STRANGE BUT TRUE: This season's Texas entry into the deep, dark reaches of the NFL playoffs isn't exactly America's Team. Fact is, the Houston Oilers aren't even Houston's Team. Nobody is quite sure what they are, but whatever it is, they sure are hard to get rid of.
Not-Even-Houston's Team was supposed to have jumped ship to Jacksonville by now. It's a team that spats with its own fans and the local press, a team with a headhunter rep, a team whose uniforms come equipped with shoulder chips. Not only that, the team isn't much fun at weddings. Last September the general manager, Ladd Herzeg, showed up at a Buffalo hotel wedding reception he wasn't invited to in sweatpants and a T-shirt. Seems that Ladd had come down to complain about the noise, and he reportedly wound up slugging the bride's brother.
Uncharacteristically, Herzeg's boys aren't backing down either. On Sunday in the Astrodome they defeathered the Seattle Seahawks 23-20 in overtime in the AFC wild-card game. The Oilers should have won by two touchdowns. Instead, they needed a 42-yard field goal from Tony Zendejas, who could have saved himself a Stress-Tab by making a game-sealing 29-yarder with 1:47 to go in regulation. Still, the win was stirring. In fact, the Oilers' spunky sergeant at arms, coach Jerry Glanville, was so fired up that he said, "We're two games away. We're going to San Diego."
Boastful, you say? Cocky, even? You say this guy makes the Boz look modest? You ain't seen nothin' yet.
Glanville's Gang is waging all-out dislike on the country. It even says so on the team's playoff T-shirts, which were designed by Glanville himself. On the front is an Oilers helmet pitted against a map of the US. Get it? The Helen Reddy school of football: You and me against the world. "Great," says Houston cornerback Steve Brown. "The 49ers gets bonuses. We get T-shirts."
The 49ers, not to mention every other team in the league, also get a lot more attention from the national media. "We haven't been on Monday Night Football since 1980," says Glanville. "We're too ugly." Of course, the fact that Houston has done a lot of losing in recent years may account for the lack of glitz time, too. Until this season the Oilers hadn't had a winning record since their 11-5 finish in 1980, after which they fired coach Bum Phillips.
After Sunday's victory Glanville said, "The New York Times was here today. They discovered us by accident. They were here covering a bowl game."
Glanville has enjoyed a hate-hate relationship with the press all season. Herewith a further sampling of his witticisms on the subject:
•"Three weeks ago, one of the local [TV] channels wanted to have me fired. Now they want to do a special on me."
•"If we win our [next] two, even our local media could be on our side, although there are no guarantees."
•"If I didn't think I'd land in court, I'd show them [the media] my best side." Ever see two moons inside one dome?
The one there now is quarterback Warren, who's having the year the Oilers have been pining for him to have. On Sunday, Moon was resplendent as he completed 21 of 32 passes for 273 yards and led Houston on a 61-yard overtime drive for the winning boot. Equally effective was rookie fullback Alonzo Highsmith, who rushed for a game-high 74 yards and made innumerable good blocks. Then there were the three No. 1 draft choices on the offensive line, led by All-Pro guard Mike Munchak.
However, talent isn't what Houston is primarily known for around the league. The Oilers like to call their dome the House of Pain, and not just in honor of the green driveway that passes for fake grass. No fewer than three teams have complained about cheap shots and late hits perpetrated by the boys in Columbia Blue. Glanville himself was warned by Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll after the Oilers had beaten the Steelers on Dec. 20. A month earlier, cornerback Patrick Allen was fined $5,000 by the league for a late hit on Colts placekicker Dean Biasucci in the waning seconds of Indianapolis's defeat of Houston, and cornerback Brown doesn't practice safe wrecks, either. "I'm aggressive," says Brown with a shrug. "Sometimes a head gets in the way."
In Houston, the Oilers are mostly just ignored. With the owner. Bud Adams, spending much of this season threatening to move the team to Jacksonville, they averaged only 37,125 fans at home. "That's what disappoints me about the city," says the Oilers' ultra-hip, pony-tailed tight end, Jamie Williams. "When we win, everybody is a part of it. I hate bandwagon fans. I'd rather just see our same 30,000 every week. I know it's been hard here, but, hey, the future is now." So captivated was the town by the future that only the largess of a local TV station, which bought the 2,000-plus unsold tickets, kept Sunday's game from being blacked out in Houston. And the Astrodome, which holds 50,594 people, is the smallest stadium in the NFL.
Right now you can bet a lot of nonbelievers are kicking themselves for staying home. They could have seen their semibeloved Oilers dominate every facet of the game except one—trips to the end zone. Houston had possession of the ball more than twice as long as Seattle, gained almost twice as many yards and had nearly three times as many first downs. The Oilers' pesky man-to-man coverage (typically, they call it man-to-rat) and constant blitzing kept Seattle quarterback Dave Krieg in pretzel knots all day. He wound up completing 16 of 38 passes for 237 yards and throwing enough wobblers to trigger the migration season.
Nonetheless, Houston could have lost. Trailing 7-0 after a Krieg to (who else?) Steve Largent 20-yard TD pass, the Oilers got two Zendejas field goals and a Mike Rozier touchdown on a one-yard run. Houston wouldn't have given up anything else if not for a picturesque punt return by Seattle's Bobby Joe Edmonds, who set his friends up at the Houston 19. And what did his friends do? Gain four yards and kick a field goal. So at the half the Oilers led 13-10.
A lousy punt by Houston's Jeff Gossett gave the Seahawks the ball at the Oiler 39. This time they ran five plays before settling for a field goal. Moon threw a buttery pass toward wide receiver Willie Drewrey, and Drewrey, scooting between two Seahawks in the end zone, let the ball melt in his paws for his first NFL TD. Took him three years to do it. Houston now led 20-13.
Through it all Seattle was getting nowhere and Moon kept pouring it on, finally taking his boys on an eight-minute fourth-quarter Sunday stroll. After letting the clock drift from 10 minutes down to two, he left the game in the capable hands of Zendejas, who hadn't missed from 29 yards or closer in two years. So, of course, he ricocheted the ball off the left upright. No good. "He told me, 'Dang, I looked up,' " said Gossett, his holder. "It's just like golf. You can't look up to see where it's going."
When Zendejas next looked up, Seattle was going lickety-split toward a tie. Krieg, who does the best and worst impressions of an NFL quarterback—sometimes in the same day—suddenly became Sammy Baugh. In 1:21 he went 80 yards, connecting with you-know-who for a 12-yard touchdown. (Slow day for Largent: seven catches, 132 yards, two touchdowns.)
"That was my fault," Glanville said later. He had kept his corners in the man-to-rat instead of dropping them into a prevent. "We'd played man for 59 minutes," he said. "I didn't want to suddenly change."
Said Brown, "We tried to get it through his head that that defense wasn't working, but he didn't listen." Loose bunch, eh?
When Houston lost the coin toss before the overtime period, Glanville's mistake, not to mention Zendejas's, was looking fatal. But Krieg's elixir must have worn off. His first pass, a screen, was too low. His second was good for eight yards to tight end Mike Tice. His third was tipped away by Oiler linebacker Johnny Meads. Moon's turn.
Make that the biggest turn of Moon's career. Here was the man who had been brought down from the monotony of winning five straight Grey Cup championships in Canada. Here was the man who had toiled four years in the NFL under four different quarterback coaches. Here was the man who really got to throw the football only when the Oilers' running game had bottomed out again and it was fourth-quarter, heave-it-up time, which plays hell on your interception ratio.
But now, at 31 and in his first NFL playoff game, Moon's moment was at hand. Highsmith took a pass for 11 yards. Moon found backup fullback Ray Wallace for 11 more. Moon had a pass deflected, which Seahawk linebacker Fredd Young seemed to intercept. Or was it trapped? NBC replays showed that the ball was caught. NFL replay officials said it was trapped. "I put both hands under it and caught the ball," said Young. "I had it—totally."
Rozier gained seven. Moon found wide receiver Drew Hill for 11. Six runs in a row and then it was Zendejas's moment. "I knew that if we lost, everyone would blame me," he said.
Moon and Highsmith sat huddled on the bench together, staring at their shoes, afraid to look. When they heard the crowd's verdict, they leaped off the bench and hugged each other. "I was all right then," said Highsmith. "I could breathe again. The blood came back to my head."
Said Moon, "I was so relieved. I just don't know if I could've gone back on that field after all that."
As Zendejas returned to the bench, he told Gossett, "I feel like 10,000 pounds was just lifted off my shoulders."
Let's see. If he had missed, that would have been 44 guys, plus a few coaches, mugging him in broad domelight. That's about 50 guys times 200. He's right. That is 10,000 pounds.
Moon glowed brilliantly in the dome, especially on the winning drive in OT.
Rookie Highsmith kept to the low road, leading the Oiler ground attack with 74 yards.
PETER READ MILLER
Ray Butler's catch against man-to-rat coverage set up Seattle's last-minute tying TD.
PETER READ MILLER
After missing a 29-yarder with 1:47 to go (top), Zendejas hit from 42 in OT.