Shifting Priorities

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September 11, 2000
Shifting Priorities
by Ric Sweeney

Cleveland Brownsat Cleveland (September 15, 1980)
Site: Municipal Stadium
Records: Oilers (0-1); Browns (0-1)
Attendence: 80,243

In 1979, Bum Phillips had promised to kick the door in, referring, of course, to the stranglehold the Pittsburgh Steelers of the late 70’s had on the AFC championship. 

Thus, the Oilers spent their entire 1980 offseason, training camp and preseason gearing up for the Steelers and promptly fell flat on their faces in week one, losing in Three Rivers Stadium, 31-17. Stung and embarrassed, Houston nearly overlooked their week two opponent, the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns, not considered a contender in 1980, had sputtered in their opening week too, losing badly to the Baltimore Colts. The Oilers, meanwhile, continued to focus on the Steelers, and not the Browns, right up until the Monday Night Football kickoff in Cleveland. Their matchup with the Browns was deemed a must-win, not because Cleveland posed any kind of threat but because a loss would drop Houston two games behind the Steelers in the standings. 

While the Oilers still had Pittsburgh on their mind, 80,243 Cleveland fans had only Columbia blue on theirs. The Monday night tussle was, and remains, the largest crowd to ever witness the Oilers play. And by game’s end, the Oilers’ ball control offense had whittled the gathering to less than 40,000. So much for the Steelers.

After a scoreless opening quarter, the Browns struck first, taking advantage of a 12-yard Cliff Parsley punt. QB Brian Sipe hit Calvin Hill on a 3-yard pass with 13:41 left in the half. Cleveland led 7-0 and would not see the end zone again all night. The 8-play drive accounted for 20% of Cleveland’s 41 offensive plays on the evening. From that moment forward, Ken Stabler and Earl Campbell took over.

Houston ran nearly 10 minutes off the clock as their ensuing 15-play drive ended in a 25-yard FG from Toni Fritsch. Campbell converted three 3rd and 3’s on the drive while Stabler hit on 5 of 6 passes, the longest gain covering just 8 yards. 

Trailing 7-3, the Oilers took the second half kickoff and sucked 5:43 off the clock driving 67 yards in 10 plays. FB Tim Wilson scored the go-ahead touchdown on a two-yard sweep and the Oilers led for good, 10-7. 

Houston’s offense also received an unexpected boost from the Browns. Elvis Frank’s interception and subsequent 52-yard touchdown dash were both wiped out when Cleveland was flagged for being offsides on the play. Later in the quarter, after a drive-stopping pick by Thom Darden at the Cleveland three, Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano elected to give the ball back to Houston when OL Conway Hayman was called for holding. Receiving new life but facing a third and 29, Stabler hit Barber for just 12 yards. But Lyle Alzado slammed into Stabler and was called for roughing the passer. Houston was given an automatic first down at the Browns’ 20.

Fritsch booted his second field goal of the night, a 29-yarder, and Houston increased their lead, 13-7. The 15-play drive ate up 8:19. Late in the fourth quarter, Houston iced the game by driving 77 yards in 16 plays while draining 9:13 off the clock. Fritsch kicked a 17-yard field goal with 4:14 remaining and Houston had evened their record with a bruising, uncompromising 16-7 win.

The Browns offense managed just 15 plays in the second half as Houston dominated all phases of the game. The Oilers outgained Cleveland 369 yards to 181; ran 77 plays to Cleveland’s 41 and held onto the ball for an astounding 42:20. 

Stabler was in rare form, perfectly executing the short-passing game that he had perfected in Oakland which is what led Phillips to trade for him in the first place. The Snake finished 23 of 28 for 187 yards. Five different Oilers caught passes, including Mike Barber (5/47 yards) and Mike Renfro (3/31). Campbell, who left in the third quarter with a backache, rushed for 106 yards on 18 carries, marking his forth consecutive 100-yard performance on Monday Night Football. Three other Oilers contributed at least 23 yards as the team rolled up 192 rushing yards.

Cleveland would return the favor in week 13, beating Houston in the Astrodome, 17-14. Of course, in a bitter taste of irony, the Browns, and not the Steelers, would eventually keep the door on its hinges in 1980, winning the AFC Central and sending Houston, for the third consecutive year, to the wildcard game.

GAME STATS Oilers Browns First Downs 23 13 Rushing Yards 192 75 Passing Yards 187 106 Passes 23/28 12/25 Interceptions 1 0 Punts 3/28 6/36 Fumbles lost 1 0 Penalty Yards 40 60

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Week 2 Ken Stabler Against Cleveland, The Snake completed 82% of his passes. Final Score Houston Oilers 16 Cleveland Browns 7 Game Notes

Hot on the campaign trail, Jimmy Carter stopped off in Houston on the day of the game wishing the Oilers and Ken "Statler" good luck.

Statler, er, Stabler, one of the most accurate passers in NFL history, was 15 of 19 on Houston’s four scoring drives. In 1980, the Oilers were a perfect 3-0 in prime time games, beating the Browns, Patriots and Steelers (on Thursday night). The Dream Season Week Opponent Result 01 @ Oakland 37-22 02 @ Cleveland 16-7 03 NY Jets 26-20 04 @ Cincinnati 30-27 05 Denver 42-14 06 @ New England 28-14 07 @ Buffalo 28-16 08 @ Pittsburgh 24-17 09 Washington 41-17 10 NY Titans 49-13 11 @ New England 26-23 12 Miami 35-30 13 @ Dallas 30-24 14 Pittsburgh 31-6 15 @ San Francisco 10-7 16 @ Baltimore 24-21 17 Bye Week N/A 18 @ Cleveland 24-23 19 @ San Diego 17-14 20 LA Chargers 24-16  RETURN TO THE DREAM SEASON