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Kenny Stabler, scraggly bearded and feisty, finished a rap session with the press one afternoon last week and strode onto the field at the Oakland Raiders' training camp in Santa Rosa, Calif. He took the snap from Center Dave Dalby, dropped back and scanned the coverage. Finding Morris Bradshaw free, he connected with him on a 50-yard scoring pass. The play was vintage Stabler, and the members of the Raiders' offense cheered, happily drinking it in.
For all of the above, it was a whole new ball game. Snake Stabler had refused to talk to the press most of last season, preferring not to discuss the fact that he rarely connected on any pass longer than 30 yards—to someone wearing a Raider jersey, that is. As recently as two weeks ago not many of Stabler's teammates were of a mood to cheer anything he did. Indeed, not only had Stabler failed to report to camp on schedule with the other Raiders, not only had he demanded to be traded, but he also had ripped a number of his teammates in print—Receivers Bradshaw and Cliff Branch because they dropped too many of his passes last season, Offensive Linemen Henry Lawrence and Mickey Marvin because they hadn't blocked well enough for Stabler on pass plays.
But controversy has long been more a Raider tradition than a disruptive force. Oakland has won with mavericks and malcontents, solid citizens and players just a fly pattern short of the slammer. So it is really no surprise that Stabler is working in harmony with his team these days and is likely to continue to do just that unless his bitter feud with Al Davis, the Raiders' managing general partner, reaches the point where Davis decides that Oakland isn't big enough for both of them.
With no trade apparently in the works, Stabler ended his one-week holdout on July 19, at the curfew hour of 11 p.m., when he drove his $33,000 Porsche 928 into the parking lot of the El Rancho Tropicana Motel in Santa Rosa. He had bought the car the night before.
The next morning Stabler was unexpectedly cordial to sportswriters until Bob Padecky of The Sacramento Bee asked a question. Padecky had gone to Gulf Shores, Ala. last January to interview Stabler and had been detained by police after a key case containing cocaine was found under a fender of his rented car. The cops figured he'd been framed, and they released him. Stabler responded to Padecky's question with a quick verb and pronoun.
Once on the field, Stabler settled into the routine of two-a-days, with Davis eyeing him closely. Stabler also applied himself dutifully to Oakland's new strength and conditioning program, hitting the weight machines after the morning practice and running around the field twice in the afternoon. The Snake's nocturnal regimen was also vintage Stabler. After team meetings broke up—at about 9:15 p.m.—he could be found with several of his teammates and one or another idolizing young lady in one or more of the half dozen Santa Rosa watering holes that comprise what the Raiders call "the circuit."
For Stabler, the Raiders' trip to Canton, Ohio for last Saturday's Hall of Fame game against Dallas was something of a junket, as he was still too rusty to participate. He played poker with Offensive Tackle John Vella, Tight End Raymond Chester, Linebacker Monte Johnson and Dalby on the flight east, and was on the sidelines as the Raiders beat the Cowboys 20-13.
Neither David Humm nor Jim Plunkett, Stabler's backups, particularly distinguished himself. Humm, playing the first half, completed six of 12 passes for 69 yards and led the Raiders to a 20-6 halftime advantage, but he overthrew open receivers on three occasions. In the second half Plunkett showed that his ailing arm is strong again but failed to put any points up.
On the field or off, every move Stabler makes is hot news in the Bay Area. Last season the Raiders stumbled to a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1971. Unable to throw long passes because of a jammed left elbow and a split tendon in the ring finger of his left hand, southpaw Stabler was easy pickings for defensive backs; he was intercepted a career-high 30 times and threw only 16 touchdown passes, none of which went as far as 50 yards.
The Bay Area press, which was generally unaware of the severity of Stabler's ailments, was quick to attribute his sudden ineffectiveness to his carousing. Once Stabler began to read their stories, he clammed up.