We know the timing of these articles always stinks, but it’s breaking news of a sort—and our reaction to it—when it comes to analyzing sports history. Today, we bring you some harsh facts and truths about a seemingly beloved NFL persona: John Madden.
Note: We disclose we were fortunate enough to know Madden in the late 1970s and early 1980s after he retired from coaching, as our family berthed our sailboat next to his powerboat in the Oakland Embarcadero (and if that doesn’t smack of privilege looking back now, we don’t know what does). He was a kind man to take the time to talk football with kids when he didn’t have to do so. Godspeed, sir.
However, a closer look at context and reality in his coaching record reveals some ugly truths about just how “great” of an NFL coach he was with the Oakland Raiders from 1969-1978. You may disagree, and that’s fine, but we thinks these facts are hard to overlook.
First, Madden took over the leadership of the Raiders in 1969, and in the prior two seasons under Head Coach John Rauch, the Oakland squad had posted a 25-3 regular-season record. So, Madden inherited a championship roster, and that’s a great head start on any coach who has to take over a reclamation project (Vince Lombardi or Chuck Noll) or an expansion team (Tom Landry or Don Shula).
In fact, in three seasons as the Raiders coach, Rauch posted an .805 winning percentage from 1966 to 1968. Madden’s winning percentage in Oakland was only .759 in the regular season. He was actually worse than his predecessor, who got the Raiders to Super Bowl II in 1967 and the AFL Championship Game in 1968.
Second, Madden inherited that amazing roster and was unable to do better than his predecessor with it. Rauch made the Super Bowl in his second season, winning the AFL title in the process. It took Madden eight seasons to get a tailor-made roster back to the Super Bowl. His postseason record was relatively average, as Madden lost five AFC Championship matchups before finally winning his only one in 1976.
Why was Madden unable to achieve what his predecessor did so readily? Simply put, he was out-coached repeatedly in the postseason by Shula and Noll. The Miami Dolphins and the Pittsburgh Steelers were obviously all-time great teams led by all-time great coaches, so there’s no shame there, but it does mean Madden certainly was a firm level (or two) beneath those real NFL coaching legends.
Third—and we have to be brutally honest here—the primary reason Madden was finally able to break through to the Super Bowl was because the two-time defending champion Steelers were horribly beat up and injured in the 1976 AFC Championship Game, famously missing the talents of running backs Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris. And Pittsburgh still outgained Oakland in this game, despite losing.
That 1976 Steelers defense is one of the best in history, as it tossed five shutouts and gave up only 28 points over its final 9 regular-season games. The Raiders were able to overcome that defense when the Pittsburgh offense was crippled beyond recognition, so even Madden’s singular postseason success story has to be considered a fluke in historical context.
Fourth and finally, Madden couldn’t sustain his success like the top tier of coaches mentioned above (Landry, Lombardi, Noll, and Shula). Two years after winning the Super Bowl, he posted his worst season ever and then retired. The other coaching legends all won multiple titles and sustained success over many seasons—including Lombardi, who famously retired from the Green Bay Packers abruptly.
Yet even Lombardi came back to post a winning record with the Washington Redskins before dying of cancer. All four of those guys also took over terrible teams and turned them into longterm winners, something Madden couldn’t do despite inheriting a winner and starting at age 33. Madden was basically a shooting star compared to the comets of Landry, Lombardi, Noll, and Shula—the legends of the time.
All this is not to say Madden wasn’t good, but his success has been extremely overblown due to his commercialism for beer and video games, not to mention his time in the television broadcast booth where his large personality could enhance its own legend without pushback (see baseball’s Joe Morgan, for example).
Just remember everything needs context, and while Americans love to fawn over the dearly departed, the distortion of fact and truth is hard to swallow for historians and journalists—even when we have a personal connection. Objectivity has to be maintained at all times, even if some people don’t like the factual narratives.