And this was an offense designed especially for Stabler. In the off-season, the Oilers' new head coach, Ed Biles, brought in an offensive coordinator, Jim Shofner, from the Browns, a terrific guy with quarterbacks. Under Shofner's direction, the 49ers' John Brodie had some great years. At Cleveland, Brian Sipe called Shofner "the most inspirational coach I've ever been associated with. It's no coincidence that when Shofner came to Cleveland, people were speculating about my losing my job, and three years later I won the MVP."
Shofner and Biles decided to gear their offense to Stabler's extraordinary ability to get all the receivers into the offense. They junked the double-tight-end I-for-mation that was designed for Campbell. "We gave Stabler an offense very similar to what he had in Oakland," Shofner says, "something we felt he'd be comfortable with."
Then, on Wednesday, July 22, veterans' reporting day, Stabler threw the gears into reverse when he announced he'd had it with pro football. All sorts of things were read into that announcement: that Stabler didn't much care for Biles, a tough little Ohioan who had spent 28 years in coaching before he finally landed a top spot in the NFL, and that Biles, who had announced that he was going to tighten discipline on the club and enforce a curfew, felt the same way about Stabler.
"That just wasn't true," Biles says. "Hey, he was our quarterback, our No. 1 guy. I'm not crazy, you know."
There had been hard words spoken by some of the Oilers after the 1980 season, which ended with a 20-point loss to Oakland in the first round of the playoffs and the firing of Coach Bum Phillips. Most of them concerned the two-tight-end offense, but some of the criticism spilled over to Stabler himself. The suggestion was that he had taken full advantage of Phillips' rather loose training rules and wasn't giving the game the old dedication.
Some players said that the way the Snake handled his retirement was just another example of his laissez-faire way of doing things—that when his child-support payments, for instance, were upped from $500 a month to $1,400, he just kept on paying at the old rate until a California bench warrant for his arrest brought about a settlement with his ex. It was recalled that he had stiffed a Phillips charity golf tournament without explanation, that he hadn't shown up at his own football camp in Marion, Ala.
Stabler finally returned on Wednesday night, Aug. 26. He huffed his way through his first practice, jogging a bit at the end and nearly collapsing. When he threw a few passes and one of them fluttered and died and was easily picked off by a linebacker, the defensive guys howled, "Training camp, Kenny! Training camp!"
"Oh, yeah, this is much better than drinking beer and lying on the beach," Stabler said after the workout. "Running plays and dying. That's much more fun."
Then on Sunday, Aug. 30, the saga took another strange turn when The New York Times ran a front-page story that Stabler frequently had been seen with one Nicholas Dudich of Perth Amboy, N.J., who years before had twice been convicted of bookmaking.
Not the front sports page, the front page of the whole paper, right up there with the U.S. position on South Africa and the high-interest crisis.