October 2, 2001
The Buddy System
by Bob Hulsey
In spite of the sudden ending, Oiler fans found much to feel positive about heading into the 1992 season. The team looked strong on both sides of the ball, had an adequate kicking game and finally got the monkey off their back about winning a division title. There wasn’t much grumbling about the future, at least by Oiler standards.
Given much credit for the defensive improvement was Jim Eddy, the defensive coordinator who followed Jack Pardee from the University of Houston. Short and frenetic, Eddy was able to channel the sometimes destructive energies of LB Lamar Lathom and CB Cris Dishman into positive production and did his best to keep a glamour-filled defensive line working as a unit. Eddy would get more help for the coming season, getting LBs Eddie Robinson and Joe Bowden in the draft and veteran DB Jerry Gray from free agency.
The offense would have to replace WR Drew Hill, lost to free agency after a contract squabble. He would eventually be replaced by Webster Slaughter, a pesky receiver who was granted free agency from Cleveland in mid-season during the ongoing labor dispute with the NFL Players Association.
Defenses around the league were adjusting to the Run and Shoot offense which became less of a big-play offense and more of a ball-control attack. One team that always had problems defending the offense was the Dallas Cowboys. The Oilers beat the Cowboys, 34-20, in Tokyo to begin the pre-season and continually bested them in scrimmages and exhibitons during the decade. Cowboy backers sniffed that they put no prioity on winning games that didn’t count. To the Oilers, the rivalry always meant more.
The Houston offense blew a fuse in the season opener against Pittsburgh. Warren Moon was picked off five times in a 29-24 loss. They bounced back to win four straight as the offense kicked into high gear.
Next, it was flashback time in Denver. Clinging to a one-point lead with under two minutes to play, the Oilers failed again to stop the Broncos when it mattered. They seemed resigned to it, letting Denver’s backup fullback romp the final 20 yards on a draw play to cap a 27-21 defeat.
It seemed to alter the club’s psyche. They lost two of the next three to division opponents and then lost Moon the following week in Minnesota. Houston nipped the Vikings, 7-3, but would have to depend on Cody Carlson to run the offense. The Oilers dropped a close game to Miami then squeaked past Detroit on Thanksgiving with Lorenzo White and Haywood Jeffires sparking the winning drive. Houston split two more games against NFC Central squads.They were now fighting for their playoff lives.
“The fat lady wasn’t singing,” recalled DE Sean Jones, “but in the background, I could hear her practicing her scales.”
When they needed it most, the offense responded. Down 14-3 in the fourth quarter in frigid Cleveland, Carlson hit Curtis Duncan for a touchdown to pull within four points. Then the Oilers sprung their latest surprise play – a middle screen to White that worked for 65 yards. Carlson next hit Ernest Givins for the winning score, pulling out a 17-14 triumph and locking up a playoff spot. They used this momentum to blast the Bills, 27-3, to finish the campaign with a 10-6 mark – one game behind Pittsburgh in the division race.
White racked up 1,226 yards rushing as the feature back. Jeffires led the AFC with 90 catches. Givins led conference receivers with ten touchdowns. Tellingly, no Oiler had over 1,000 receiving yards. Still, Houston had the number two offense in the AFC and Eddy’s defense ranked first.
Their wild card matchup would be in Buffalo, home of the defending AFC Champs. The Bills had made a habit of luring playoff teams to their icebox called Rich Stadium in January and putting them in the deep freeze. January 3rd, 1993, would become a date that would live in Oiler infamy.
Many felt the Oilers were catching the breaks. The Bills were limping into the playoffs with QB Jim Kelly and RB Thurman Thomas injured. Buffalo had lost the valuable bye week and had looked like a whipped dog in Houston the week before. Even the weather gods were kind, providing conditions in upstate New York that were merely miserable, not unbearable.
Warren Moon, recovered after a month off, looked like he had never left the huddle. The Bills ranked near the bottom in pass defense and Moon feasted. Long drives resulted in four first-half touchdowns passes. With Kelly and Thomas unable to play, Buffalo could answer with only a field goal. It was perhaps the most perfect half of football the Oilers had ever played. It looked like a clinic.
When Bubba McDowell snared a Frank Reich pass to open the second half and pranced 58 yards for a touchdown, Houston led 35-3. It was over. This was like giving Secretariat a quarter-mile head start. This was like giving Michael Jordan an open drive down the lane. Surely, the Oiler haters, the Run and Shoot naysayers and the rest of Houston’s critics would be shut up once and for all. This was the hothoused, warm-weathered, fancy-flinging Oilers strutting their stuff on national television in cold, windy Buffalo at playoff time. Oiler fans could be seen pinching themselves.
Oh, but Reich had them just where he wanted them. While at Maryland, he had authored the greatest college comeback in history. If anyone could be unphased at such a deficit, Buffalo had their man.
Giddy in their joy, the Oilers got cute and tried to squib the ensuing kickoff. It squirted 15 yards and the Bills set up shop. They scored ten plays later when Kenneth Davis tallied from a yard out. Next Buffalo pulled off an onside-kick most Pop Warner coaches would have seen coming but the Oilers did not. Four plays later, it was 35-17. After a shanked punt, Reich tossed another touchdown. Following an interception, Reich found paydirt again. The Bills had scored 28 points and the third quarter still had two minutes left to go.
Moon, at last, directed a decent drive but the field goal snap was bobbled and Buffalo held serve. The stunned Oiler defense now seemed to stand still as Reich hit Andre Reed for his third straight touchdown. The Bills led, 38-35, and Oiler fans began reaching for sharp objects.
Moon struggled to rally the club. He worked the sidelines and the clock, lining up a short field goal with twelve seconds to go. Al Del Greco punched through the 26-yarder that tied the game and sent it to an improbable overtime.
They call it “sudden death” for a reason. Moon was intercepted on the third play of the extra session and Steve Christie got the final twist of the knife with a 32-yard field goal to complete the 41-38 Buffalo win. It was the largest comeback in the history of the National Football League. Not even in the regular season had an NFL team ever blown a 32-point advantage.
Anger back in Houston was palpable. Of all the cruel things the Oilers had done to their faithful, the back-to-back playoff meltdowns in Denver and Buffalo pushed some fans over the edge. One suicide was reported. Death threats were common. Radio talk shows were bombarded with wave after wave of seething callers. Oiler players stayed out of sight for months. The c-word, “choke”, was spoken frequently.
A scapegoat had to be found and that man was Jim Eddy. One nightmarish afternoon offset a season of achievement and he was dismissed. The call went out for a defensive coach who would make sure the defense stayed alert at all times.
It was a natural set-up for Buddy Ryan. The surly genius of the “46” defense with the Archie Bunker tact came to Houston and was given carte blanche to take the talented Oiler defense and turn them into pit bulls. It had come full circle from pugnacious Jerry Glanville’s “House of Pain” to Buddy Ryan’s “House of Pressure” in just three seasons. Playoff collapses will do that to a team.
Once in town, it didn’t take long for the famed Buddy bluster to emerge.
“What I bring to a defense is toughness,” boasted Buddy. “With Buddy Ryan, the other team will know it’s going to get its head knocked off. I know I can win and I know how to do it.”
Ryan’s defense specialized in mismatches and pressuring the quarterback. In 1993, the Oilers would lead the NFL in run defense (73 yards per game), lead the AFC in fewest points allowed (238), lead the conference in interceptions (26), set a team record for quarterback sacks and scored six defensive touchdowns.
But the Oilers’ road to success would not be without trials and tribulations. Ryan saw the opportunity to get one of his old linebackers, Wilber Marshall, from the Redskins. Marshall was gifted when healthy but he was another clubhouse cancer – something the Oilers already had plenty of. Controversy swirled over the deal with Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepping in to decide. Houston gave up two high draft picks but not the first-rounder Washington claimed was owed them. Marshall then injured a knee in training camp and wasn’t much of a factor all season.
The draft yielded OT Brad Hopkins and LB Michael Barrow, a short, active inside linebacker Ryan compared to Chicago great, Mike Singletary, whom he had coached. The last draft choice was an unheralded safety named Blaine Bishop.
For a team that had come off the biggest choke in the annals of their sport, you wouldn’t have known it at contract time. Even the backups were bitching about their salaries and who was making more than whom. It looked even worse when the Oilers dropped their season opener in New Orleans, 33-21.
“Everybody just needs to shut up and start playing,” sniped Moon.
But Moon would find himself benched after a lousy game in San Diego, followed by a loss to the overmatched Rams. A Monday Night revenge tilt in Buffalo should have given everyone proper focus but, instead, the Oilers caved in a 35-7 tank job that included seven turnovers. Houston was 1-4 and in danger of imploding.
Cody Carlson got the start in New England but pulled a groin in the second quarter. Back came Moon to lead a 28-14 comeback win, their first in Foxboro in 15 years. Even the much-needed win was overshadowed in the wake of a tempest whose headlines reached beyond the sport pages.
Offensive tackle David Williams refused to join the team in New England because his wife was giving birth. She had miscarried the year before and this was to be their first child. The Oilers fined Williams $111,000, a game check, sparking a furor over whether football or fatherhood should have priority. The anonymous blocker was featured on a flurry of network morning shows and afternoon gabfests including Phil Donahue and Jerry Springer.Vice President Al Gore weighed in, blaming the Republicans. Debi Williams, Dave’s wife, went “Eye-To-Eye” with Connie Chung. For the level-headed, docking someone a week’s pay for missing work didn’t seem so outrageous but it meant the Oilers were, once again, focused on something besides football.
It wasn’t Williams’ fault that the Oiler running attack was stuck in neutral. Holdout Lorenzo White was overweight and slow upon his return and Houston benched him for Gary Brown, a guy who had been a blocking back in college. Brown exploded for 194 yards against Cincinnati in a 28-12 victory. Brown repeated the feat three weeks later in a 27-20 upset in Cleveland. The Oilers had put together five straight wins to get back in the hunt.
Ryan’s new defense was turning into something fierce. They mauled Pittsburgh, 23-3, with six sacks and four turnovers. They stopped Glanville’s Falcons, 33-17, picking off Atlanta passes on four consecutive drives. Predictable of a Ryan-Glanville meeting, the game was marked by penalties and fisticuffs. They stifled the Browns, 19-17, using four Al Del Greco field goals to claim the win. It was Houston’s eighth straight victory but it would soon seem unimportant.
Two days later, the Oilers were shocked to learn that DT Jeff Alm was dead. He was at the wheel in the wee hours of Tuesday morning when his car crashed on a Houston freeway overpass. His best friend was thrown from the car and killed. Overcome with grief, Alm took a shotgun from the trunk of his car and took his own life. He was 25 years old.
After a team memorial and a moment of silence before kickoff, the Oilers responded with an emotional 26-17 triumph that captured the division title. Brown had another huge game while the defense chipped in six sacks, three takeaways and limited the Steeler ground attack to just 38 yards. Houston had sewn up their seventh straight playoff berth, the longest run of any NFL team at the time.
Christmas Day saw the Oilers in San Francisco for a game some billed as a Super Bowl preview. Houston had lost both starting safeties to knee injuries so Ryan turned to Bishop, the last draft choice. Bishop blitzed through the line in the second quarter, stripped Steve Young and fell on the football. It set up a Moon touchdown pass to Ernest Givins that was the key play in a 10-7 upset victory. Cris Dishman also starred, blanketing the unblanketable Jerry Rice. On a national stage, on a grass field, the Oilers had finally shrugged off the loss to Buffalo. It was the sort of game even good Oiler teams usually didn’t win.
With one emotional crest after another, the game most football fans remember from the ’93 season was actually the meaningless finale on national television against the New York Jets. The Oilers coasted to a 24-0 shutout for an 11th consecutive win, finishing with a 12-4 record, the best in team history. The defense dominated once again.
But Buddy Ryan was not happy. He had few kind words for the Run and Shoot offense, often calling it the “Chuck and Duck.” To him, it wasn’t a manly offense nor was it good at running out the clock in close games. When Carlson fumbled with less than a minute remaining in the first half on a typical pass play, Ryan yelled at Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride. Ryan believed that last-minute defensive stands had cost him two players to injury when the Oiler offense could have ran the ball until the clock expired. Gilbride, who had heard this whine before, moved closer, yelling back at Ryan. When they were at arm’s length, Ryan unleashed an overhand right at Gilbride’s head that was little more than a glancing blow. Two players quickly separated the coaches but ESPN, with little else for drama to cover, replayed the punch for the rest of the game. It was a little rare to see coaches on the same team duking it out while their team was ahead but it was the sort of thing that the media would gladly turn into a phenomenon.
Dallas’ Jimmy Johnson, no stranger to controversy himself while fueding with owner Jerry Jones, said the Oilers should be turned into a soap opera. Jet QB Boomer Esiason said the only thing that could stop the Houston juggernaut was “if the coaches kill each other.” Another round of mouthing off in the media ensued, even after Bud Adams threatened fines against employees who spoke to the press about the incident.
Houston needed a bye week to get their heads together and the 11-0 run provided it. Not only did the Oilers escape the oft-lethal wild card round, but they had home field advantage for the second stanza. If the seeding held form, the Oilers would get another rematch in Buffalo and a chance to exorcise all their demons in one afternoon. But first, they had to host the Kansas City Chiefs.
Kansas City needed to come from behind to nip the Steelers in overtime to advance to Houston. These were the Steelers the Oilers had already whipped twice. Astute Oiler watchers might have ominously noted that the Oilers had buried the Chiefs, 30-0, in week two. Of course, the Oilers had similarly thrashed Denver and Buffalo the preceding two years only to fold against them in the post-season.
But those playoff losses were on the road and the Oilers believed their fortunes would be different now that they could fight a critical battle under the Dome. An interception by Steve Jackson led to a Del Greco field goal, then Moon marched the offense 80 yards to paydirt with Brown going over for an early 10-0 lead. A second-quarter drive was stopped when Moon fumbled in Chief territory. Moon fumbled again late in the first half and Ryan exploded on the sidelines but, luckily, the Oilers recovered and no punches were thrown.
Deified Joe Montana led Kansas City to a touchdown to begin the third quarter. Moon was picked off at the two-yard-line to kill another Houston threat. When Montana returned the favor, Del Greco added a field goal to give the Oilers a tenuous 13-7 fourth-quarter lead.
One might have expected a Buddy Ryan defense to slam the door shut but, by now, everyone knows what happens to the Oilers in playoff games. Jackson and Dishman had cheated death several times during the afternoon as they had been beaten by receivers J.J. Birden and Willie Davis, only to have passes fall off their fingertips or land incomplete. Dishman was flagged for interference and Birden grabbed an 11-yard touchdown throw that put Kansas City ahead for the first time. Following another Moon miscue, Montana found Davis behind a baffled Dishman for an 18-yard score. The Chiefs now led, 21-13.
Moon made amends with an 80-yard scoring drive, hitting Givins for the final seven. The Oilers trailed by one with under four minutes left. The Oilers needed a big defensive stand but didn’t get it. Instead, Montana hit Keith Cash for a back-breaking 41-yard play then Marcus Allen ran it in from 21 yards out to give Kansas City a 28-20 upset. The Chiefs would go on to lose in the Buffalo freezer and the Bills would blow their own halftime lead in losing Super Bowl XXVIII to the Dallas Cowboys.
Eight Oilers made the Pro Bowl and, statistically, few were their equal. The winning streak was something no other Oiler team had accomplished and, in fact, no other NFL team had pulled off since the unbeaten Miami Dolphins of 1972. While Moon had something of an off year and only Brown could produce over 1,000 yards on offense, the Oilers were a deep and versatile club with a dominating defense and an offense that still gave other coaches nightmares.
It would be the last great Houston Oiler team.
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.
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