By Mark Gaughan
News NFL Columnist
Today is the 45th anniversary of one of the greatest games in the history of the American Football League.
Former Bills quarterback Daryle Lamonica was in town a couple weeks ago and offered his recollections of “The Heidi Game” in which he led the Oakland Raiders to a dramatic, 43-32 victory over the New York Jets.
The date was Nov. 17, 1968. The Raiders and Jets were the AFL’s two best teams, destined to meet in the title game six weeks later.
The Jets created the fifth lead change of the game when they took a 32-29 edge on a field goal with 1:04 left. After the ensuing kickoff, Lamonica hit running back Charlie Smith on a 20-yard pass. That’s when NBC cut away from the telecast to show the regularly scheduled children’s movie, “Heidi.” All of the NBC affiliates east of Denver switched to the movie and missed the Raiders rallying for two touchdowns in a nine-second span to win.
Lamonica connected again with Smith on a 43-yard touchdown pass with 42 seconds left.
“Prior to that, I had thrown a long touchdown pass to Charlie Smith, and it was called back because one of my receivers was in motion,” Lamonica said. “Johnny Sample, their left corner, came up and patted me on the butt and said, ‘Nice pass, Lamonica, better luck next year.’ That fired my Irish-Italian temper up, and I said, ‘The game’s not over.’ ”
Sample was a fierce-hitter known for his trash talking.
“As luck would have it, our defense held them,” Lamonica said, referring to the stand that produced the Jets’ last field goal. “I told Charlie, ‘They’re going to be looking for you going down the hash mark. Do a deep crossing pattern.’ Larry Grantham, their middle linebacker, was out of the game at that point. I split Charlie a little wider in the backfield so he could get by the linebacker easier and get a clean release. I kept the fullback in to give me a little more protection. I hit Charlie, and he took it up the right side for a touchdown.”
The Jets fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Oakland recovered in the end zone for another touchdown. The torrent of complaints from football fans was so great, NBC changed its procedures to allow games to finish before other programming begins.
Darryl & Al
Of course, Lamonica, shipped by Buffalo to Oakland after the 1966 season, is synonymous with the worst trade in Bills history.
But the Heidi Game was one of many examples of Lamonica’s greatness as a deep passer and the brilliance of the offense that Al Davis brought to Oakland.
Davis had served as backfield coach under the great Sid Gillman with the Chargers from 1960 to ’62. Gillman revolutionized the modern passing game, stretching the field, horizontally, not just vertically, with his wide receivers. It was the quarterback’s job to read the field and decide where to throw based on the coverage and, most importantly, timing. Gillman was the first to regularly use the tight end to run vertical routes.
Davis used the same offense when he served as Oakland head coach from 1963 to ’65, and he continued to dictate the offensive scheme after he became part owner in 1967.
Davis included his own wrinkles, too. Gillman wasn’t keen in the early ’60s on throwing a lot to his backs. Davis was. Running back Hewritt Dixon caught 59 passes in Lamonica’s first season in Oakland. Smith, who ran the 100-yard dash in 9.6 seconds, became a downfield threat out of the backfield, averaging 14.6 yards a catch as a rookie in 1968.
Davis also made greater use than Gillman of the “slot” receiver, motioning the flanker over to the same side as the split end and creating an overload on the wide side of the field, opposite the tight end side.
“We took our wide receivers and put them both on the same side and moved the tight end over to the other side. So you had wide-side passing, weak-side running,” Lamonica said. “We had tight ends that I could flex out as a wide receiver. Then who covered him? Did the corner go over and cover the slot guy? Did the strong safety have to cover him? So we utilized that.”
The Raiders had a fine, versatile tight end, Billy Cannon, who killed teams in ’67. Several years later they got an even better one, Dave Casper, who made the Hall of Fame. Even 20 years later, Norv Turner killed defenses out of the same formation when he was running Dallas’ offense, using receivers Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper on the wide side of the field and flexing tight end Jay Novacek out on the strong side.
“Al was in Sid’s West Coast system, and so was Chuck Noll, Don Coryell, Bill Walsh, Ara Parseghian,” Lamonica said. “Al installed it, and he got the players he needed to fill those positions.”
When Lamonica arrived in Oakland it was Warren Wells and Fred Biletnikoff as the split end and flanker, respectively. Then Cliff Branch took Wells’ place.
“Warren Wells and Fred Biletnikoff were timed the exact same time in the 40-yard dash,” Lamonica said. “Nobody believes that, and I never told anybody that. Freddie had as much speed, but Warren seemed to have that little extra to get to the deep ball.”
Lamonica went 62-16-6 for the Raiders between ’67 and ’73.
Damon Harrison, Jets nose tackle. No. 94 for New York is a man to watch today. He’s a 6-foot-4, 350-pounder, nicknamed “Big Snacks,” who is clogging the middle of the line for the Jets’ No. 1-ranked run defense. Harrison was undrafted last year because he came out of tiny William Penn University, an NAIA school in Iowa, and he has had two operations on each knee.
He has taken an epic route to the NFL. As a middle schooler in Louisiana, he was cut from the football team twice. He spent time as the team’s water boy after the second rejection. When he got to high school, he excelled as a point guard on the basketball team. But he hurt his knee his junior year, needed surgery, and ballooned from 205 to 250 pounds. He played football as a senior, seven games, hardly enough to get recruited.
Harrison tried to make a junior college team but couldn’t get a shot, so he took a job as an overnight stock boy at Wal-Mart. The junior college coach, however, moved on to William Penn and invited Harrison to come along. Harrison didn’t miss any meals in Iowa. He grew from 250 to 360. He dominated the likes of Olivet Nazarene, Waldorf and McKendree. This year he’s getting 40 percent of the Jets’ snaps and bordering on being dominant in the NFL. Amazing.
Washington’s London Fletcher didn’t pull any punches this week in preparation for his team’s game against the Eagles.
“The great thing about this year is that the NFC East is so terrible,” said Fletcher. “You look at it and we’re in Week (11), and our leader is 5-5. So even at 3-6, we’re conceivably still in this thing. Every team has been so bad, nobody’s really been able to separate themselves, so that’s good for us. That’s good for everybody” in the division.”
Fletcher will start his 209th straight game today, breaking the consecutive-games record by a linebacker, held by Derrick Brooks.
• They’re calling Carolina coach Ron Rivera “Riverboat Ron” due to his aggressive play calling of late. You’ll recall Rivera opted to kick a field goal in Week Two against Buffalo, rather than going for it on a fourth-and-1 situation, opening the door for the Bills’ winning drive. Lesson learned. Rivera called seven fourth-down offensive plays instead of kicking the ball between Weeks Three and Nine.
• Hamilton visits Toronto at 1 p.m. today in the CFL’s Eastern Final. St. Francis product Luke Tasker has been on the Ti-Cats’ roster the last six weeks and has 13 catches. He’s a reserve wideout. Hamilton took two out of three from the Argos during the regular season.
• New England’s Tom Brady has 41 touchdown passes on Monday Night Football. With two against Carolina Monday he will pass Steve Young for third most ever on the TV series. Monday will be Brady’s 18th MNF game. Dan Marino leads with 74 MNF TDs. Brett Favre had 69. Both Marino and Favre played 38 games.
• It will be interesting to see how the Andy Dalton plays today against Cleveland with the Bengals coming off two straight overtime losses. The Browns have the cover cornerbacks to make Dalton’s throws difficult.