January 8, 2001
Groin, Groin… Not Gone
by Ric Sweeney
at San Diego (December 29, 1979)
Site: San Diego Stadium
Records: Oilers (11-6); Chargers (12-4)
The Oilers had won the battle but placed their chances of winning the war in jeopardy. During a grueling 15-minute stretch in their hard-earned wildcard victory over the Denver Broncos, Houston lost RB Earl Campbell to a pulled groin, QB Dan Pastorini to a pulled groin, and WR Ken Burrough, who at least managed to not pull his groin: he reinjured his tailbone instead. All would be questionable leading up to the Oilers’ Divisional showdown with the high-powered San Diego Chargers.
Then, just for good measure, as the team was leaving the field after practice the week of the big game, Campbell’s back-up, RB Rob Carpenter, turned his ankle on a practice dummy and joined the list of walking wounded. Not the best of news as far as QB Gifford Nielsen was concerned. He would be making just his second NFL start and brought considerably fewer credentials to the table than his Charger counterpart, Dan Fouts.
Fouts was enjoying his finest season as a pro, having thrown for 4,082 yards during the regular season, which was, at the time, an NFL record. His top two receivers, John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner, had combined for 133 receptions and 2,098 yards. The Chargers’ offense, nicknamed "Air Coryell" after its inventor, head coach Don Coryell, had scored 411 points while earning the top seed in the AFC playoff bracket.
Even with a healthy team, the Oilers would have faced an uphill battle. But statistics have a strange way of telling only half the story. Gaudy numbers like the ones Fouts seemed to be running up each week were far easier to quantify than character, grit, determination or heart. Fortunately, the Oilers had plenty of each and proved it by scoring one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history.
As kickoff approached, Campbell and Pastorini were ruled unfit to play; Burrough could, but only as a decoy. He missed most of the first half and made next-to-no impact. Carpenter, who entered the stadium on crutches, tossed them aside at game time and pronounced himself ready. Later, he would admit to not taking any form of pain killer prior to, or during the game. He wanted to "taste the pain," he said.
San Diego quickly jumped ahead on the game’s opening drive. Twice, Fouts converted third downs with long pass plays, the first covering 34 yards, the second 17. Clarence Williams ended the 11-play, 81-yard drive with a 1-yard run and San Diego led, 7-0.
The Oilers’ offense struggled while San Diego’s continued to move. On their next series, San Diego began to march from deep in their own territory when Fouts looked to midfield and found the man who would soon become his favorite target on the day: Oiler strong safety Vernon Perry.
But Houston’s offense was unable to take advantage of Perry’s interception and back came Fouts. He moved San Diego to the Oilers’ 8 before stalling. Kicker Mike Wood, who had never missed a kick inside 50 yards, was brought on for the easy 26-yard chip shot. But Perry managed to block the kick, scoop it up and ramble 57 yards to the Chargers’ 28-yard line. This time, Houston turned Perry’s gift into three points when Toni Fritsch connected from 26 yards out. Instead of trailing 10-0, Houston had crept within four, 7-3. And Perry was far from done.
On their next possession, Fouts again found Perry and his second interception gave Houston’s offense terrific field position at the Chargers’ 38. On third-and-five, Nielsen hit Carpenter in the flat, who managed to lunge ahead for the necessary yardage while absorbing hits from five different Chargers. But rather than walk back to the huddle after the play, Carpenter could only crawl, writhing in pain. So with a new set of downs and his running back hurting, Nielsen took matters into his own hands. Dropping back to pass, Nielsen looked to his right but found a herd of Chargers coming his way. Undaunted, the gangly Mormon tucked the football, spun, and scrambled to his left, finding open space, he thought, all the way to the goal line.
But at the three, two Charger defenders converged on Nielsen and cut off his path to the end zone. Rather than doing the prudent thing and running out of bounds, Nielsen tried to juke them and wound up getting sandwiched. The crushing blow put Nielsen down on his back and brought the Oilers’ team to its feet. Even Pastorini, who had suited up "just in case," began to look for his helmet. But Nielsen, though groggy, regained his footing and never missed a down.
Unable to punch it in on three tries, Houston elected to settle for the field goal, an 18-yarder Fritsch nailed as time began to wind down in the half. But the Chargers were penalized for having 12 men on the field and coach Bum Phillips decided to take the points off the board and go for it on fourth down at the six-inch line. Had Campbell been healthy, the move might have made more sense, but with the league’s MVP out and his back-up ailing, the call was risky at best.
Nielsen pitched left to RB Boobie Clark, who stopped, cut back ever-so-slightly to his right, and found the smallest of holes to squeeze into the end zone. Phillips’ gamble had paid off and the Oilers miraculously led at halftime, 10-7. San Diego’s four first half possessions had yielded a touchdown, interception, blocked field goal and interception.
Fouts quickly went to work regaining the game’s momentum in the second half. He hit Joiner for 20 yards on third-and-10 and Lydell Mitchell carried the final 8 yards to put San Diego back in front, 14-10. The drive covered 65 yards and took just 6 plays. Houston was forced to punt on their first possession of the half and P Cliff Parsley delivered a beauty, pinning San Diego at their own 2. San Diego was unable to do anything so deep in their own territory.
Richard Ellander returned San Diego’s short, 35-yard punt 25 yards and Houston again threatened. But Nielsen, looking to the back corner of the end zone, overthrew WR Rich Caster and Charger Mike Williams made a leaping stab at the ball, producing San Diego’s lone turnover of the game. Houston’s defense was eager to answer.
On third-and-17, Fouts looked to the sideline but CB J.C. Wilson made an incredible one-handed pick that ended San Diego’s bid to increase the lead. It was now Houston’s turn to regain the momentum.
On third-and-11 at San Diego’s 43, Nielsen dropped back and under intense pressure, dumped a seemingly innocent pass over the middle to WR Mike Renfro, who broke a tackle and headed for the sideline. But spotting out of the corner of his eye TE Mike Barber, Renfro reversed field and came back across the middle as Barber cleared his path with a devastating block. From there, it was a footrace to the pylon with the fleet-footed Renfro outracing two Charger defenders to the goal line. En route, both Burrough and RB Ronnie Coleman ran interference. All told, Renfro’s incredible zigzag run covered 47 yards. And the Oilers had reclaimed the lead, this time for good, 17-14.
San Diego next punted and Houston again marched into San Diego territory. But their drive stalled and they too were forced to punt. Parsley delivered again, pinning the Chargers at their own 10. But this time, Fouts and the Chargers started to make some noise. He hit Joiner for 30 yards to the Oilers’ 45, then TE Johnny Floyd for 10 more. On first down, Fouts tried to zip a pass underneath to TE Bob Klein but LB Robert Brazile arrived as the ball did and deflected it into the air. Johnny-on-the-spot Perry was there to secure his third pick of the day.
With only 3:18 to play, Houston needed to run out the clock but two Carpenter rushes netted only 3 yards. Faced with a third-and-7, Phillips again gambled and let Nielsen pass. He found Coleman for a clutch 13-yard pick-up. When Houston finally punted, 78 ticks were all that remained. San Diego attempted to go deep, but Perry was there again and intercepted his playoff-record fourth pass.
Afterwards, an exuberant Carl Mauck told a live television audience, "We kicked their ass!" Not exactly, as San Diego had outgained Houston 380 yards to 259 and managed 25 first downs to Houston’s mere 15. But it was that very chutzpah that fueled the Oilers’ incredible upset. Phillips convinced his team of blue collar, overachievers that they could not only play with but beat the Chargers. His players weren’t about to let their beloved coach down.
Houston’s magical ride would end a week later in Pittsburgh in the game forever known for the touchdown that wasn’t: Mike Renfro’s fantastic grab at the back of the end zone that officials ruled incomplete. The game did, however, get off to a promising start as Perry showed his previous week’s performance was no fluke by intercepting Terry Brashaw’s first pass of the game and returning it 75 yards for a touchdown. Houston would lose, 24-13. It would be the last time they ever played for a conference championship while still the Oilers.
No matter. After their stunning upset of the Chargers, the team had already earned the undying admiration of their fans, who gathered en masse to welcome the team back from Pittsburgh, filling the Astrodome to the rafters for the largest pep rally ever thrown for a losing team.
After beating the Chargers, Houston would not win another playoff game for eight years. Fortunately, the fans had one for the ages to hold them over.
GAME STATS Oilers Chargers First Downs 15 25 Rushing Yards 148 63 Passing Yards 111 317 Passes 10/19 25/47 Turnovers 1 5 Punts 6/41 2/32 Penalty Yards 45 30
Week 19 Giff briefly allows himself to look ahead to Pittsburgh. Final Score Houston Oilers 17 San Diego Chargers 14 Game Notes
If it seemed like Vernon Perry was reading Dan Fouts’ mind… he was. Sort of. After the game, Oiler defensive coordinator Ed Biles admitted to stealing San Diego’s offensive signs. "We pretty much knew ahead of time when they were going to pass," Biles said. Considering the Oilers’ led the NFL with 34 interceptions in 1979, it’s a safe bet San Diego wasn’t the first team victimized by Oiler spies.
Prior to joining the Oilers, Vernon Perry spent two years in Canada. The Jackson State product had gone north of the border after receiving his walking papers from Chicago Bear head coach Jack Pardee. 1979’s playoff game marked the third time Houston and San Diego squared off in the post-season. The first two meetings came in the 1960 and 1961 AFL Championship games. The Oilers were a perfect 3-0 against the Chargers. 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