As the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies near, like clockwork, so do the heated debates about which players of yesteryear are most worthy of joining the ranks of the football immortals.
With a veritable backlog of deserving players, compelling cases can be made, both for or against, a given player’s induction.
So armchair pundits and seasoned sportswriters alike should be wary of employing the “snub” label too liberally when discussing individuals who, at first glance, seem to possess Hall of Fame-worthy credentials but have yet to be inducted.
That being said, the “snub” label is absolutely apt when discussing the curious omission of Ken “The Snake” Stabler from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
During his playing days, Ken Stabler, undoubtedly the most storied pivot of one of pro football’s most storied franchises, the Oakland Raiders, amassed every single accolade imaginable at the position of quarterback:
- He was selected to the Pro Bowl on multiple occasions (1973, 1974, 1976, 1977);
-He was twice selected as an All-Pro quarterback (1974, 1976);
-He’s been a league MVP (1974);
-He guided his team to a Super Bowl victory during the 1976 season (Super Bowl XI);
-And, last but not least, he was selected to the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, which honors the cream of the crop, the best of the best, from each decade.
Simply put, he accomplished everything imaginable for a professional quarterback. His credentials stack up more than favorably when compared to those of his fellow quarterbacks from the 70s who have been enshrined.
Of an impressive group that includes such luminaries as Bob Griese, Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts, Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler was arguably the second most accomplished quarterback of that era, trailing perhaps only Terry Bradshaw. To wit:
-Bob Griese quarterbacked the Miami Dolphins of the early 70s to consecutive Super Bowl victories in 1972 and 1973. This of course included the perfect season of 1972. He was selected to six Pro Bowls (1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1977, 1978) and two AFL All-Star games (1967, 1968). He was an All-Pro quarterback on two occasions. Contrary to the Snake however, Griese never won an NFL MVP award. Nor was he selected to the 1970s All-Decade Team.
-Fran Tarkenton was a nine-time Pro Bowler (1964, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1974, 1975, 1976), a three-time All-Pro (1970, 1973, 1975) and an NFL MVP in 1975. Tarkenton helmed a Minnesota Vikings team that went to four Super Bowls during the 1970s (Super Bowls IV, VIII, IX and XI), yet failed to win a single one. And, in spite of his accolades, he wasn’t selected to either the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1970s nor of the 1960s.
-Dan Fouts, who quarterbacked the San Diego Chargers during the 1970s and 1980s, was selected to six Pro Bowls (1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985). He was an All-Pro on four different occasions (1979,1980, 1982, 1985). He was selected to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1980s. However, Fouts never won an NFL MVP award. Nor did he lead his team to a Super Bowl berth, much less win one.
-Roger Staubach led his Dallas Cowboys to five Super Bowl berths in the 1970s, including two victories (Super Bowls VI and XII). He was the MVP of Super Bowl VI. He was a six-time Pro Bowl selection (1971, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979). He too was selected to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 70s. Unlike Ken Stabler, however, Staubach never garnered an NFL MVP award. Nor was he ever voted to an All-Pro team.
-Terry Bradshaw was the gold standard at the quarterback position during the 1970s, leading his Pittsburgh Steelers to four world championships during that decade (Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV). He was the MVP of Super Bowls XIII and XIV. He was selected to three Pro Bowls (1975, 1978, 1979). He was selected to the All-Pro Team in 1978 and 1979. He was named NFL MVP in 1978. Terry Bradshaw was also a member of the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1970s.
Of all of the aforementioned quarterbacks, Terry Bradshaw is the only one whose Hall of Fame-worthy accomplishments matched, or surpassed, the Snake’s across the board. Of all of the great quarterbacks of that era, only Ken Stabler and Terry Bradshaw were selected to multiple Pro Bowls, multiple All-Pro Teams, were NFL MVPs, led their teams to world championships and were elected to an NFL All-Decade Team.
This isn’t to say that the others were undeserving of enshrinement. On the contrary, every single one of their enshrinements was well warranted. But more warranted than that of Ken Stabler? Highly doubtful.
And yet, in spite of his impressive career achievements, it is Stabler’s intangible contributions, which cannot be quantified with mere stats, that have proven to be a far greater contribution to the game. Indeed, it can be argued that no other player in history was implicated in as many of the NFL’s timeless moments: “The Immaculate Reception”; “The Sea of Hands”; “The Ghost to the Post”; “The Holy Roller.”
Ken Stabler had a starring role in every single one of those classics. Stabler and the history of the 1970s NFL are inextricably linked. One simply cannot give an honest account of the NFL during that span without the Snake being featured prominently.
Another measure of Ken Stabler’s greatness is the amount of '70s era Raiders who have been enshrined. Some pundits view this as yet another reason to justify his omission from the Hall of Fame. In their eyes, Stabler’s success was merely a by-product of his talented cast.
Yes, a fair amount of the 70s era Raiders are in fact in the Hall of Fame. On the offensive side of the ball alone, Fred Biletnikoff, Dave Casper, Gene Upshaw and Art Shell have all been enshrined. Not to mention head coach John Madden.
But if John Madden’s Raiders were a well-oiled machine, Ken Stabler was indubitably that machine’s engine. As he went, so did the Raiders. So perhaps it is the other way around? Perhaps these players’ success was a by-product of their gifted quarterback.
In any event, the very notion that Stabler’s individual accomplishments are less remarkable because he had a stellar supporting cast is a preposterous premise to begin with. Hall of Fame quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Dan Fouts and Joe Montana, to name a few, all had similarly fantastic supporting casts.
The fact of the matter is Hall of Fame-worthy pivots generally do have outstanding casts. Because that’s what great quarterbacks do: they elevate the players around them to greatness. Which is precisely what the Snake did with his Raiders.
Ken Stabler left the game in 1984, after five subpar seasons spent with the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints following his legendary tenure in Oakland. So he was eligible for induction as of 1989.
Now, I don’t know that Snake Stabler was necessarily a ‘first ballot’ Hall of Famer. So, that he’d have to wait a couple of years before getting his due props doesn’t strike me as a great injustice.
But here we are, over two full decades after he first became eligible, and yet still no induction. During that span, we’ve witnessed countless accomplished, albeit far less deserving, players get inducted. This is as maddening as it is mind-boggling.
By steadfastly denying Ken Stabler’s inclusion into the hallowed Hall, those who are entrusted with preserving the history of the great game that is football, are instead withholding a significant part of its lore from future generations of fans.
Granted, he may have rubbed some people the wrong way during his playing days, what with his rebellious streak and all. And he may not have had the most impressive individual statistics.
But players play the game for the “Ws”, first and foremost, and Ken Stabler was a winner, as evidenced by his remarkable winning percentage during his Oakland Raiders heyday.
Was he the greatest quarterback ever? No. But was he great? Without a shadow of a doubt. And great players belong in Canton.
 Franco Harris’ miraculous catch on the last play of the 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Steelers and Raiders came about after a clutch 30-yard touchdown scamper by Ken Stabler that put Oakland ahead 7-6 with 1:17 left to play in the fourth quarter.