When the gun sounded to end Super Bowl L, much of the attention turned to Peyton Manning and his upcoming decision to continue playing or retire. Pundits waxed philosophical on where Denver’s defensive performance placed them in history and Manning’s overall legacy. However a small contingent thought of Wade Phillips and the culmination of another legacy. That of the coaching family he hailed from and his father…the late Bum Phillips.
It’s a rich legacy with Bum Phillips and the late 70’s Houston Oilers. Where a father gave a young Wade his first NFL job in 1976 coaching the defensive line. Bum had arrived the year before to resurrect a moribund franchise that hadn’t made the postseason in nearly a decade. Aside from back to back AFL championships in 1960 & ’61, the team mired in mediocrity without any players of distinction.
In an era where most NFL coaches were still emulating the status quo fire and brimstone approach of a Vince Lombardi or a Don Shula, Phillips was more of a player’s coach. Opting for reasoning and taking more of a personable approach, Bum got to know his players and was known for having laid back practices.
Phillips was one of the first to employ the 3-4 defense as a full time tactic which the Miami Dolphins had made famous during their Super Bowl years in the early 70’s. Shula and Bill Arnsparger used the defense part time to maintain an edge when they were ahead. It was actually a variation of the old Oklahoma 5-2 of the 1950’s however the defensive ends were replaced with quicker outside linebackers.
To make it lethal the Oilers drafted Robert Brazile to man the weakside linebacker spot. He was a 5 time all pro between 1976 and 1980 along with his defensive rookie of the year award. He was the prototype size and speed of the 3-4 outside linebacker the Giants made famous 5 years later with Lawrence Taylor. He was the focal point to a defense that led the Oilers to a 10-4 record in ’75 where they narrowly missed the playoffs.
In ’75 QB Dan Pastorini and WR Ken Burrough each made the Pro Bowl. However over the next two years the offense bogged down without a serious running threat. They struck gold in 1978 when they drafted Heisman Award winning running back Earl Campbell out of Texas. Now they had a focal point on the offensive side of the ball. A one man wrecking ball that punished defenses while toting the rock 30 times a game.
Having to look up in the AFC Central standings to the perennial champion Steelers, the Oilers seemed to be ready to make their move. They finished 2 games behind the Steelers in ’77, yet it looked like Pittsburgh had come back to the pack having failed to reach the AFC Championship for the first time in 4 years.
The NFL was abuzz with the exploits of Campbell, who was leading the league in rushing, and the state of Texas seemed to be gravitating to this new team on the block. Midway through the ’78 campaign, winners in 4 of their last 5 including a 24-17 win in Pittsburgh, the Oilers played their signature game of the era. A Monday Night match-up with Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins.
This Monday Night matchup would become the showcase where the Oilers proved they belonged among the NFL’s elite. Also it would solidify Earl Campbell’s chances to win rookie of the year honors. After all he came into this week 12 contest with 944 yards rushing.
In one of the transcendent games of the ’70’s the Oilers prevailed 35-30. Campbell became the first rookie to lead the NFL in rushing (1,450 yds) since Jim Brown in 1957. The Oilers finished 10-6 to make the playoffs as a wild card. There they beat the Dolphins in Miami 13-7 and beat New England 31-14 to make it to the AFC Championship Game. There they fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers 34-5 who taught them how far they had yet to go.
Yet make no mistake… with the strides they made in 1978 it looked like ’79 would be their year.
The verve and spirit were still there the following season yet this team had the weight of expectation upon them. Campbell again led the league in rushing with 1,697 yards and 19 TDs. They stood toe to toe and slugged it out with the Steelers for supremacy of the AFC Central and wrested control with a 20-17 win in week 15. However a loss in the final week gave the Steelers (12-4) the division and the Oilers would have to go in as a wildcard at 11-5.
A shadow of doubt crept in as the Oilers were right back where they had been the season before. Except this time they would have to play the AFC Divisional against the high flying San Diego Chargers. In the wild card round they lost QB Pastorini, Campbell, and WR Burrough. Without their top passer, rusher and receiver they had to face the #5 defense to go along with San Diego’s #1 offense on the road. What would happen??
In The Chancellor of Football’s estimation, Oiler Safety Vernon Perry turned in the greatest defensive performance in NFL history. Perry wound up making 8 tackles while grabbing a playoff record 4 interceptions and blocking a field goal returning it 57 yards. The Oilers needed every one of these plays to escape with a 17-14 upset. One of the biggest in NFL playoff history.
Surprise! The Oilers would be headed to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship for the 2nd straight year. Unlike the ’78 game where the Oilers were overwhelmed playing in their 1st championship game, this one they were embroiled in a dog fight. With the Steelers up 17-10 and the Oilers driving late in the 3rd quarter, Dan Pastorini lofted a pass for Mike Renfro when…
Sentiment finally came full circle when the refs admitted to the blown call in private but the company line was towed publicly. On that day, a young Chancellor learned about momentum and why the ’79 Championship was tainted by the referee’s blown non call. The officials weren’t allowed to view instant replay in the stadium where we at home clearly saw Mike Renfro in. It lead to a rule change when six years later instant replay was instituted in the NFL.
However that was too late for the Oilers who fell 27-13 that day in which they were clearly cheated. It cast a pall on a day when it seemed as though the game wasn’t settled on the field.
To make that call even more painful, the Oilers never threatened for a Super Bowl again. The following season saw the Oilers deal away starting QB Dan Pastorini for the late Kenny Stabler in an attempt to “kick it in.” This was the adopted slogan for the 1980 season to finally kick the championship door open and make it to the Super Bowl.
Ironically it was Pastorini who won a Super Bowl ring as an injured member of the ’80 Oakland Raiders. In a twist of fate, their first postseason step was a 27-7 win over Stabler and the Oilers in the wildcard round.
It was the last hurrah as 3 losing seasons followed. Bum Phillips had been dismissed in the aftermath of the ’80 Wild Card loss to Oakland. The magic was gone and an era of “Luv ya’ blue” faded into lore. An improbable team with the unlikeliest of characters is still revered in a city where the Oilers left to become the Tennessee Titans, and a new Houston team occupies the city. However the heart of the city of Houston will forever remain with that team of the late 70’s.
“Luv ya’ blue” a legacy indeed…
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