1 of 2 | Former Oakland Raiders QB Ken Stabler watches the Raiders take the field against the New York Jets in Oakland on Oct. 19, 2008. File photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo
CANTON, Ohio -- Something was missing when the name Ken Stabler was called out at Thursday's Pro Football Hall of Fame Gold Jacket ceremony for the Class of 2016.
Not counting the jacket itself -- we'll get back to that -- the proceedings did not include Stabler, who died from colon cancer July 8, 2015. He was passed over as a Hall of Fame Candidate since first eligible in 1990, including three times as a finalist (1991, 1992, 2003).
Since he was selected last February as a seniors candidate, there has been a flood of commentary saying how it was long overdue. ... and often adding that at least he is indeed finally in the Hall of Fame. Sadly this misses the point as much as the HOF will miss the singular touch Stabler brought the game he loved. The well-worn yarns about his swashbuckling style on and off the field manage to be accurate without hitting the bull's-eye.
Stabler was passionate about football and willing to talk about it with anybody from eight to 88, and beyond, much to the surprise of many who were total strangers. Stabler was a natural-born ambassador for the game and that is what the Hall of Fame will never experience because it failed to enshrine him more than two decades ago, when he deserved the honor.
During a time known as the Golden Era of Pro Football in the 1970s, Stabler led the Oakland Raiders to five consecutive Conference Championship games and a Super Bowl XI title. He was admired by his peers, including the teammates he led and the opponents he shred.
Former Denver Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson, who is retiring this year after 29 years as an NFL analyst for ESPN, has long said it was "outrageous" that Stabler was not in the Hall of fame when he first became eligible.
"I can't think of a guy who is more deserving to be in the Hall of Fame who is not already in the Hall of Fame," Jackson said last year, and several years before that. "We as former players sit out here and say, 'a guy like that who helped define probably the most competitive era in football history and he's not in the Hall of Fame we just can't understand it.'
"Some of us think that if he did what he did for the New York Jets or New England Patriots or maybe any other team, he would have been in the Hall the first day he was eligible. He's a legend among players. His legendary status begs to be immortalized in the Hall of Fame. I don't even know his stats, but I know what I saw."
What Jackson saw Stabler guide three franchises to their best record in history (Raiders 13-1, 1976; Oilers 11-5, 1980; Saints 8-8 in 1983). When he retired in 1984 after four knee surgeries, Stabler's .661 career winning percentage was behind only that of Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw. His mark now trails only three Hall of Famers and four future Hall of Famers, including just-retired Peyton Manning.
Stabler was at his best against the best. His record against seven Hall of Fame quarterbacks was 20-10 and no HOF quarterback had a winning record against him. Joe Montana was closest at 1-1.
His name and image are seared into the memories of football fans from more titled plays than any other player in history -- The Holy Roller, Sea of Hands Catch, Ghost to the Post with the Raiders and his Run in the Mud against Auburn as he drove Alabama to an undefeated, national championship in 1966.
"It is ridiculous Snake wasn't in the Hall of Fame before this," said former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. "Heck, he was a better quarterback than me. Things they do know with systems, he did with instinct."
Tight end Dave Casper, a former teammate of Stabler in Oakland and Houston and now with the Hall of Fame, got right to the point.
"It's great that he is in and all that, but I am irritated that they wait until he dies and then put him in," Casper said. "I wish they would have put him in before he died."
And, along with other players and fans, that is the definite opinion of his family -- daughters Kendra Stabler Moyes, Alexa Rose Stabler, Marissa Leigh Stabler and life partner Kim Bush, as well as twin grandsons Justin and Jack Moyes. The twins are high school senior football players in Arizona, known as the "Grand Snakes."
Thursday night Justin accepted a nicely framed Hall of Fame shield in lieu of a jacket. Current rules state that no gold jacket or Hall of Fame ring is awarded to the team or family of a deceased enshrinee. Raiders owner Mark Davis reportedly protested this rule to executives at the Hall of Fame and even commissioner Roger Goodell was brought into the loop.
The family has been upbeat and positive during this week's ceremonies to honor the legacy of Stabler. But Davis, like Stabler himself, seems unwilling to accept defeat, regardless the odds. If a change is made regarding jackets and rings for deceased enshrinees, then all of them through history would need to be re-considered.
This year that would also include former Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins offensive lineman Dick Stanfel. Others receiving coats Thursday as members of the Class of 2016 were Eddie DeBartolo Jr., Tony Dungy, Brett Favre, Kevin Greene, Marvin Harrison Orlando Pace.
On Saturday when the bronze busts are revealed, Stabler will be presented in a video by his former Raiders had coach, John Madden. Stabler will be represented by his grandsons and the bust will be unveiled by Raiders Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff.
In lieu of a ring ceremony, the plan is to display the bust at the Raiders' home opener. At least that is the plan for now.
-- Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. Cooney covered the Raiders and is co-authoring a book on Stabler due out during the upcoming season.