Missing Rings: 1979 Houston Oilers – Luv Ya’ Blue

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.

Coach Phillips and Eddie Biles giving instruction to standout linebacker Robert Brazile.

Coach Phillips and Eddie Biles giving instruction to standout linebacker Robert Brazile.

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. 

dan_pastorini_drew_brees_nflpa_08302011Having 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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The Soul of The Game: Earl Campbell

When it comes to great hitting in the NFL, the first vision that comes to mind are those of defenders teeing off on offensive players. Yet some of the most frightening collisions were those that took place when Earl Campbell ran with the football. His aggressive style of play burst onto the NFL scene in 1978 and for the next four seasons was the most dynamic force the league had seen since Jim Brown’s retirement more than a decade before.

In the lineage of great power backs he was Larry Csonka’s successor in the 1970’s while raising the profile of the Houston Oilers. He was used as a bludgeoning weapon to hammer defenses into submission. The only defense he couldn’t beat down with regularity was the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh. In back to back AFC Championship Games in 1978 and 1979, they kept Campbell short of a deserved Super Bowl visit. Yet against Atlanta’s Gritz Blitz, Denver’s Orange Crush, or even Dallas’ Doomsday Defense, he was the Oilers complete gameplan. Some of his best games came against the best defenses of his day.

In 1977 the Atlanta Falcons had set the record for fewest points given up in a 14 game NFL season with 129. They’re “Gritz Blitz” of Jerry Glanville had first shot at the former Heisman winner in game one of 1978. Campbell smashed off tackle for a 73 yard touchdown in the 1st quarter en route to 137 yards for the game. The fact they were behind for much of the game is why he only carried 15 times. He showed he belonged.

Against the Dallas Cowboys in 1979, a national televised audience tuned in on Thanksgiving to see Earl Campbell vs. Doomsday at Texas Stadium. Again he broke off tackle trampling Cowboys on the way to a 61 yard touchdown that set the tone for the day. His 195 yards rushing was the most ever given up (at that time) in the history of Texas Stadium. He was the star of the game.

Yet when you think of Earl Campbell, it was the collisions that come to mind. He was the most physical runner in NFL history. You’d have to give him the nod over Jim Brown because of the size of the fronts he faced. In the 1960s Brown faced defenses that averaged 250 lbs on the defensive line. He outweighed the linebackers of the time and the contemporary talent was fractured with so much defensive size being displayed over in the AFL. Campbell was facing defensive linemen in the 280 lbs range with middle linebackers outweighing his 225 lbs.

He was able to produce more force than both Brown and Larry Csonka because of the additional room taking the ball on pitches and handoffs back in the I formation and not from a fullback setting. Who was the most punishing runner in NFL history in your eyes?? The Chancellor’s vote is in.

Legendary Days: Rookie Earl Campbell Rushes For 199 Yards on Monday Night

One of the biggest travesties that has taken place over the last ten years was the move of Monday Night Football to cable television. In fact it’s only trumped by the proliferation of too many channels carrying NFL football. When you go back to the last generation of us fans, many of our seasons were remembered by tremendous performances on Monday Night.

One great performance there and you were a made man in the eyes of all NFL fans, for every single one of them were watching the same exploits.  ABC was accessible to the rich and the poor, the young and the old, which allowed generations of fans to watch the same game as well.

The "Luv Ya' Blue" Houston Oilers of the late 1970's was a team that almost won it all.

The “Luv Ya’ Blue” Houston Oilers of the late 1970’s was a team that almost won it all.

Well on one memorable Monday Night in 1978, every NFL fan watching witnessed one of the transcendent games of the 1970’s. The Houston Oilers were 7-4 and hosting the 8-3 Miami Dolphins in the marquee game of the week.

You have to understand the Oilers had been one of the NFL’s bottom feeders their entire existence up to that point. They had only appeared in 1 postseason game in their entire 19 year existence. A 40-7 loss in the 1967 AFL Championship Game. So even that hadn’t gone so well….

Enter Earl Campbell

Every year the NFL has it’s share of rookies who are supposed to live up to press clippings. The “Tyler Rose” stepped onto the field with the Oilers from day one and showed he belonged. Having won the Heisman Trophy his senior season at Texas, he came in as a marked man. Although he had lifted the lowly Oilers into playoff contention, the majority of America had only read of his exploits in newspapers. This Monday Night matchup would become the showcase where the Oilers proved they belonged with 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.

Just as the late Bum Phillips recalled in the clip above, it was one where the crowd noise helped carry the game past a good game into one of great remembrance. Campbell, being cheered on by a raucous crowd, put on a performance for the ages that trumpeted his arrival as well as the Oilers as a force to be reckoned with. It was a back and forth game Houston won 35-30.

This may not have been one of Don Shula’s Super Bowl teams from half a decade before but they were an 11-5 AFC East Wild Card participant that year.  In fact, the Oilers would defeat them again 13-7 down in the Orange Bowl for Houston’s first ever postseason win. Who was the AFC East Champion that year?? The New England Patriots who were rocked 31-14 as Campbell powered the Cinderella Oilers to the AFC Championship Game.

Campbell leapfrogging Patriot cornerback Raymond Clayborn in the '78 playoffs.

Campbell leapfrogging Patriot cornerback Raymond Clayborn in the ’78 playoffs.

Alas they fell to the Steelers in the championship game and would do so again in 1979. Yet it was this performance that put Earl Campbell on the map for good in the eyes of all football fans, not just the NFL. You have to realize the majority of America was down to just NBC, CBS, and ABC when it came to college football and most hadn’t seen him play at the collegiate level. Campbell wound up rushing for 1,450 yards to lead the league in rushing. It was the first time a rookie had done so since Jim Brown in 1957.

Of course he would go on to the collegiate and Pro Football Hall of Fames and ushered in the era of the big super back. George Rogers, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, and Keith Byars would follow from college to pro. However none captured the imagination of the football world the way Earl Campbell did that November Monday Night.

As their careers are forever attached, Campbell and Phillips exit Three Rivers Stadium after the 1979 AFC Championship Game.

As their careers are forever attached, Campbell and Phillips exit Three Rivers Stadium after the 1979 AFC Championship Game.

This article is dedicated to the memory of former Houston Oiler Head Coach Bum Phillips (September 29, 1923 – October 18, 2013) A coach who nearly made it to legendary status yet is remembered for the family atmosphere he fostered on those teams. He was the quintessential Texas gentleman that called games for the Oilers for years on radio as well. NFL fans everywhere will miss him.

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