From Campbell to Campbell

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August 24, 2000
Chapter 9: From Campbell to Campbell
by Bob Hulsey

"Strike" is a good word if you are a bowler. If you are a football fan, it is not. A work stoppage was the big story in 1982. For the first time, an NFL season was altered by players refusing to play. It happened during the third week of the season and, as you might have guessed, it stopped the Oilers in the middle of a winning streak. Granted, one win was as long a streak as they had all year, but that one win was unquestionably the high point of the season.

Gifford Nielsen was under center for the 23-21 win in Week 2 against Seattle but he was uninspiring. The offense was still built around three plays: Earl Campbell running left, Earl Campbell running right and Earl Campbell running up the middle. With the offensive line in major overhaul, Earl was like a tractor-trailer stuck up to the lug nuts in mud. He grinded out 538 yards in seven games for a pedestrian 3.4-yard average.

More of Bum Phillips’ players found their way out of Houston. Mike Barber and Angelo Fields were traded away. Others like Carl Mauck and Ken Stabler were released. Some such as Toni Fritsch hung on through training camp but were cut in favor of younger players. Aging stars like Ken Burrough and Billy Johnson were no longer welcome.

Stabler was lassoed by Phillips in New Orleans, which ultimately freed Bum to trade his own veteran signal-caller, Archie Manning, to Houston for holdout OT Leon Gray. One had to feel sorry for Manning. After a storybook career at Ole Miss, the bayou legend had the holy hell knocked out of him for eleven years on woeful Saints teams only to be sent packing to the lowly Oilers. If anyone had experience surviving behind a terrible offensive line, it was Archie Manning.

The NFL expanded their playoff format for the strike year and the Oilers were the only AFC Central team to miss out. They could hardly complain, carrying a 1-8 record that included a 35-7 mauling at the hands of the merciless Cowboys. In New Orleans, Bum’s Saints were 4-5.

The 1983 draft had exciting names throughout. QB’s John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, runners Eric Dickerson and Curt Warner, and defenders Billy Ray Smith and Darrell Green lit up the draft board. Starting with the second overall pick, the Oilers traded down twice to the ninth slot, adding additional picks for depth. Houston chose two offensive tackles in the first two rounds – Bruce Matthews of USC and Harvey Salem of Cal. Here, good minds can disagree.

One school of thought says the Oilers shored up a glaring need with two offensive lineman and that Matthews, who would play into the next century, turned out to be an outstanding pick. Building the offensive line was a foundation for the success of Oiler offenses for years to come. The other school would say that Bud Adams wasn’t willing to pay what the Dickerson’s and Elway’s wanted and took offensive lineman because they are among the lowest paid players in football. Noting that the Oilers drafted guard Mike Munchak first in 1982 and guard Dean Steinkuhler first in 1984 augments this theory.

Aware of Adams’ reputation, some agents made it clear that they would seek other options (a new league, the USFL, will be detailed in the next chapter) for their star players if Houston selected them. And the threats weren’t idle. Elway forced a trade from Baltimore to Denver while Dickerson fussed his way into a gig in Los Angeles.

Manning and Dave Casper were traded to Minnesota for more draft picks. With the exception of a few notable holdovers like Earl Campbell, Elvin Bethea and Gregg Bingham, the Oilers were in a serious rebuilding mode. Bethea was the last one left from the AFL days and, as player rep, he resented how some players undermined him during the strike. He retired at the end of the season.

Campbell had his last hurrah as an Oiler in 1983, rebounding for 1,301 yards rushing and 14 TDs, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. Tim Smith emerged as a receiving weapon, catching 83 passes for 1,176 yards and 6 TDs. That was the good news.

The bad news was that the Oilers weren’t winning. An overtime loss in the season opener against Green Bay started the downward spiral. After beginning 0-6, Head Coach Ed Biles resigned before he could be fired. Defensive coordinator Chuck Studley took the reins. After two overtime losses and a 55-14 home blowout by Cincinnati ran the record to 0-10, the Oilers finally broke through with a 27-17 upset of the Lions. A month later, they shocked Cleveland and finished the year at 2-14. The Saints broke even at 8-8.

Studley saw a lame duck whenever he looked in the mirror. It was either his coaching future or one of QB Oliver Luck’s passes. Studley resigned at the end of the season.

Adams was now in the market for a new head coach and a new quarterback. He wound up getting one so he could get the other. Up in Canada, coach Hugh Campbell had won five consecutive Grey Cups for the Edmonton Eskimos. He needed a new challenge and joined the fledgling USFL as head coach of the Los Angeles Express. Campbell’s quarterback in Edmonton was Warren Moon, a star at the University of Washington in the late 70s, who went unpicked on draft day. He was considered by many to be too short for an NFL quarterback at a time when few blacks were given an opportunity to play quarterback. Five titles in Canada led to some rethinking of this snub.

The smart money had Moon signing with Seattle but that changed when the Oilers inked Hugh Campbell to be their head coach. Soon the Oilers joined the bidding war for Warren Moon. Houston signed him for six million dollars over five years. Most of the city was thrilled. The All-Pro running back who had busted his tail in Houston for six seasons and was earning $350,000 was not.

The Oilers held another high draft pick in 1984 but the rival league produced chaos. Although talent like Reggie White, Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier and Steve Young were available, they opted for the fast bucks of the new league. The Oilers tabbed another offensive lineman, made some solid but unheralded picks afterwards, then "wasted" a pick on Rozier in the fifth round.

Not connected to the NFL coaching pipeline, Campbell brought in some assistants he had little familiarity with. One was a feisty defensive coach with some quirky habits named Jerry Glanville who would gain notoriety later.

Moon adjusted back to the narrower American playing field, but it wasn’t as narrow as the Houston offense, which continued to center on Earl Campbell. Worse still, Campbell was aching. He managed just 278 yards in the first six games. When Bum Phillips stepped up and offered a first round draft choice for his old friend (after his Saints had stomped Houston by 17 points), the Oilers couldn’t say no. GM Ladd Herzeg knew Bum’s weakness – he stayed loyal to players for too long.

"I believe this trade is in the best interests of both the Oilers and Earl," Herzeg told the Houston media. "It gives us the opportunity to select an outstanding young player next year and it gives Earl a chance to hopefully be bound for the playoffs."

In hindsight, Earl got no closer to the playoffs and the young player Houston took with the New Orleans pick (CB Richard Johnson) never lived up to his pre-draft billing.

With Earl dealt, Moon got to open up the passing game and that actually opened up the running game. Squatty fullback Larry Moriarty, who nobody would confuse with Earl Campbell, was suddenly breaking out with 100-yard performances. After another 0-10 start, the Oilers split their last six games to finish 3-13. Only after the previous two years could this be considered an improvement. But the seeds were sprouting that would lead to a new Oiler renaissance.

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 Warren Moon Home

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