August 1, 2000
Enter the Snake
by Bob Hulsey
If you ever had a next-door neighbor that won the lottery, married the prettiest girl and drove a Ferrari, you’d know how the Oilers felt being in the same division with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Fielding arguably the second-best football team in the NFL was under whelming when it meant being the second-best team in the AFC Central. The Steelers had the Super Bowl trophies and the adulation that came with it. Their faces were in national TV ads. The Oilers were just a local thing – a bunch of chaw-dipping, boot-wearing, good-ol’ boys who never won the blue ribbon. It must have driven Bum Phillips crazy.
With a solid running game, a tenacious defense and an adequate kicking game, Bum saw just one area of his team that needed a serious upgrade. Phillips took the risky turn of trading quarterback Dan Pastorini to the Oakland Raiders for Ken "The Snake" Stabler. At first blush, it was an odd trade.
Stabler had won a Super Bowl and was a master of clutch passes. His premature gray locks lent a look of veteran wisdom that the offense could use to bolster themselves against the swarming Steeler rush. Stabler was an accurate thrower.
Pastorini was not. But the Raiders hoped that a return to his California roots would invigorate him. Dante still owned the sort of cannon that would allow Al Davis to fully use his long passing game. Pastorini was four years younger than the Snake. Stabler’s arm strength was never great and had lost a bit more over time.
Of course, Stabler didn’t have to be the focus of the offense – not while Earl Campbell wore Columbia Blue. But the hype about getting Stabler and beating the Steelers was the talk of Houston that summer. At least it was for folks who didn’t care about baseball. The Astros came within six outs of reaching the World Series in 1980, matching the Oilers in the heartbreak department.
Another Raider landed in Houston by trade that off-season too. His name was Jack Tatum, a vicious strong safety best known for paralyzing New England receiver Darryl Stingley. Tatum penned the autobiography "They Call Me Assassin" in which he bragged about knocking players out cold. One of his favorite hobbies was giving concussions to Steeler receiver Lynn Swann. If the NFL had named an All-Century Goon Team, Tatum would have been a unanimous pick. Tatum joined ball hawk Mike Reinfeldt at the safety positions.
Phillips further aged his team, adding guard Bob Young and linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, an ex-Cowboy whose hot-dogging in the stodgy NFL rubbed some raw nerves.
The draft added little. The top pick was offensive tackle Angelo Fields, a 347-pounder in an era where such size made jaws drop. In today’s game of Fridges, Kitchens and Houses, Fields would rate no more than a large garbage can. Bum gave in to his Steelophobia in later rounds, drafting Terry Bradshaw’s brother Craig – perhaps as a psychological ploy.
Houston would find out early if the moves would make a difference. In the season opener, Pittsburgh picked off five Stabler passes and held Campbell to 57 yards, winning 31-17 in a game that was not as close as the score indicated. Stabler was more himself the next week, completing 23-of-28 in a Monday Night 16-7 victory at Cleveland. The Oilers split their next four games to start 3-3.
Even with Stabler under center, the Oiler offense struggled. So Bum turned to Oakland again for another weapon – tight end Dave Casper, Stabler’s favorite receiver in his Raider days. Phillips designed a two-TE offense to use Casper and Mike Barber in the same set. The pair ended as Houston’s leading receivers.
Campbell asserted himself, rushing for 200+ yards in wins against Tampa Bay and Cincinnati. Only O.J. Simpson had done this before. The Oilers made four-point wins a habit against Denver, New England and Chicago before back-to-back losses to the Jets and the Browns. The Chicago victory came when Phillips called the "Bummerooski", a fake field goal play in which fullback Tim Wilson took an intentional fumble from the center and snuck off tackle for the game’s only touchdown.
The rematch with Pittsburgh in the Astrodome was a bruising free-for-all in which neither defense surrendered. In the end, two Toni Fritsch field goals gave Houston a 6-0 win or the two teams might have fought until the last man stood. It all but kicked the Steelers out of the playoffs and served as a symbolic victory for Phillips but for all the wrong reasons.
Campbell rambled in the final two weeks, ending with 1,934 yards rushing to again capture the league crown. Only Simpson (in a 14-week campaign) had rushed for more yards in a season. Earl’s four 200-yard performances set a league record. Stabler led the league in completion percentage but also in interceptions. The Oilers again finished 11-5 and, again, failed to win the division title. Cleveland had the same record and the tiebreaker.
Ironically, Houston opened the playoffs against Oakland. Pastorini was gone to injuries so Oakland used resurrected Stanford hero Jim Plunkett at quarterback. The two teams traded one-yard touchdowns in the first half.
Fritsch was having a bad day – missing one FG attempt off the upright and having a second blocked by ex-Oiler John Matuszak. Plunkett hit a bomb to Arthur Whittington to start the fourth quarter then Lester Hayes picked off his second pass of the day and sailed to a clinching touchdown. The Oilers fell, 27-7. But before anyone could recover, Houston lost still more.
Owner Bud Adams fired Phillips on New Year’s Eve, ending his six seasons as Head Coach and General Manager. Adams cited Phillips’ refusal to hire an offensive coordinator. The locals questioned if Bud needed an excuse to fire an employee more popular than the owner. Many players were as shocked as the fans.
"It’s got to be a joke," reacted LB Robert Brazile. "As much as Coach Phillips has done for this team, I never thought it could happen."
The Oilers may have had a few star players but the heart and soul of the team was found in unheralded guys who played better than their talents suggested. Phillips got credit for motivating them. The next season offered proof.
Phillips was quickly signed to coach the New Orleans Saints and tried to get most of his coaching staff to follow him. Half of them eventually did. The ones who remained coached under promoted defensive coordinator Ed Biles who (in case there was any doubt) named an offensive coordinator. Ladd Herzeg was named the General Manager, a move that would garner both praise and criticism in the years to follow.
Bum’s trades had depleted the draft choices and none made much impact in 1981.
Biles tried to get tough with the honky-tonking Stabler, insisting on a weight program. Stabler retired in protest. When Giff Neilsen was injured just before the season started, the Oilers begged Stabler until he came back. An $800,000 contract offer accelerated the return.
After years of the easy-going and colorful Phillips, the Oilers’ new head man was neither. At 5’6", Biles was barely taller than Bum’s hat. Veteran players resented the curfews and fines Biles instituted. The team started out well with a 4-2 record but the defense collapsed in losses at New England, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Even Bum’s crummy Saints beat them, 27-24, in an emotional Houston homecoming. The Oilers had enough heart to muster a 21-20 triumph over the hated Steelers in the season finale but all it meant was a 7-9 record for the year and no scent of the playoffs.
The grip of greatness had slipped from the Oilers. The early 1980s would become a repeat of the early 1970s.
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. Ken Stabler Home