Several fumbles and many interceptions ago, the Houston Oilers ranked as the poorest joke in professional sport, a football team apparently designed for one big belly laugh and one small victory per season. Playing in and out of the Astrodome, where indoor air pollution may have been invented, the Oilers relentlessly marched to 1-13-0 records in 1972 and '73, yielding almost 32 points a game in 1973. Their ineptness afield, however, was surpassed for laughs by a front-office comic opera starring K.S. (Bud) Adams Jr., the team owner. With a deserved reputation as a meddler, Adams fomented bad trades, worse drafts and the morale of death row. He also fired more coaches than any alumni association and leaked the Oilers' myriad miseries to the press.
"That had to be the most frustrating time of my life," says Oiler Quarterback Dan Pastorini. "We'd go through a coach a year, with new staffs and new player personnel. It seemed we were getting worse and worse and all the good players we had were being traded. Our attitude was so bad we'd go into games wondering how we were going to lose rather than how we were going to win."
Neither slapstick nor losing is now the style at Houston; the only laughter today emanates from the team's endearingly homespun coach, Bum Phillips, and the Oilers themselves. Where once grew a string of dreary defeats, the Oilers have harvested victories, each marked by an unusual, superb defense and an even rarer team unity. After last Sunday's 24-8 triumph over the Detroit Lions, Houston had a 5-1 record along with the bright prospect—if nothing better—of its first winning season since 1967.
Using the three-man rush line which Phillips, its most zealous champion, employs almost all the time, the Oilers are tough in rushing defense, with an average yield of 106 yards per game. They have allowed but 66 points and have sacked opposing quarterbacks 24 times, which is the statistical profile of a contender. The Houston offense has shown less dramatic improvement, but in contrast to the fallow years it also has made far fewer mistakes. The offense, incidentally, should be nothing less than fearsome if the brash predictions of Don Hardeman, the rookie running back from Texas A&I, come true. When Hardeman came to camp he flatly asserted he would 1) make Pastorini an All-Pro, 2) score every seventh time he carried the ball and 3) become Rookie of the Year. Hardeman has rushed for 374 yards on 99 carries, which has won applause but also convinced Houstonians that Hardeman should leave predictions to Muhammad Ali. Hardeman's teammates have nicknamed him Jaws.
While the Oilers may appear to be an overnight sensation, the team's resurgence began in the latter half of last season under the now-departed Sid Gillman, an irascible, intimidating coach whose playbook rivaled the Manhattan phone directory in size. Despite his trouble in getting along with people, Gillman won the respect of his players, persuaded them they could win and brought some talented athletes to the club through trades.
Gillman's finest acquisition came last fall when he traded John Matuszak and a No. 3 draft choice to Kansas City for Curley Culp and a No. 1 pick. The deal now bears the stamp of genius. Ostensibly settled in for a lame-duck season before he would go to the WFL, Culp became the nose man of Phillips' three-man front, which includes Defensive Ends Tody Smith and Elvin Bethea. The Oilers won six of their last eight, including a 13-10 conquest of the Steelers, to finish with a .500 season, and now have chalked up 11 victories in their last 14 contests, with Culp pointing the way.
Though Gillman may have gotten the Oilers started before retiring at the age of 63 last winter, the team's continued success should be credited in large measure to Phillips, 52, a tobacco-chewing, down-home ex-Marine who was a Gillman assistant and is about as pretentious as a combat boot. In a profession rampant with CIA-type secrecy, uptight press relations and grim suspicion of "outsiders," Phillips is a Texas delight. Repeatedly violating the laws dictating coachly behavior, Phillips has been the warm personification of Southern hospitality, his door—and beer cooler—always open to the press, which was often the target of Gillman's rage and open hatred.
Early in training camp, Phillips invited two Houston newspapermen into the previously closed sanctum of a team meeting. In an action George Allen will not soon duplicate, Phillips introduced the reporters to his players and announced, "These men will be covering us throughout camp and through the season. It will be beneficial to you and to the Oilers if you will cooperate with them in every way." As if that were not enough, he later told one of the reporters to borrow his car when transportation was a problem.
Phillips' given name is Oail ("Cain't nobody spell it or pronounce it or anything") and his folksy ways and disarming friendliness make him the NFL's answer to Jed Clampett. But in discussing his three-man defense he is as sharp as any professor who ever warmed to his subject.
"It makes more sense that you can defend against the pass better with eight people than you can with seven," he says. "And as for the rush part of it, it's just about as easy as with a four-man front because you can rush one of your linebackers. It baffles the quarterback because you can get so much more variation with eight people back there than you can with seven. Quarterbacks are also used to seeing a middle linebacker and reading their keys off him. Now with the 3-4, you come in with two middle linebackers, it messes the quarterbacks up and it messes protections up.
"Well, after playing it so many years in high school and college, I knew that when we put a nose man in there the center couldn't be a good pass protector because he's got to raise his shoulders after he snaps the ball. By then the nose man is by him. What it ends up doing is tying up three people because the guards have got to look out for the center."
Culp, Smith and Bethea, disregarding any consideration of team record, would prefer to play the traditional four-man front, since Phillips' tactic, with all its variations, is a punishing task.
"Personally I don't care for it," Culp says, "but as long as we're winning ball games it's fine with me. In a four-man alignment, you're usually dealing with one individual. In the three-man front, you've always got the possibility of being double-teamed and sometimes triple-teamed. But I like it now because we're winning. That's the biggest thing. If we were winning with a two-man front, I'd like it, too."
Along with the defense, Phillips has brought camaraderie to the Oilers, whose short practice sessions produce needling one-liners, laughs and team looseness. "I think the most important thing is how our team gets along," he says. "That's the most pleasant aspect of this season, having it happen as quickly and as well as it has. During camp I said that everyone had to be in the dorm, not their rooms but the dorm, at 11 p.m. That way they could sit around in groups and get to know each other better. You've got to rub shoulders with the guys you're going to be counting on."
"Bum's biggest thing is saying that if you were hanging off a cliff on a rope, you'd want to make sure you had a friend up there holding the other end," says Pastorini. "Thai's our slogan—hold on to the rope and don't let our people down."
Against Detroit on Sunday the Oilers could easily have fallen, but the rope held. Another strong defensive effort and the scintillating work of 5'9", 170-pound Billy Johnson brought them back from a sluggish start and five turnovers.
Mocked by the Lions after he fumbled twice, Johnson had the last laugh—twice. Midway through the second period he made a beautiful catch of a 27-yard pass for the game's first touchdown, and he put the contest on ice in the third period when, after gathering in a punt, he snaked loose down the right sideline on a 52-yard scoring jaunt. Johnson's second touchdown came only 95 seconds after Pastorini connected on a 56-yard pass to Ken Burrough. Including his touchdown catch, Burrough had three receptions for 111 yards.
The Oiler defense allowed but two field goals, blocked another attempt and stopped the Lions four times inside the Houston four-yard line. Using flea-flicker passes, end arounds and quick outs to the halfbacks, the Lions did take away some of the effectiveness of the three-man front, racking up 149 yards rushing and 328 in total offense. "They came out throwing and caught us in our slants," said Tody Smith, "but today reinforced our opinion that we're a contender. They tried to break our concentration and test our poise but we didn't lose it."
"We're proud we're No. 1 against the rush," Phillips said, "but we don't care how much they move the ball around as long as they don't score. Winning the game is more important than stats."
Against the prospect of continuing success are a number of threatening possibilities. The team has one of the toughest schedules in the NFL and lacks depth and experience. A few injuries could prove devastating. So could Bud Adams.
"We can be as good as our imagination and our bodies will let us be," Smith says. "Some people have projections of winning so many games. On this team our projection is going all the way to the Super Bowl."
Without really saying so, Pastorini agrees. His wife is expecting a child early next year and Pastorini says, "I'm hoping for Jan. 18. I can't think of anything better than having an official come up to me in the Super Bowl and tell me that my wife just had a baby."
Such hope once would have produced loud yuks but no one is laughing at the Oilers anymore.