There the Houston Oilers were last week, a padded collection of Joe Btfsplks huddling behind the high fence that surrounds their practice field, seemingly the only remaining refuge from the derision that has been showered upon them all season long, when suddenly a voice thundered from on high. A hard hat was standing on the seventh floor of a building under construction that overlooked the field. "Hey," he hollered, "when are you guys ever gonna win a game?"
Sunday, it turned out, for they managed to beat the Baltimore Colts 31-27. The victory snapped Houston's 18-game losing streak and ended the Oilers' chances of surpassing the record of the Chicago Cardinals, who romped to 29 straight defeats in the early '40s. Still, the Oilers did not take victory lying down. Handed an 18-point first-half lead, they thrilled Baltimore fans with their subsequent maladroitness. First Lynn Dickey hit Fred Willis in the face mask with a pass that caromed to Colt Stan White for a touchdown. On Houston's next series Dickey went to Willis again, this time carefully underhanding the ball. Willis deftly swatted it to the turf and Baltimore scored a few plays later.
At the two-minute warning, Houston was trailing comfortably 27-24. But they stunned the Colts, the fans and—most of all—themselves by marching 85 yards in six plays, sure-handed Fred Willis taking a screen pass in for the winning score with 32 seconds left.
The Oilers still have the worst record in the NFL, but no matter. They ordered champagne for the flight home.
The man whom most credit with the current state of Oiler affairs, Owner Bud Adams, missed his team's finest moment. Perhaps due to growing frustration, he had decided to stay in Houston and watch the game on TV. A rotund multimillionaire, Adams owns 20-odd companies (after 20, who counts?) that gross $100 million per annum. He has a pond in his office to prove it. Yet in Houston, people gauge his genius solely on the won-lost record of the Oilers. And the word around town is that the only thing that will save the team is Bud Adams selling it.
Poor Bud. Even his new head coach, Sid Gillman, does not hesitate to point a finger. "It was bad management right to the core," he says when asked how the Oilers reached their present depths. "The success of a pro football team starts with the front office, with ownership, and works down."
If Adams has a failing (the Oilers have, after all, been making money) it is a penchant, one might even call it a passion, for dismissing head coaches who were hired by underlings to whom he delegated authority. "Bud knows football," says an associate, "but he doesn't know too much about people."
Lately Adams has sought solace in superstition. Last week while sitting at his massive mahogany desk, he held up a blue rabbit's foot. Oiler blue. He had dutifully stroked the good luck piece when Houston upset the Dallas Cowboys and the Colts in exhibition games. Now he absently brushed a forefinger over the tiny piece of fur. "But the next week it failed me," he said, tossing the charm to the far reaches of his desk. He had tried wearing his Oiler blue blazer, but that failed him, too. "It wasn't the same one I wore when Houston was winning," he offered as a possible explanation, patting his expanded waistline. He talked of a woman he knew who had held an unlit cigarette throughout the Cowboy exhibition and had brought it to every game since. "I finally had to tell her to throw it away," Adams said resignedly. "It wasn't any use."
It took a concentrated unbuilding program to reduce Adams' Oilers to their present state. Last Sunday the Denver Broncos, a team on the rise, started four former Houston players, while in Baltimore the Oilers had no one to show for them or for Placekicker Roy Gerela, Linebacker George Webster and Tackle Glen Ray Hines of Pittsburgh or Wide Receiver Jerry LeVias of San Diego.
Ed Hughes, who coached Houston in 1971 and whose five-year contract Adams terminated with four years remaining, engineered most of these deals; Bill Peterson executed the rest, which helped terminate his contract 3½ years ahead of time. It was Peterson who got the 18-game losing streak rolling with a humiliating 34-0 loss to Oakland in a nationally televised Monday night game. "They won't put us back on TV for 10 years," moaned one Oiler player.
Peterson's main problem was organization, or rather the lack of it. His game plans were unnecessarily long—"the Grab Bag Offense" Houston players called it. Nor did he bridge any credibility gaps when he opened his mouth. When one of his assistants remarked in San Diego last year, "I'm tired. It's only 10 o'clock here but it's midnight back in Houston," Peterson quickly observed, "Yeah, that by itself is enough reason not to live out here."
In the off-season the Oilers plotted to surround Peterson with top assistants and hired Sid Gillman, the former San Diego coach, as executive vice-president-general manager. Peterson's days were numbered. He lost whatever control he had over the team. When he fined one of his players for an oversight in an exhibition game last summer, the player protested. The coach doubled the fine. "You can fine me until your heart's content," the player yelled at a team meeting.
A ranter and raver on the practice field his first year, Peterson became a lost soul, standing at the back of practice groups, chatting with taxi squadders and peering over people's shoulders to get a look at what was going on. Words continued to betray him. He regretted the loss of three draft choices (John Matuszak, George Amundson and Joe Blahak) to the College All-Star camp. It was hard to work, he said, "without Matsuey, Almerson and Blaylock." On the daily itinerary, under uniform of the day, he wrote "helmets and headgears." Players began to listen to him more for Petersonisms than for instruction. "When they play it [the national anthem]," he said, "I want you standing on your helmets at attention with the sideline under your arm."
Gillman took over as offensive coordinator before the fourth regular-season game, a 31-26 loss to the Rams. That day Houston Center Bill Curry suffered a badly broken leg, an injury that might end his career. Gillman visited him in the hospital after the game. "If there's anything bothering you, let me know," he said. To ease his pain Curry had been given a shot that made him slightly delirious. He blurted, "As a matter of fact, something's bothering me now. When's the charade going to end?" After a 48-20 loss to Denver the following week, General Manager Gillman hired himself as head coach of the team.
But the prospect in Houston remains bleak. Gillman has cracked the whip and handed out fines left and right, and he has told the team not to expect miracles. "I didn't come here to be a prophet," he announced. "No," mumbled one of the players, "you came here to be a god."
"It's like visiting friends doing eight to 10," wrote David Casstevens of the Houston Post, describing what it is like to cover the Oilers. In a section of the Post devoted to reporters' predictions, Stan Slaten selected Baltimore over Houston by 100 points. Columnist Jim Murray wrote: "On any given Sunday, any given team in the NFL can beat the Houston Oilers." The Oilers, it seems, can't even beat the odds, against which they are 6-16 over the past two years. Last week two Houston bookies refused to take bets on the Oiler-Colt game.
The outlook for 1974 is even worse. Asked about coaching next season, Gillman says it is "absolutely my intention to step out." Health forced him to resign in 1969, and he says, "I don't have the energy or the strength to be a pro football coach anymore." Gillman says he will devote the off-season to finding a coach who is "young, hardworking, dedicated, knowledgeable" and a host of other things that add up to somebody too intelligent to want anything to do with Houston. As if things weren't bad enough, General Manager Gillman has long since traded away the Oilers' first, second, third, fifth and sixth draft choices for next season.
And, of course, a new coach will just compound the Oilers' biggest problem—the unrelenting state of flux. In the 1970s the Oilers have had four head coaches, four defensive line coaches, three defensive backfield coaches, four offensive backfield coaches, three linebacker coaches, three receiver coaches, three offensive line coaches, three trainers, three general managers, three team physicians and nine victories. Twenty-six of the 47 players are new this year and Gillman's whirlwind dealing has not stopped. "Anybody that can walk, chew gum and breathe will get a look," he promised last week, although he qualified that by demanding that aspirants be able to handle these three skills "at the same time." Groaned one Oiler, "It's pathetic. It's pitiful."
"The players all want out," says Tom Regner, who was an Oiler guard for six seasons before retiring this year to help run an Italian restaurant across the street from Houston's mosquito-infested practice field. "I can see it in their faces. They come in here and shake their heads. I just say, 'I know.' You don't have a future here. Head coaches don't have a future here. How can a player have a future? The only thing you've got to look forward to each year is a new coach and a new system." He wiped his hands on his apron and stared out the window at the practice field fence. "I'd rather be making sandwiches," he said.