10 yards and had nothing but painted dirt between himself and a game-winning touchdown.
But Jones’ pass sailed over Chester’s head.
Jones knew he missed him right then and there as he kicked at the dirt and grabbed his helmet, furious with himself.
He says today, “I was anticipating his break one step before he made it. He made one more jag than what he did. My pass was perfectly thrown to where I thought he was going to be. That one extra jag up the field made it so it was half an arms-length in front of him.”
Chester said he noticed the Oakland defensive backs, specifically Thomas, liked to jump inside routes.
“We ran a play action and I ran an inside move and Skip jumped it and then when I broke out he fell down. I was just out there. If a guy is covering you, trailing you, you run away from him. If nobody’s there, you just kind of settle a little bit. I tried to give the quarterback a lane to throw it in. I don’t know what was happening with Bert back there, I don’t know if he got pressured or got a hand in his face but the ball kind of sailed on him. There just wasn’t any hope of trying to catch it. It just sailed over my head.”
“Our feeling was, glad it missed,” van Eeghen said. “Bert didn’t miss too many like that. I felt very lucky at the time that wasn’t completed. I don’t think he was rushed that hard. He just didn’t complete it and we got away with it, thankfully.”
When the Raiders got the ball back in overtime, the Colts defense stuffed them on two straight running plays to Davis. But on third-and-12, Stabler threaded a dart to Branch between Laird and Thompson for 14 yards and a first down.
After again stopping two Oakland running plays, Stabler went for the bomb, this time to third wideout Mike Siani. Laird had Siani blanketed and Stabler’s pass fell incomplete, but not before the officials threw a pass interference call on Laird. It was questionable call, as Laird had tight coverage, but it moved the Raiders within Mann’s field goal range.
The Oakland kicker came on the field on fourth-and-8 to kick a 48-yard field goal. But the kick was low and Mike Barnes was able to swat Mann’s kick down and preserve the game for the Colts. Barnes had a reputation for being good at blocking field goals, and he came up big at the right time.
“It was just a technique thing. It is just a matter of getting off the ball quickly. Dance steps. You skip through the line a little bit. There’s a certain skip to it, a certain leverage that you play out. You try to save it for when it’s real important,” he said.
The Colts offense however remained stuck in rut. Two quick three-and-outs put the Colts exhausted defense back on the field. Since taking the lead halfway through the fourth quarter, the Colts offense ran 17 plays for only 22 yards with one completion and one first down. The defense was holding on by a thread.
On the Raiders third drive of overtime, Stabler again started leading his team down the field, with two completions to Biletnikoff, one for nine yards and another for 14. It looked like the Colts defense was going to again hold the fort when the Raiders inched closer to field goal range.
In many famous games, there are plays that are key to the outcome that rarely get noticed.
For example, in the Baltimore Ravens’ “Mile High Miracle” win against the Denver Broncos in 2012 is primarily known for the 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones that tied the game. But perhaps the biggest play of the game was in the first overtime, when the Ravens were backed up on their own three yard line facing a third-and-13. Flacco hit a seam pass to Dennis Pitta for a first down that helped flip the field and enabled the Ravens to avoid punting from their own end zone and giving the Broncos a short field.
While this game is known for the Ghost to the Post, perhaps the game’s most important play was here. Stabler dropped back and had plenty of time. Looking over the middle, he found Branch on a slant in the middle of the zone. Branch made a diving catch in front of the Colts Ray Oldham right at the first down marker for a 19-yard gain.
The play put the Raiders back into field goal range and they continued to move the ball closer to the Colts goal line. Stabler hit Biletnikoff for nine yards and then Banaszak plowed off the left side for four yards as the first overtime ended.
The game now took on an eerie sense of inevitability. The nervousness of the crowd was apparent. The Raiders were at the Colts 13-yard line, making for an easily makeable field goal. The question became how Madden would decide to finish the Colts off.
He had options. On first down, Banaszak ran off the right side for three yards, setting the Raiders up on the Colts 10-yard line. Madden pondered how he wanted to end this game. He could keep running Banaszak into the line two more times and kick the field goal, yes. But that would give him only one chance to win the game. Plus, the Colts were bound to be in a goalline defense designed to stop the run.
With second down, Madden had the option to try a play-action pass that would freeze the Colts rushers and give him a shot at a touchdown. If the pass didn’t work, Madden reasoned, he could just run it into the line again to set up the field goal.
The play call was perfect. The Colts lined up in a goalline defense, which would commit everyone to the run and leave Munsey one-on-one with Casper.
On the snap, White barreled towards Stabler but Davis made a smart pickup to hold him off and give Stabler time. A quick move off the line, and Casper was behind Munsey. All Stabler had to do was loft it over Munsey’s head, and the Raider tight end caught the ball in the back of the end zone.
Casper didn’t spike the ball, jump up and down or celebrate. He tucked the ball under his arm and headed down the sideline, where the only ones to greet him were Madden and van Eeghen.
“I ran down there and jumped on Ghost,” van Eeghen said.” He looked at me like, ‘What the [heck] are you doing?’
The exhausted Raiders headed back to their locker room, where they licked their wounds and started mentally preparing for the AFC Championship Game against their arch rivals, the Denver Broncos.
Van Eeghan described the scene of a mostly veteran team that was used to winning games like this.
“How do you describe euphoria? I was a young guy on a veteran team. As much as I was going into the locker room, ‘Holy shit, what did we just do?’ I’m not saying the other guys weren’t feeling that way, but they probably handled themselves a little different than I did. I was just in amazement. I really hadn’t been in the league that long. I’m from Colgate, we’re in a double overtime game at Memorial Stadium and I get to be a part of it,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Colts headed off the field in a daze. It was a team that knew it had its shot and blew it.
“It wasn’t a whole lot of happy feeling, that’s for sure,” Jones said. “It got away. How did we let it get away? What did I do wrong? What should I have done different? How could we have let this happen? But once again it did.”
“I just remember Mike Barnes throwing his helmet up in the air, like 30 yards,” White recalled. “It was like, ‘I can’t believe this happened again.’ Third year in a row, one and done and we were out of it. I think defensively we were really frustrated. We weren’t mad at the offense, just frustrated. We had played and made so many big plays and did so many things and still lost. What do we have to do to win? Why can’t we put it all together for one game?”
MacLeod said, “That was really a low point of my career. You don’t want to let your guys down. You work so damn hard and everybody is giving it their best. That’s hard to accept.”
“I was kind of in shock and I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” Laird said. “The next day you go and clean your locker out again. That was like, the third time.”
“It’s almost like a death at that point. It’s a battle and you’ve lost. Everything you’ve done the whole season, that’s it right there,” Blackwood said.
“That one was hard to swallow,” Pratt said. “We were there and we had a chance. We let the defense down that day. We needed to make some first downs and keep the ball. We might have got a little conservative but it’s the way it was. You can’t take it all away from Oakland. Oakland made a whale of a drive there to tie the game up. It was our game to win and we didn’t make the first downs we needed to put it away.”
The banged up Raiders would lose the AFC title game to Denver. The Broncos would go on to lose Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys. The Colt players to this day still believe that if they had made it past Oakland, they would have beaten Denver and reached the Super Bowl.
“Oh yeah,” Thompson said. “We were riding so high.”
“Yeah, I think so,” Huff said. “Without a doubt I thought we were one of the two or three best teams in the NFL given our talent level. I think we had extreme confidence.”
Post-Ghost to the Post
Following the loss to the Raiders, the Colts underwent a long and hard fall.
In 1978, the team endured the season from hell. Popular trainer Ed Block had a heart attack in minicamp and was forced to retire. Ehrmann’s brother, Billy, contracted cancer and battled the disease all season before succumbing to it in December. Lydell Mitchell was traded to San Diego after an ugly contract dispute that saw allegations of racism against Thomas’s replacement as general manager, Dick Syzmanski. Raymond Chester was dealt back to Oakland for Mike Siani, in a move that took away the man widely regarded as the attitude of the offense.
But the most damaging loss came in the last week of the preseason, when Jones injured his shoulder. The injury would mark the beginning of the end of the Ruston Rifle’s promising career. He’d play only seven games over the next two seasons, both of which saw the Colts finish 5-11. Although Jones would come back to post back-to-back 3,000-yard seasons in 1980 and 1981, by that point, the talent surrounding him had been jettisoned. Jones would force a trade to the Rams prior to the 1982 season. Just four games into his tenure in Los Angeles, Jones would suffer a neck injury that forced his retirement.
To this day, even though he’s won five Super Bowls with arguably the greatest quarterback of all time in Tom Brady, Belichick still marvels at what might have been with Jones, who he’s called the best pure passer he ever saw.
“He was as good as anyone to play the position,” Belichick said. “Bert could throw the ball like no one I have ever seen since then.”
White maintains that of all the great quarterbacks in the 1970s, Jones was the best.
“He was better than Stabler. He was better than Bradshaw. He got hurt and his career ended prematurely. But with Bert Jones and the defense that we had, with Roger Carr, we should have somehow won a Super Bowl,” he said.
Following the 1979 season, Marchibroda was fired and Irsay began shopping the franchise all over the country. He did a pep rally in Jacksonville. He negotiated with Phoenix, Indianapolis and Los Angeles. Irsay’s behavior also started venturing into the bizarre, like the time he invaded the press box in Philadelphia during the 1981 season and started calling plays and alternating quarterbacks.
Fan support began to wane as Irsay’s constant threats of relocation were alienating.
Colts band director and Baltimore football historian John Ziemann said, “How can you root for a team when all of the sudden your owner is in Tampa saying, ‘You want my team, make me a deal.’ He’s in Indianapolis, ‘You want my team, make me a deal.’ Portland, Oregon, ‘You want my team, make me a deal.’ Doing all this, how can you be a fan when you might not have a team tomorrow?”
The situation came to a head in the winter and spring of 1984, as the state legislature moved to condemn the team and Irsay reacted by hastily packing the Colts in Mayflower moving vans and making a bead for Indianapolis.
The Ghost to the Post remains a landmark game in NFL history, but for the Colt players, the game remains a source of bitter disappointment.
Jones for one, despite participating in NFL Films’ “NFL’s Greatest Games” television special about the game, admits he’s still never seen the game film.
“We lose every time. There are things that are imprinted in my brain that I don’t have to watch them to remember.”