Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Since its inception, the Oakland Raiders have carried a tradition of excellence along the offensive line. Common logic suggests that the center is often the first building block of a great offensive line and the Raiders certainly followed this logic when they drafted Jim Otto in 1960, their first year of existence. Otto established the standard which all Raiders offensive linemen strive for. The story of the Oakland Raiders glorious run of the late 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s can be told through the eyes of their centers.
Jim Otto was born in Wausau, Wisconsin where he earned a scholarship to the University of Miami. Not only did he start at center in college but he also started at linebacker. Despite his slight frame, the Minnesota Vikings saw something in him and he was drafted in the second round of the AFL Draft in 1960. However, the NFL offered Minnesota a franchise very late in the process and Oakland was chosen as the AFL’s next best city to start a franchise. Since the AFL and NFL were different leagues and Otto had not yet signed a contract with the Vikings, the AFL gave his rights to their newest franchise, the Oakland Raiders, making him an original Raider.
Like many expansion franchises of the era, the Raiders lacked talent in their early years and did not win many games. They even wore a black and gold jersey, complete with a black helmet with no logo. Otto started every game from their birth until the 1974 AFC Championship Game. He was there during the dark, nomadic early years where the team had to share stadiums with two San Francisco teams. They didn’t play a game in their city of origin until 1962 and even then it was in a glorified high school stadium named after a local undertaker, Frank Youell Field.
Along the way, Otto received significant help when the Raiders drafted guard Gene Upshaw and tackle Art Shell both of whom were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With the three future Hall of Famers leading the charge, the Raiders developed one of the league’s greatest rushing attacks. Their passing attack was the envy of many NFL teams too as it featured Hall of Famers Ken Stabler, Fred Biletnikoff and Dave Casper. With his uncanny commitment to the Raiders, it is almost tragic that he never won the Super Bowl. However, during his career the Raiders played in six AFL or AFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. He battled some of the greatest defenses of all time such as the Chiefs, Jets, Dolphins and Steelers. He battled aging defenses like the Packers in 1967. His final game was against Steeler’s Steel Curtain defense with was just starting to form their championship ways.
Dave Dalby was drafted as Jim Otto’s successor but he first had to wait for Otto to retire. Dalby was Alexandria, Minnesota and he attended UCLA where he earned a spot on their All-Century Team. He was drafted in 1972 which was a time when the Raider were fighting for supremacy in a historically tough AFC which included the Dolphins and Steelers. Dalby mainly played special teams his first three years in the NFL but was learning the nuances of the Raiders offense under the tutelage of Otto. When Otto retired after the 1974 season, Dalby was ready.
His first season ended in heartbreak as they lost to the Steelers again. 1976 was a special year. After a decade of building the foundation and battling some of the greatest teams of all time the Raiders were ready to claim the Lombardi Trophy. Dalby led a ferocious running attack and protected quarterback Ken Stabler long enough for him to lead the Raiders to 13 victories and one loss. The Raiders swept the Steelers that year and stormed to the Super Bowl with all the bravado a team can muster. There they played the Minnesota Vikings at the Rose Bowl. They beat the Vikings convincingly 32-14. The Raiders made it to the AFC Championship Game the following year but lost to the Denver Broncos. However, it was not a completely lost year as Dalby made the only Pro Bowl of his career that season.
Oakland struggled the next couple of years but found their championship ways in 1980. Dalby started the year snapping the ball to Dan Pastorini but when Pastorini got hurt Jim Plunkett took his place. Dalby and the rest of the offensive line never skipped a beat and Oakland became the first Wild Card team to win the Super Bowl. This time the game was in New Orleans where they crushed the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10.
For the Raiders, home became Los Angeles in 1982 when owner Al Davis decided to move the franchise out of small market Oakland. The Raiders adjusted accordingly and along the way drafted running back Marcus Allen. Despite his differences with Al Davis, Allen was the spark the team needed to win the Super Bowl in 1983. Dalby and the rest of the offensive line were used to system runners such as Mark van Eeghen. Allen had the ability to change direction and this ability landed him in the Hall of Fame. Dalby managed the rushing attack accordingly and the Raiders stunned Washington in the Super Bowl 38-9.
The last couple of years of his career were unspectacular as the team struggled to advance in the playoffs. His last year was 1985 when he only started in two games. Waiting for his opportunity was Don Mosebar who carried the Raiders tradition of great centers into the 1990’s.
The Raiders of the late 1980’s and 1990’s were a forgotten bunch. While they made the playoffs a handful of times, they seldom advanced very far and never won a Super Bowl. However, they had a number of excellent players on those forgettable teams and center Don Mosebar led the charge as the team constantly shuffled running backs during Marcus Allen’s debacle with Al Davis. Mosebar adjusted well, gaining Pro Bowl honors in 1986, 1990 and 1991. He retired following the 1995 season after the Raiders first year back in Oakland.
Barrett Robbins took Mosebar’s place and became only the fourth regular starter at center in franchise history. His first few years were forgettable as the team struggled to gain an identity but that changed when Jon Gruden started winning games as the Raider coach.
With Rich Gannon at quarterback and Hall of Fame receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown the Raiders were relevant again. From 2000 to 2002 they made the playoffs each year and played in two AFC Championship Games. They lost to a historically suffocating Baltimore Ravens defense in 2000 and lost a controversial decision to the Patriots in the Divisional Round a year later. The 2002 season was different as Gruden had been traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the previous offseason. The team knew it was on the cusp of a championship and set out to prove themselves correct.
After finishing the regular season 11-5 they marched on to the AFC Championship Game where they defeated the Tennessee Titans 41-24. For the first time in 20 years, the Raider were going back to the Super Bowl and Robbins was awarded with his only Pro Bowl invitation. It was here that should have been the highlight of Robbins’ life. Instead, it would be the site of his darkest moment. Robbins had been battling depression for years and had not taken his medication in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. He went missing the day before the game, causing mass panic within the Raiders organization. When he was found, he was so incoherent that he didn’t even know where he was. Despite Al Davis’ demands for him to play in the game, head coach Bill Callahan decided he was not fit to participate.
After a lot of retracing of steps, Robbins figured out that he had gone on an alcohol induced binge in Tijuana, Mexico. Without his medication, he had apparently thought that the Raiders had already won the Super Bowl and was partying accordingly. Without their Pro Bowl center, the Raiders were left flat footed and were blown out to Jon Gruden’s Buccaneers 48-21.
The Raiders never recovered from that massacre and Robbins's career fizzled as fast as the Raiders championship hopes. He spent one more year as the Raider center before being let go due to a positive steroid test in the summer of 2004.
The next decade brought a slew of centers while the team struggled to win more than five games in any given season. Names such as Adam Treu, Jake Grove and Samson Satele are as forgettable as the teams they led. Amidst the constant change at quarterback, center and coach the team lost its’ identity. It also lost its’ owner when Al Davis passed away during the 2011 season. The losing continued until 2016 when everything seemed to go right. The offense hummed with quarterback Derek Carr leading the team to victory after victory. His center was Rodney Hudson who brought back the Raiders excellence at center by being invited to Pro Bowls in 2016, 2017 and 2019. He was the first Raiders center to be invited to the Pro Bowl since Barrett Robbins in 2002. The team lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Houston Texans and has stumbled ever since. However, the building blocks are in place for another run of excellence as Hudson is still commanding the line as the franchise's center.