Oakland Raiders: Top 10 Unsung Players in Franchise History

Clarence Baldwin Jr@2ndclarenceAnalyst IAugust 2, 2012

Oakland Raiders: Top 10 Unsung Players in Franchise History

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    Die hard and casual fans alike have no problem when it comes to naming the all-time great Raiders.

    Marcus Allen, Fred Biletnikoff, Tim Brown, Ted Hendricks, Howie Long, Art Shell, and Gene Upshaw are Hall of Fame members iconic for their time in silver and black.

    But in many cases, great teams are not made up of many great players.

    When the Raiders have been good, it is because there were more than just elite players. There were always players who did things that may not have always stood out, but almost always positively contributed to success.

    For all of the mystique of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s and the LA Raiders of the early 1980s, one thing is clear: They were always hard working, high quality football players that put the good of the team above their own self-interests to win football games.

    With that said, I wanted to pay homage to some of those players by presenting the 10 most unsung Oakland/LA Raiders in franchise history.

    These are players that you may recognize as Raider or just an NFL fan, but who were not superstars or perennial Pro Bowlers in their time.

    Instead, they were just good football players who helped the Raiders do the one thing late owner Al Davis valued above all else: Just win, baby.

#10: Willie Hall

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    The list starts with a good player from the heyday of the Oakland Raiders, inside linebacker Willie Hall.

    As is common with the franchise, Hall did not begin his career in Oakland, having been drafted in 1972 by the New Orleans Saints. After spending two years with the Saints, Hall was acquired by the Raiders after the 1973 season.

    Starting in 1975, Hall became a mainstay on the Raiders 3-4 defense.

    While he did not receive the notoriety of fellow linebackers Ted Hendricks, Phil Villapiano, and Monte Johnson, Hall proved to be effective enough to wrest a starting job away from Gerald Irons.

    Hall's best year was 1976.

    He intercepted two passes and proved to be even more effective the playoffs. His early interception of Terry Bradshaw set the tone of the Raiders dominant 24-7 victory, ending the Pittsburgh Steelers two-year reign as Super Bowl champions.

    In Super Bowl XI against the Minnesota Vikings, Hall was spectacular.

    He recovered a key fumble on the 1-yard line in the first quarter to stop the Vikings cold. Then, with Minnesota was driving, trying to cut into a Raiders 19-7 lead, Hall cut in front of a pass for Ahmad Rashad to end the last real threat of the game.

    While many remember Jack Tatum's devastating hit on Sammy White and the brilliance of Fred Biletnikoff, Willie Hall played the finest game in his career on the biggest stage of his life.

#9: Jeff Jaeger

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    There are players who you wind up regretting seeing with another team because they come back to beat you on a consistent basis. Marcus Allen with the Chiefs comes to mind.

    In the case of number nine, he only played against the Raiders once after leaving, but his replacements—or lack thereof—definitely made him hard to forget.

    Jeff Jaeger was a good kicker. Not a great one and not a poor one.

    His career field goal percentage with the Raiders in his seven years was 74.5 percent—pedestrian by current NFL standards. However, until Sebastian Janikowski surpassed him, Jaeger was the most accurate kicker in team history.

    And unlike other players on this list, Jaeger did have a year to remember, making first team All-Pro in 1991 by converting 29 of 34 field goals.

    I never saw him miss a crucial kick: a game tying or winning fourth quarter kick.

    I can rattle off some of the memorable ones he made.

    For starters, there was the 53-yard flutter job I called "The Mighty Duck" in 1993 to beat John Elway and the Denver Broncos 23-20 on Monday Night Football. The ball never got more than eight feet off the ground but had enough to get over the crossbar at Mile High.

    Jaeger would also beat Denver a second time on the final week of the season with a 47 yard field goal to put the Raiders in the '93 playoffs.

    But clutch kicks were not the measure of Jaeger's worth. Not by a long shot.

    As a matter of fact, it was his void that ultimately led to Al Davis taking the best kicker in Raider history, Sebastian Janikowski.

    Don't believe me?

    Well look at the kickers the Raiders used in Jaeger's void: Cole Ford, Greg Davis, Michael Husted, and Joe Nedney. Each missed at least one game winning or game tying kick in their tenure. Enough said.

#8: Jeff Gossett

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    At number eight is former Raider punter Jeff Gossett.

    Like Jaeger, Gossett played first in Los Angeles and then in Oakland, spanning nine seasons. Also like Jaeger, Gossett's best year was in 1991 when he was named first team All-Pro for his 44.2 yards per punt average.

    Together the two Jeff's were a steady compliment to a decent special teams unit for close to a decade.

    For many, the biggest knock against Gossett was not that he wasn't a good punter. Quite simply, he was the guy who followed Ray Guy full time.

    And while he was never going to be the best punter ever, Gossett definitely was a solid Raider.

    In his nine seasons, he only had three punts blocked, two in 1990. Gossett's specialty was pinning kicks inside the 10-yard line, something he did with regularity.

    And unlike punters of that era, Gossett could tackle, though not with the same force of the rest of the special teams.

    All in all, he is the number three Raider punter of all time.

    That is not bad when you can argue the other two best may also be the two best in NFL history (Guy and Shane Lechler).

#7: Tony Cline

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    The selection of Tony Cline comes as an homage to my late father, my first Raider historian, who surprisingly held him up as his favorite Oakland Raider ever.

    Living in Oakland as a black man with the Soul Patrol—Cliff Branch, Clarence Davis, etc.—prominently on the team, my dad valued Cline because "he tried to crack offensive linemen's heads open" and "he played hard on every single down". 

    High praise from someone that saw it first hand.

    And being a numbers guy, the stats back it up.

    In the two years Cline started every game for the Raiders—1972 and 1975—the Raiders finished eighth and seventh defensively.

    In the other years—1970, 1971, 1973, and 1974—the Raider defense ranked 19th, 14th, third, and 16th. That averages out to 13th.

    Remember, there were only 26 teams in the league at that time, so his absence took a team from borderline elite—seven-and-a-half out of 26—to average. 

    Ultimately, Cline missed out on an elusive championship as he spent his last two years in the NFL (1976-77) with the San Francisco 49ers

#6: Warren Bankston

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    Coming in at number six on the list of most unsung Raiders is Warren Bankston.

    A special teams ace, Bankston begin his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers before donning the silver and black in 1973.

    In his career, he accumulated 103 yards of running and receiving during the regular season, but that in no way sums up his value to those great Raiders teams.

    Like others on this list, Bankston had the capacity to shine in the biggest games. In his case, that was the 1976 AFC Championship against the Steelers. 

    A game that was stalemated throughout much of the first quarter broke the Raiders way when Bankston partially blocked Steeler punter Bobby Walden's punt to set up a field goal.

    As the first half ended, the Raiders put together their best drive of the game.

    With the ball on the 4-yard line, Ken Stabler's play action pass was caught in the end zone...by Warren Bankston.

    Though he only caught two passes, his touchdown essentially put the game away as the Raiders went on to win 24-7.

    In his six years with the Raiders, the team went to the AFC Championship five times, won Super Bowl XI and never had a losing record.

    The special teams ranked in the top eight of the league in each of those six years, a remarkable achievement of consistency.

#5: Randy Jordan

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    The top half of the list begins with a personal Raider favorite of mine, Randy Jordan.

    Jordan was a combo-back who had two stints with the Raiders.

    He played sparingly in 1993 while in Los Angeles and returned after three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Jordan proved to be a great example of the shift towards heady, versatile football players during the Jon Gruden era.

    Jordan's best year with the Raiders was 2000 as he gained 512 total yards and scored four touchdowns as the Raiders third down back.

    Beyond just his ability to provide Rich Gannon with a smart, sure handed receiver, Jordan also starred on the special teams. He was an excellent gunner and in 1999, even returned 10 kicks for an average of 20.7 yards in spot duty.

    What I liked most about Jordan was that he epitomized what the Gruden era was all about.

    Jordan was a leader by example who maximized effort, even as he was not the biggest, strongest, or fastest player on the field.

    The shift away from players strictly with outstanding size/speed measurables was tangible: In Jordan's five years with the Raiders, they never once had a losing record.

    In four of the six years total Jordan donned the silver and black, the Raiders won a playoff game—a ratio that is not easily duplicated since 1993.

#4: Bob Nelson

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    Inside linebacker Bob Nelson comes in at number four on the list of unsung Raiders.

    Similar to Willie Hall, Nelson was a very solid player often overshadowed by great linebackers.

    In this case, Ted Hendricks, Rod Martin, and Matt Millen received much of the credit as the Oakland and then Los Angeles Raiders won two Super Bowls in the early 1980's. 

    But Nelson was definitely not bringing up the rear in comparison.

    While he did not accumulate the tackles of Millen, the interceptions of Martin, or the accolades of Hendricks, Nelson was one of the clear defensive leaders on a unit that always improved when the regular season ended and the playoffs began.

    Sometimes, the measure of how good you are is how a team performs without you.

    In 1980, Nelson missed seven games due to injury. In those seven games, the Raiders went 3-4. With him, they were 8-1 and then won four more playoff games.

    Injuries forced him to miss all of the 1981 season and the Raiders missed the playoffs at 7-9 for the first time in a decade.

    Upon his return in the 1982 season, the Raider defense improved from last in the league in interceptions to second and finished third in the NFL in yards per rush allowed.

    Nelson's finest hour was typically done without much fanfare as his consistent job of filling the gaps in Super Bowl XVIII helped limit NFL MVP John Riggins to 64 yards on 26 carries. 

#3: George Buehler

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    In the mid 1990s, NFL Films legend Steve Sabol ran a piece about what he considered the greatest offensive line of all time: the 1976 Oakland Raiders.

    Much was made about the left side, with all-time greats Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, and 10-year starting center Dave Dalby.

    There was even mention of the often nasty, though immensely talented John Vella, ironically nicknamed "Happy Fella". 

    The number three player on this list was the fifth member of that line and the most overlooked: right guard George Buehler.

    The second-round pick of the Raiders in 1969, Buehler played with distinction for the better part of nine years before being traded to the Cleveland Browns in 1978.

    Perhaps it was because the Raiders so often ran to the left side, but Buehler was never given the credit he deserved.

    Much of the lore behind the Raiders first Super Bowl win against the Minnesota Vikings was the job that Shell and Upshaw did on Jim Marshall and Hall of Fame Alan Page, respectively.

    The forgotten man in that unit was Buehler.

    Matched up against his equivalent on the Purple People Eaters, Doug Sutherland, Buehler had maybe his finest game.

    As much was made about Marshall not recording a tackle in the game, Buehler's job on Sutherland may have been more impressive.

    With the Raiders running inside a majority of their snaps, Sutherland only recorded one tackle, and even that was assisted. 

    Buehler played the bulk of his career against defensive tackles like Pittsburgh's Joe Greene, Miami's Manny Fernandez, and Kansas City's Buck Buchanan, the dominant tackles in the AFC.

    Before his Raider career ended, Buehler started in 98 straight games, spanning seven seasons. 

#2: Greg Biekert

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    At number two is former Raiders middle linebacker Greg Biekert.

    One of the most consistent players for the Raiders during the 1990s, Biekert never missed a game in his nine-year Raider career.

    Beginning in 1994, he would start 123 out of 128 games until departing after the 2001 season. 

    The reason I liked Biekert so much was because he was the steady anchor during one of the most tumultuous periods of Raider football.

    Despite having talent that was among the NFL's best, the Raiders would not make the playoffs from 1994 to 1999. However, that was in no way shape or form to blame on Biekert.

    His best stretch of football came from 1998 to 2000 when he averaged 106 tackles and 2.3 sacks per season. During that time—under Willie Shaw mostly—the Raiders defense improved from a league worst in 1997 to fifth in 1998, 10th in 1999, and ninth in 2000.

    Biekert's leadership and prime play was a key reason for that. 

    My rationale for placing him this high is simple: Biekert was a Raider warrior.

    Sadly, when a team is not a consistent winner, some of the better players from an era do not get the credit they deserve.

    No matter what the situation, he played; concussions, bad shoulders, a bruised sternum, Biekert never missed a game.

    And whatever his deficiencies, the Raiders always got maximum effort out of their middle linebacker—something that is lacking in the present day.

#1: Derrick Jensen

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    Be honest, how many of you really remember Derrick Jensen?

    The undisputed captain of the Raiders special teams, Jensen was the epitome of what made the franchise so great.

    A true leader, Jensen captained the Raiders special teams from 1980 until 1985.

    A team player in every sense of the word, most of his time on offense came as either a short yardage blocker or occasional pass receiver out of the backfield.

    But that is not why Jensen is number one on this list.

    Much of the Raiders lore lies in some of the great creeds the team stood for: Pride and Poise, Will to Win, and Commitment to Excellence.

    Jensen had all of that in spades.

    I say that not because of any one thing he did particularly, but because he did everything asked of him well.

    Jensen very well could have been the starting fullback in 1980, but instead of causing any kind of turmoil, he instead went out and became an elite special teams player.

    Smart, determined, and without fanfare, his leadership by example helped the Raiders rise from 23rd in special teams rankings to finish fifth.

    One of the key plays of the 1980 title push was his recovery and touchdown of an onside kick against the New York Giants that sealed the game and a playoff berth for the Raiders.

    Even though he did reasonably well in his lone starting season at fullback in 1981, Jensen is best known for his performance in Super Bowl XVIII.

    Midway through the first quarter, Jensen outmaneuvered Washington's Rick Walker, blocking the punt of Jeff Hayes and recovering it for the first of five Raider touchdowns.

    His spark, along with the coverage of the Raiders kick and punt coverage teams, never gave Washington a chance to establish field position or change momentum. 

    By the time Jensen left the team after the 1986 season, he had been a part of two Super Bowl champions and was one of the captains of a perennial title contender.

    For the way he played, the manner in which he did, and his contribution to Raider history, he is my most unsung Raider in franchise history.

Honorable Mention/Conclusion

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    Truthfully, there are so many more players that deserve and could easily have been given distinction on this list.

    Much of what made the Oakland Raiders so great was the fact that for all the perceived dysfunction from the outside, the team was filled with high character men who put winning at the top of their priorities.

    Men like Clarence Davis, arguably the Super Bowl XI MVP with his 135 yards rushing.

    There were men like Kenny King, who two years after making the Pro Bowl at halfback, slid over to an undersized fullback to accommodate Marcus Allen.

    There was the highly capable but largely forgotten Frank Hawkins, the man who replaced King and paved the way for Allen in his 1985 MVP season. 

    Ultimately though, this is less about ranking and more about celebrating great Raiders who may have never gotten their full due.

    Men who were about the team and being the best, which in turn led to success during their tenures with the silver and black.

    Times change, players change, even owners change, but one thing remains as true now as it has ever been.

    Once a Raider, always a Raider.