The Oilers have underachieved like few other teams the past two
seasons, but at least they had excuses. One day, the team was in
Houston. The next day, Memphis. Now, unless owner Bud Adams's
love of Peru overwhelms him, the club's based in Nashville.
The Oilers' quarterback was Chris Chandler. No, it was Steve
McNair. No, Chandler. Yes, McNair--definitely McNair.
The Oilers would practice in Nashville, then drive to Memphis for
home games. No, fly to Memphis. Drive. Fly. Drive. Fine, fly.
The Oilers will change their name. No, they won't. Yes, they
will. No. Yes. No. Yes. Fine, yes--but not until 1999. And not to
something stupid like Banjo Pickers, dammit.
This is the life of the vagabond football team. Who are we?
Where do we belong? What's our name? "It was hard to concentrate
on football with all that other stuff," says running back Eddie
George, the main bright spot in back-to-back 8-8 seasons. "We
can focus on football finally, and not on getting our families
settled and trying to find a bank. The little things, they weigh
There are no little things anymore for the Oilers, just big talk
of a big passing game with several big new weapons. Moreover,
the team has finally rooted itself in Nashville, practicing at
Baptist Sports Park and playing its home games at Vanderbilt
Stadium until a new facility is completed in 1999.
Hence, the new alt-band-sounding motto: No excuses.
The Oilers are way beyond 8-8 talent and maybe not as far below
Jacksonville and Pittsburgh in the AFC Central as most people
think. "We won't be satisfied just making the playoffs," coach
Jeff Fisher says. "We're going for it all." The offense, which
ranked third in the league in rushing but 29th in passing last
year, has been bolstered and tinkered with.
Tennessee already had one of the NFL's toughest offensive lines,
and now it has two big-play receivers in Yancey Thigpen, a
free-agent pickup, and rookie Kevin Dyson, the team's
first-round draft choice out of Utah, plus soft-handed tight end
Jackie Harris, another free-agent signee. McNair, who completed
52% of his passes and threw for 14 touchdowns and 13
interceptions in 1997, looked anxious in the pocket in his first
full season as a starter but has been ordered to load the cannon
for this fall. "We're ready to explode," says fourth-year wide
receiver Chris Sanders, a part of what suddenly seems to be one
of the league's juiciest receiving corps. "Everyone here knows
we're not some .500 team. With the receivers we've got now,
we're going to make some things happen."
Last season the Oilers' offense was George, George and more
George. He rushed for 1,399 yards on a whopping 357 carries. (By
comparison, Barry Sanders reached 2,053 yards on 22 fewer
chances.) Opposing defenses, which stacked as many as eight or
nine men near the line, knew what was coming. George, who turns
25 on Sept. 24, is hauntingly similar to the last great Oilers
running back, a chap named Earl Campbell--a young, bruising
runner who pulverized as many defenders as possible. At 24,
Campbell was the best thing since Jim Brown. At 30, he was a
worn-out shell collecting dust in New Orleans.
Perhaps that is why Fisher, a mild-mannered sort, was so upset
with George for his infrequent participation in the team's
voluntary 18-week off-season lifting and conditioning program.
Fisher also was annoyed last year with George's habit of flying
out of Nashville on Monday evening and spending Tuesday, the
team's day off, somewhere--anywhere--else. "The thing we want to
get across to Eddie is that every year you get older, and you
have to work harder to maintain that level," says Fisher. "It's
difficult to do when you have so much going on."
During the winter, George says, he worked out regularly at his
alma mater, Ohio State, and in fact reported to training camp
looking as hard as a rock. During late-July practices he was
running fast, hard and--as usual--through people. The Oilers
even have designs on making the '95 Heisman winner the complete
player Campbell never was. George caught only seven passes last
season. This year, expect at least 20. George, who ran for just
six TDs in '97 season, was often replaced on third downs. This
year he's in there.
"Eddie's not like Terrell Davis, trying to pop that 60-yard run,"
says H-back Frank Wycheck. "He's a grinder, and eventually he's
going to wear on those defensive backs. I saw it last year. Early
on they come in hard on him, but by the third quarter everyone
shies away. He's just too tough to handle."
As may be the Oilers. --J.P.
COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE L. SCHWARTZMAN READY FOR EDDIE Defenses stacked to stop the workhorse George (opposite) now will suffer at the hands of Thigpen & Co. [Eddie George in game]
B/W PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Hopkins [Brad Hopkins]
Sept. 6 at Cincinnati
13 SAN DIEGO
20 at New England
Oct. 4 OPEN DATE
11 at Baltimore
Nov. 1 at Pittsburgh
8 at Tampa Bay
22 N.Y. JETS
29 at Seattle
Dec. 6 BALTIMORE
13 at Jacksonville
20 at Green Bay
26 MINNESOTA (Sat.)
1997 Record 8-8 (3rd in AFC Central) NFL rank (rush/pass/total):
offense 3/29/18; defense 4/27/22
1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 5 (tie) Opponents' 1997
winning percentage: .539 Games against playoff teams: 8
Coming Up Dry
Tennessee's Anthony Cook was the only defensive lineman in the
NFL to start all 16 regular-season games last year and fail to
get a sack. (In addition, the Oilers' Barron Wortham was one of
only two linebackers who started every game without getting
either a sack, a fumble recovery or an interception; the 49ers'
Gary Plummer, who retired after the season, was the other.) Of
the six other linemen in the 1990s who, like Cook, were shut
out, only two markedly improved their sack output the following
Year GS Sacks year GS Sacks
Anthony Cook, Oilers 1997 16 0 1998 ? ?
Luther Elliss, Lions 1995 16 0 1996 14 6 1/2
Jimmie Jones, Rams 1995 16 0 1996 14 5 1/2
Gerald Williams, Panthers 1995 16 0 1996 14 1
Moe Garder, Falcons 1994 16 0 1995 16 1/2
William Perry, Eagles* 1994 16 0 -- -- --
Ken Clarke, Vikings* 1991 16 0 -- -- --
*Perry and Clarke played their last NFL games in 1994 and 1991,
If there were such a thing as the Thick Skin Award, then
sixth-year left tackle Brad Hopkins would have been a multiple
winner early in his career, with coaches and the media
constantly on his case for allowing too many blind-side
quarterback hits. Now, though, Hopkins has improved to become
one of the Oilers' most effective blockers. Prime example: In a
31-14 defeat of the Bills last Nov. 23, Hopkins allowed
nine-time All-Pro Bruce Smith only one tackle.... Ex-Packer
Craig Hentrich signed for $1.1 million per year, making him the
NFL's first million-dollar punter.... G.M. Floyd Reese called
Steve McNair last Feb. 14 to wish him a happy 25th birthday.
"I've got a hell of a present for you," Reese said. It was
Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics
Coach: Jeff Fisher
Fifth season with Oilers (24-30 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Steve McNair[PVR*] 55 415 att. 216 comp. 52.0%
2,665 yds. 14 TDs 13 int. 70.4 rtg.
RB Eddie George 25[PVR*] 357 att. 1,399 yds. 3.9
avg. 7 rec. 44 yds. 6.3 avg. 7 TDs
H-B Frank Wycheck 132[PVR*] 0 att. 0 yds. N.A. 63
rec. 748 yds. 11.9 avg. 4 TDs
RB Rodney Thomas 273[PVR*] 67 att. 310 yds. 4.6 avg.
14 rec. 111 yds. 7.9 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Yancey Thigpen[N] 94[PVR*] 79 rec. 1,398 yds. 7 TDs
WR Kevin Dyson (R)[N] 171[PVR*] 60 rec. 824 yds. 2 TDs
WR Chris Sanders 323[PVR*] 31 rec. 498 yds. 3 TDs
TE Jackie Harris[N] 196[PVR*] 19 rec. 197 yds. 1 TD
K Al Del Greco 104[PVR*] 32/32 XPs 27/35 FGs 113 pts.
PR Derrick Mason 408[PVR*] 13 ret. 7.3 avg. 0 TDs
KR Rodney Thomas 273[PVR*] 17 ret. 20.4 avg. 0 TDs
LT Brad Hopkins 6'3" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Bruce Matthews 6'5" 309 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Mark Stepnoski 6'2" 263 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Jason Layman 6'5" 306 lbs. 13 games 0 starts
RT Jon Runyan 6'7" 316 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Anthony Cook 33 tackles 0 sacks
LT Gary Walker 44 tackles 7 sacks
RT Henry Ford 50 tackles 5 sacks
RRE Kenny Holmes 3 tackles 7 sacks
OLB Joe Bowden 84 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
MLB Barron Wortham 97 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Lonnie Marts 50 tackles 1 sack
CB Samari Rolle (R)[N] 43 tackles 7 int.
SS Blaine Bishop 81 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
FS Marcus Robertson 62 tackles 5 int.
CB Darryll Lewis 59 tackles 5 int.
P Craig Hentrich[N] 75 punts 45.0 avg.
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)