The House of Pain

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April 30, 2001
Chapter 12: The House of Pain by Bob Hulsey

While Vice President George Bush campaigned around the country urging a "kinder and gentler America," the Houston Oilers were honing their role as the Bullies In Blue. What some saw as excessive and cheap fouls, others saw as whining. Ray Childress spoke about the underlying complaint – that the Oilers were no longer a doormat for other teams to step on. These Oilers meant to fight back.

The truth lay somewhere in between. The Oilers routinely pummeled opposing kickers on special teams and speared others while making tackles. Coach Jerry Glanville seemed to be especially fond of drawing some bad blood whenever he spoke to the out-of-town press. Jerry was doing the XFL shtick long before Vince McMahon thought it up. Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll and Cincinnati’s Sam Wyche were particularly incensed and made no effort to hide their displeasure. Even the Oiler front office began to wonder if Glanville wasn’t going too far.

With the new image, the Astrodome became a self-styled "House of Pain" – a place with more licks than a cat with a neatness obsession. Problem was, the image didn’t translate well on the road. It led to a Jeckyl-and-Hyde schizophrenia. The Oilers played like lions at home and tabbies away from it.

Responding to their first playoff appearance in seven years, the Oilers stockpiled more talent for the 1988 season. Houston dealt their top choice to the Raiders for DE Sean Jones, the last fruits from the Jim Everett trade. They used their other first-rounder on Michigan St. RB Lorenzo White. The draft also produced White’s college teammate, P Greg Montgomery (3rd round), and lanky CB from Purdue named Cris Dishman (5th round).

With an infusion of new talent joining an already talented bunch, the Oilers were poised to make another playoff run. But Houston was almost knocked out of the playoff hunt during the first week of the season. Warren Moon separated his shoulder in Indianapolis, though the Oilers snuck out with a 17-14 overtime win.

With "Commander" Cody Carlson at the helm, Houston was waxed, 45-3, by the Jets in week 3 and 32-23 by the lowly Eagles two weeks later. In between, they spanked the Patriots, 31-6, at home. Moon came back in Week 7 to a spark a 34-14 victory over the Steelers. Next, Wyche and the Bengals exploded to a four-touchdown lead and coasted to a 44-21 win but Houston bounced back to destroy the Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins, 41-17, in their first nationally-televised game in six years. Naturally, that win came at home. The Oilers dropped a game in Seattle then crushed Phoenix, 38-20.

The Oilers had a chance to settle an old score with the Dallas Cowboys during a Thanksgiving visit to Irving in week 13. It was Tom Landry’s last season and the Cowboys were reduced to Herschel Walker and a cast of over-the-hill veterans. Yet despite having clearly superior personnel, Houston had trouble putting the game away, triumphing late, 25-17. It didn’t stop the Oilers from gloating. "I almost feel sorry for them," remarked TE Jamie Williams after the proud Cowboys’ ninth straight loss. "Well, then again, no I don’t."

Glanville and the Oilers had it all in front of them. The Oilers were 9-4 with each of three division rivals left to play. If they ran the table, the Oilers would have their first AFC Central crown. Noll got his revenge as Bubby Brister’s last-second heroics gave the Steelers a 37-34 win – the Oilers’ only loss at home all season. Houston mopped up the Bengals, 41-6, with Glanville still throwing deep late in the game. In the snow in Cleveland, the Oilers blew a 16-point lead when Don Strock came off the bench to lead a 28-23 Browns comeback. The Oilers made the playoffs, but just barely, and their reward was another winter weekend in Cleveland.

With Bernie Kosar injured and Strock ineffective, the Oilers built a 14-3 halftime lead behind tiny Allen Pinkett. The Browns turned to Mike Pagel and he led Cleveland back to within one, 24-23.

In one of the most bizarre finishes in playoff history, the Browns got three chances to recover an onside kickoff before the Oilers were allowed to kill the final seconds. Having survived Cleveland, the Oilers advanced to New Year’s Day in balmy Buffalo. After 30 minutes of failed opportunities and blocked kicks, the Bills led, 7-3. Oiler receiver Drew Hill was lost after he dropped a pass in the end zone then crashed into the goalpost. The Bills added ten more points before Houston scored in the fourth quarter on a one-yard plunge by Mike Rozier. Houston’s last chance died when ex-Oiler Steve Tasker recovered a muffed punt. The Oilers’ season ended, 17-10. Buffalo would lose in Cincinnati the following week as the Bengals reached the Super Bowl.

Rozier rushed for 1,002 yards and ten touchdowns for the year. Hill was his pass-catching counterpart with 1,141 yards and ten scores. Ernest Givins added 1,002 total yards, most through the air. Six Oilers made it to the Pro Bowl , five from the offense.

On the labor front, the fallout from the 1987 strike continued as teams and players wrestled with a new concept called "Plan B" free agency. The Oilers lost 15 players, most in the league. They got little in return. Ladd Herzeg resigned as General Manager, replaced by long-time scout Mike Holovak. His first draft was solid but unspectacular, producing OT David Williams, DT Glenn Montgomery and safeties Bubba McDowell and Bo Orlando.

Super Bowl hype engulfed Houston but it fell flat when the Oilers laid a 38-7 egg in Minnesota to start the 1989 season. It looked worse than the score indicated. They rebounded to nip the Chargers then lost a rematch with the Bills in an OT thriller, 47-41. It was like this all season, never knowing which Oilers would show up. They slammed the Dolphins and Steelers and then out toughed Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears, 33-28. But they also lost winnable games to the Patriots and Browns.

After beating up the Raiders, they self-destructed in a 34-0 blowout at Kansas City. But still, a division title was in sight. Houston stuffed the Steelers in the snow then toppled Tampa Bay. They were 9-5 with a 1-1/2 game lead in a tight division. In Cincinnati, the Bengals pounced on an early Moon fumble and never looked back. Houston trailed, 30-0, at the half and Wyche was loving every minute of it. Ahead 45-0, Wyche called for an on-side kick, which caught the Oilers by surprise. With seconds left, Wyche called time out in order to get a final field goal that made the tally 61-7. It was a classic case of running up the score and Wyche made it clear afterwards that he wasn’t thinking about any tiebreakers. "They (the Oilers) are the dumbest, most stupid, undisciplined football team we’ve ever played," he ranted. "It’s hard to believe they can ever win games."

As if to prove him right, the Oilers racked up 483 yards of total offense in the season finale against Cleveland but costly mistakes and penalties held them in check. After Houston surged to a 20-17 lead, the Browns drove 58 yards to pay dirt with 39 seconds left, leaving the House of Pain numbed. Cleveland had stolen the division crown on Houston’s home turf. At least the Oilers could play a playoff game at home this time. It was against Noll’s Steelers – a team Houston had swept in the regular season by a combined score of 50-16.

For most of the contest, the game developed into a placekicking duel. The Steelers led 16-9 in the fourth quarter when Moon hooked up twice with Givins on scores of 18 and nine yards to put Houston ahead, 23-16. But as had happened the week before, the Oilers folded. Merrill Hoge scored late to tie the game and send it to overtime. After a bad punt, the Oilers started their first overtime possession in Steeler territory but White fumbled on the first play and killed the opportunity. Four plays later, Gary Anderson drilled a 50-yard field goal to give Pittsburgh a shocking 26-23 upset. Once again, the Oilers were left grasping for excuses. One of them had to be penalties. The Oilers were flagged a club-record 148 times in 1989, covering an amazing 1,138 yards of field position. That’s eleven football fields worth of real estate in a 16-game season and that doesn’t even factor what was lost in plays negated. Dishman alone seemed intent on setting a league record for personal fouls.

Glanville caught hell over the collapse. For a coach that had taken a woebegone club to three straight playoffs, Jerry was the victim of his own success. His monster had turned on him and Dr. Frankenstein wanted out. Just seven days after the Pittsburgh debacle, Glanville stepped down by "mutual consent" and quickly resurfaced in Atlanta where the thirst for a winner was even more desperate than in Houston.

For his part, Warren Moon was ready for a change. Moon became the undisputed star of the offense, tossing for 3,631 yards and 23 TD’s (the most by an Oiler QB since 1963) while rushing for 268 yards and scoring four times on the ground. It was a fact the new coaching regime would learn to exploit.

Bob Hulsey has a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked in print and radio covering sports throughout Texas since 1976. He presently works for a telecommunications company in Austin. Warren Moon JJ Moses Home

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