So now we know the real motivation behind the Oilers' torturous
efforts to leave Houston. Owner Bud Adams subjected his team to
two years of lame-duck status at the Astrodome--where per game
attendance had fallen by nearly 30,000 since 1991--not, like
those other NFL robber barons, out of greed. No, the move to
Tennessee was Bud's roundabout way of building his team's
Just ask guard Bruce Matthews, a 15-year Oilers veteran. "I
think we'll be better this season because we can concentrate on
football," he says. "We don't have to worry about where we'll be
playing or when we'll be moving, or even if we're going to be
Well, not exactly. The team is holding training camp in
Nashville at the subpar (by NFL standards) facilities at
Tennessee State, where it will practice during the season. But
until a swank new 67,000-seat Nashville stadium is ready in
1999, the Oilers will play their home games 200 miles away at
the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. In effect the Oilers have 16 road
games in 1997.
(Not that that's bad news. Recently Houston, er, Nashville, uh,
Memphis, um, Tennessee ... heck, the Oilers have been one of the
league's top road teams. In 1996 they tied San Francisco for
best away record in the NFL, at 6-2.)
The disruption extends to the team's balance sheet. Adams, who
spent more than $4 million to resolve disputes with the
Astrodome and the city of Houston, has said he won't okay any
huge signing bonuses until the millions from the new stadium
start rolling in. That handcuffed the Oilers this off-season,
resulting in the free-agency departures of the team's two best
defenders--cornerback Cris Dishman and linebacker Micheal Barrow.
"It's hard to say how good our defense is going to be because of
the players who won't be there," says free safety Marcus
Robertson. "We've got so many young guys, especially on the
line, who are under a lot of pressure to produce. So our offense
is going to have to carry its share of the load and score a lot
The attack might do just that. Steve McNair, the third pick
overall in the 1995 draft, enters the season as the new No. 1
quarterback. In his six career starts the 6'2", 232-pound Alcorn
State product is 4-2, with seven TDs, two interceptions and a
96.2 passer rating. His top target will be wideout Chris
Sanders, who led the team in receiving yards last season and
averages nearly 25 yards per reception when McNair is throwing.
Tight end Frank Wycheck had a team-high 53 catches last year,
but he'll be less of a threat in the passing attack as he moves
from H-back to a traditional tight end role under new offensive
coordinator Les Steckel.
McNair, who takes over for oft-injured former starter Chris
Chandler (traded to Atlanta), is respected and well liked by his
teammates. In addition, he possesses the strength of a
linebacker and the skills of a running back. "McNair is ready to
be the guy," says coach Jeff Fisher. "He's going to make some
mistakes, but he's also going to make a lot of big plays."
Tennessee is stacked in the backfield, where Eddie George, the
1996 offensive rookie of the year, will start alongside the
versatile Ronnie Harmon, one of the league's most dangerous
all-purpose backs. Also in the mix is Rodney Thomas, who gained
nearly 1,000 yards as a rookie in 1995.
The three will run behind a line that combines the veteran
leadership of Matthews and center Mark Stepnoski with younger
talents like second-year right tackle Jon Runyan. Best of all,
the Oilers have cast off the last vestiges of their
run-and-shoot mentality. "We're becoming a more physical
offense," says Fisher. "The kind that can wear down a defense in
the fourth quarter."
That's assuming the Tennessee defense can keep the game close
through three quarters. Among those shouldering the load: left
end Anthony Cook, who led the team in sacks last year with 7 1/2
in just 11 games; cornerback Darryll Lewis, who is small at 5'9"
but tough in one-on-one situations and has had 16 interceptions
over the past three seasons; and strong safety Blaine Bishop,
who will make a run at his third straight Pro Bowl.
There are, however, gaping holes up front and at linebacker, due
in part to the financial repercussions of the move. Regardless
of the positive spin being put on the team's recent travails,
not even the Packers could win under these unsettled conditions.
Like their stadium in Nashville, the Oilers probably won't be
ready until 1999. --D.F.
COLOR PHOTO: VINCENT MANNIELLO/SPORTSCHROME COVER [REGIONAL] Tennessee's Time Steve McNair and the Oilers launch a new era
COLOR PHOTO: ANDY LYONS/ALLSPORT With powerful ground support, Air McNair is set for a Tennessee takeoff. [Steve McNair in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 8-8 (fourth in AFC Central)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 121.9 (26) 193.6 (21) 315.5 (18)
DEFENSE 86.6 (2) 201.6 (13) 288.1 (6)
HARD TO PIN DOWN
More revealing than a quarterback's sack total is his total
compared with the number of times he dropped back to pass.
Though a quarterback's offensive-line quality and his propensity
to leave the pocket affect the sack rate (a scrambler like Mark
Brunell opens himself up to more sacks), the figure helps to
show which passers recognize danger and get rid of the ball
best. By this standard, Dave Krieg, acquired this off-season by
the Oilers to back up Steve McNair, was the most difficult NFL
quarterback to sack last year (minimum 300 dropbacks).
Best Sack Rate, 1996
Dropbacks Sacks Dropbacks/sacks
Dave Krieg, Bears 391 14 27.9
Troy Aikman, Cowboys 483 18 26.8
Mike Tomczak, Steelers 417 16 26.1
Jim Everett, Saints 483 19 25.4
Frank Reich, Jets 345 14 24.6
Worst Sack Rate, 1996
Dropbacks Sacks Dropbacks/sacks
Tony Banks, Rams 416 48 8.7
Dave Brown, Giants 447 49 9.1
Steve Young, 49ers 350 34 10.3
Jim Kelly, Bills 416 37 11.2
Mark Brunell, Jaguars 607 50 12.1
PLAYER TO WATCH
Linebacker Lenoy Jones didn't hear his name called during the
'96 draft, but fans should be hearing it this season. As an
undrafted free agent last year, the 6'1", 240-pounder out of TCU
made the Oilers' practice squad and was activated for the final
11 games, whereupon he showed cover ability and the strength and
quickness to beat pass blockers around the corner. Such skills
should earn him a niche in the Oilers' attacking defense.
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Jeff Fisher
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Steve McNair 77[*] 143 att. 88 comp. 61.5% 1,197 yds.
6 TDs 4 int. 90.6 rtg.
RB Eddie George 7[*] 335 att. 1,368 yds. 4.1 avg.
23 rec. 182 yds. 7.9 avg. 8 TDs
RB Ronnie Harmon 136[*] 29 att. 131 yds. 4.5 avg. 42 rec.
488 yds. 11.6 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Chris Sanders 92[*] 48 rec. 882 yds. 4 TDs
WR Joey Kent (R)[A] 150[*] 68 rec. 1,080 yds. 7 TDs
WR Willie Davis 221[*] 39 rec. 464 yds. 6 TDs
TE Frank Wychek 57[*] 53 rec. 511 yds. 6 TDs
PK Al Del Greco 116[*] 35/35 XPs 32/38 FGs 131 pts.
KR Mel Gray 226[*] 50 ret. 24.5 avg. 0 TDs
PR Mel Gray 226[*] 22 ret. 9.3 avg. 0 TDs
LT Brad Hopkins 6'3" 306 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Bruce Matthews 6'5" 298 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Mark Stepnoski 6'2" 269 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Kevin Donnalley 6'5" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Jon Runyan 6'7" 308 lbs. 10 games 0 starts
LE Anthony Cook 44 tackles 7 1/2 sacks
LT Gary Walker 45 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
RT Henry Ford 39 tackles 1 sack
RE Kenny Holmes (R)[A] 53 tackles 10 sacks
OLB Joe Bowden 73 tackles 3 sacks
MLB Barron Wortham 78 tackles 2 sacks
OLB Lonnie Marts[A] 73 tackles 7 sacks
CB Steve Jackson 45 tackles 0 int.
SS Blaine Bishop 109 tackles 1 int.
FS Marcus Robertson 82 tackles 4 int.
CB Darryll Lewis 69 tackles 5 int.
P Reggie Roby 67 punts 44.4 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)