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For a couple of plays last Sunday, it looked like the old sorcerer had lost his touch. He had been called upon to perform what in recent weeks had become a familiar miracle: saving the Oakland Raiders from certain defeat in the final seconds. The Raiders had just fallen behind the Broncos 19-17 with four minutes and a second to play and after the Denver kickoff they had the ball on their 20-yard line. Daryle Lamonica had been the quarterback for Oakland all afternoon, but in circumstances so dire, and with Lamonica having apparently reinjured his shoulder, Raider Coach John Madden knew what he had to do. He sent in George Blanda, 43 years old, 21 years in pro football and imperturbable.
Blanda nearly threw an interception on his first pass, a screen to Hewritt Dixon for a two-yard loss, but it didn't faze him. He knelt on his left knee, spit in the palm of his right hand, rubbed his hands together and called a long pass, which he missed grievously. It was now third and 12, and the Broncos were looking for a medium-range pass that would get the first down. In the huddle Blanda called the signal, demonstrating patterns with his hands, and spit on his palm again. He was under strong pressure when he dropped back, but he ignored the rush and threw a hard, flat pass down the middle to Rod Sherman, a wide receiver who had sifted just behind the medium coverage. The pass found a crack between three defenders for a 27-yard gain and the first down. The Broncos tried to pressure Blanda again on the next play and Dixon, who was blocking, was knocked into Blanda, making him lose his balance. As Blanda was falling he snapped a pass downfield to Warren Wells. (After the game Blanda was asked why he didn't drop back a few extra yards to avoid the rush. "I'm too old to go back that far," he said.) The play was good for 35 yards to the Denver 20 and virtually insured a Raider victory. Blanda kicks field goals, too, and he seldom misses inside the 30.
A conservative man might have called three running plays and then taken the field goal, but Blanda is not a conservative man. He called another long pass and threw the ball out of bounds when his receiver was covered. Oakland was offside, Denver declined and it was second and 10 from the Denver 20. Blanda called almost the same long pass to Fred Biletnikoff, this time lifting the ball in a high, lazy arc, and it dropped into Biletnikoff's hands on the goal line for the touchdown that completed the day's magic. It was a beautifully thrown ball, a smart call and the fourth time in the last four weeks that a Blanda miracle has saved the Raiders.
Dave Grayson, the Raiders' veteran All-Pro safety, spends a lot of time defending against Blanda's throws in practice. Late this summer, when Blanda was put on waivers by the Raiders in a ploy to avoid losing a younger player, some experts speculated that he had lost his arm. "He's throwing better than he has in the last three years," says Grayson. "Some quarterbacks you can anticipate. They throw the ball about the same way every time, and once it's in the air you can make your move. But not George. You can't read him. One time he'll drill it, the next time he'll loft it a little, then he'll float it. He's tough." In the locker room following the game Blanda, naked, puffing on a cigarette, claimed he doesn't even bother to read defenses. "If I watched them," he said, "I couldn't see my receiver."
Blanda threw six passes in this game, completed four for 80 yards and a touchdown, and kicked a 32-yard field goal and three extra points. He shocked a crowd of 50,959, a Denver record, but he has made a habit of shocking Raider adversaries this year.
Certainly the Raiders would not be leading the Western Division of the American Football Conference without the extraordinary heroics of their elderly hero. On Oct. 25, after Lamonica was hurt, Blanda came in against the Pittsburgh Steelers late in the first period with the Raiders leading 7-0. On his first play, from the Steeler 29, he threw a touchdown pass to rookie Ray Chester but the play was nullified on account of holding and the Steelers scored to make it 7-7. Then Blanda went to work in the face of a fierce blitz Pittsburgh mounted in an attempt to cow him. He passed 44 yards to Warren Wells for one touchdown, kicked a 27-yard field goal set up by his passes and passed 19 yards to Chester for another touchdown, giving the Raiders a 24-7 half-time lead. In the second half he added a 40-yard touchdown pass to Chester and Oakland won the game 31-14.
"I guess the Steelers didn't realize we like people to blitz us," Blanda said last week. "When they blitz, they have to use single coverage on our receivers and nobody can do that. I got two touchdowns against the blitz and then they quit it."
Although the blitz opens the receivers, it also means that Blanda usually gets splattered a split second after releasing the ball. Fortunately, he is a very durable man. "I've only been hurt once in 21 seasons," he said. "That was in 1954 when I was trying to run, which no quarterback ought to do except in desperation. It was against Cleveland and Don Colo and Len Ford sandwiched me and I got a complete separation in my right shoulder and missed the last four games of the season."
On Nov. 1, in a game with Kansas City for the division lead, Blanda kicked a 48-yard field goal on the next to the last play of the game to get Oakland a 17-17 tie. Said Blanda, "When I make talks at booster clubs and places, I guess the question most people ask all the time is what do I think about when I line up for a kick like that. They want to know if I feel the pressure, but I never think about that. I concentrate on looking at the spot where the ball will be put and watching the spotter's hands. When he starts to reach out for the ball I take a short step with my right foot, stride with my left and kick. If it's a long kick, like the one against Kansas City, I take a little longer step with my right foot."
On Nov. 8, with the Raiders trailing the Cleveland Browns 17-13 and a little over 11 minutes left in the game, Lamonica was again hurt and Blanda again took over. A Cleveland field goal made it 20-13, but with 1:32 to go Blanda passed to Wells for a 14-yard touchdown. Then, with three seconds remaining, he took a rather longer than usual step with his right foot and kicked a 52-yard field goal to win the game 23-20. That soaring kick made Blanda the first citizen of Oakland, the darling of Jack London Square and the target of innumerable well-wishers and autograph hounds.