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Ken Stabler has come out of retirement and quarterbacked Houston to a 2-0 start. The question: Is he a cure-all or no cure at all?

There was an ugly red bruise on his left arm; the sweat was still dripping off his nose; his hair hung in a dank, gray clump; and Kenny Stabler was telling people that, yes, training camp is a sensible way to spend summer afternoons.

It took an injury to the Oilers' interim quarterback, Gifford Nielsen, and many, many phone calls from Houston to various parts of Alabama to bring Stabler back to the Oilers. But here he was, and despite a very lackluster performance by the offense, Houston was 2-0 after Sunday's 9-3 victory over Cleveland.

"You need to go to training camp, there's no doubt about it," Stabler said. "I definitely believe that. Our offense wasn't worth a damn. The defense carried us the whole way."

"How did you attack the Browns today?" he was asked, and Stabler let out his breath in a long sigh and seemed to shrink a couple of inches. "Any damn way I could," he said.

The week before, it seemed that Stabler was on the verge of revolutionizing the game, when the Oilers scored 21 points in the second half to beat the Rams 27-20. O.K., so it took a 95-yard kickoff return by a rookie named Willie Tullis to clinch it, but hadn't Stabler bounced back from a 4-for-11 start with nine straight completions? After the game the Oiler players were telling people, "That first half, that was all the training camp Kenny needed."

Last Sunday things evened up a little. The Browns, bombed 44-14 by San Diego in the opening Monday-nighter, rose up and played ferocious defense. They knocked Earl Campbell out of the box after three quarters. The Oilers' fullback came into the game with a damaged left shoulder, and after a couple of carries, it was obvious he wasn't himself.

"I brought him down with an arm tackle one time," Cleveland Linebacker Clay Matthews said, "and that's something that never happened before. I figured either I'd got a lot stronger or Earl was a lot weaker."

A neck injury finally finished Campbell off—"I tried butting a guy with my head, and it didn't work," he said—and it was up to Stabler and his receivers to carry the offense. The result was three Toni Fritsch field goals and a depressing set of stats: 50 offensive plays vs. 81 for the Browns, 2-for-12 on third-down conversions, 118 yards passing and another 91 on the ground.

What the Oilers got from Stabler was two big plays, and they were just enough. He set up a field goal in the first quarter with a 42-yard completion to Ken Burrough: the ball hung; Burrough, who is 6'3", went up for it; the cornerback, 5'11½" Lawrence Johnson, froze.

Fritsch was put in position for his last field goal, in the fourth quarter, by a 48-yard pass-and-run. Stabler to Campbell's replacement, Adger Armstrong. This was vintage Snake. A play-action fake sucked in two linebackers and Stabler neatly hit Armstrong, cutting in behind them. Aside from that one play, the Oilers' offense in the fourth period totaled five yards.

And this was an offense designed especially for Stabler. In the off-season, the Oilers' new head coach, Ed Biles, brought in an offensive coordinator, Jim Shofner, from the Browns, a terrific guy with quarterbacks. Under Shofner's direction, the 49ers' John Brodie had some great years. At Cleveland, Brian Sipe called Shofner "the most inspirational coach I've ever been associated with. It's no coincidence that when Shofner came to Cleveland, people were speculating about my losing my job, and three years later I won the MVP."

Shofner and Biles decided to gear their offense to Stabler's extraordinary ability to get all the receivers into the offense. They junked the double-tight-end I-for-mation that was designed for Campbell. "We gave Stabler an offense very similar to what he had in Oakland," Shofner says, "something we felt he'd be comfortable with."

Then, on Wednesday, July 22, veterans' reporting day, Stabler threw the gears into reverse when he announced he'd had it with pro football. All sorts of things were read into that announcement: that Stabler didn't much care for Biles, a tough little Ohioan who had spent 28 years in coaching before he finally landed a top spot in the NFL, and that Biles, who had announced that he was going to tighten discipline on the club and enforce a curfew, felt the same way about Stabler.

"That just wasn't true," Biles says. "Hey, he was our quarterback, our No. 1 guy. I'm not crazy, you know."

There had been hard words spoken by some of the Oilers after the 1980 season, which ended with a 20-point loss to Oakland in the first round of the playoffs and the firing of Coach Bum Phillips. Most of them concerned the two-tight-end offense, but some of the criticism spilled over to Stabler himself. The suggestion was that he had taken full advantage of Phillips' rather loose training rules and wasn't giving the game the old dedication.

Some players said that the way the Snake handled his retirement was just another example of his laissez-faire way of doing things—that when his child-support payments, for instance, were upped from $500 a month to $1,400, he just kept on paying at the old rate until a California bench warrant for his arrest brought about a settlement with his ex. It was recalled that he had stiffed a Phillips charity golf tournament without explanation, that he hadn't shown up at his own football camp in Marion, Ala.

Stabler finally returned on Wednesday night, Aug. 26. He huffed his way through his first practice, jogging a bit at the end and nearly collapsing. When he threw a few passes and one of them fluttered and died and was easily picked off by a linebacker, the defensive guys howled, "Training camp, Kenny! Training camp!"

"Oh, yeah, this is much better than drinking beer and lying on the beach," Stabler said after the workout. "Running plays and dying. That's much more fun."

Then on Sunday, Aug. 30, the saga took another strange turn when The New York Times ran a front-page story that Stabler frequently had been seen with one Nicholas Dudich of Perth Amboy, N.J., who years before had twice been convicted of bookmaking.

Not the front sports page, the front page of the whole paper, right up there with the U.S. position on South Africa and the high-interest crisis.

The party line from Houston was that it was all a plant by Oakland owner Al Davis, who said he'd informed the league office of the Stabler-Dudich association, which went back at least five years. Tex Schramm, the Dallas Cowboys' general manager, made a pointed reference to "the Oakland input," suggesting that Davis had given the story to the Times.

"That just isn't true," Davis says. "Tex has become the league lackey. The Times called me."

The Times backs up Davis' contention, pointing out that it had initiated the story using as a starting point material it had had on file for two years and that the reporters who worked on the story, John M. Crewdson and Wendell Rawls Jr., were Pulitzer Prize winners and not the kind of people who would fall for a plant job. The NFL office, which had investigated the Stabler-Dudich association as early as 1978 and had given Stabler a clean bill, launched another, brief investigation into the matter.

"Of course we reacted to the Times story," says Pete Rozelle. "We've got to react to any kind of negative publicity."

As for Stabler's relationship with Dudich, Rozelle says, "I think Dudich is a kind of groupie, nothing more. If something serious had been going on, the betting line would have reflected it, and it never moved much, either at Oakland or at Houston."

The Oiler players rallied around their quarterback. "Hey, The New York Times is read around the world, isn't it?" said Offensive Tackle Leon Gray. "I can just see some guy in Paris picking up the Times and reading the front page and saying, 'Who eez thees person, le Snake?' "

According to another teammate, Gregg Bingham, a linebacker, Stabler isn't quite who he seems to be. "In spite of all his Cool Hand Luke stuff," says Bingham, "his feelings are hurt very easily. When everyone's sitting around a bar in 1995, talking about who the great quarterbacks were in this era, well, all Kenny wants is his name mentioned alongside the other guys'."



Stabler had a top-flight opener in Los Angeles, but he was clearly winging it against Cleveland.