It seemed reasonable to suppose that the Oakland Raiders would call on some of their familiar characters to take care of the Houston Oilers last Sunday at the Astrodome in pro football's only indoor battle of the undefeateds. Everybody knew who they would be. Baby Face Nelson and Clyde Barrow and John Dillinger from the defense, of course. And Ken Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff from the offense. Who, then, was Mike Rae? And who was this Charles Philyaw, all 270 pounds, 6'9" and size-17 shoe of him? Charles Philyaw had never even been fined by Commissioner Pete Rozelle for assault, to say nothing of battery, like some of the other Raider defenders. And Mike Rae had been throwing touchdown passes for three years in Canada, where there are no NFL franchises.
It only served to show that the Oilers, last season's giddy-surprise team, are not yet for real, especially on the intellectual level, for they spent an entire afternoon seeking ways to lose a 14-13 game to the Raiders. The ultimate difference was in the passes that Rae completed to Cliff Branch on behalf of the vacationing Stabler and Biletnikoff, and those that Phil-yaw batted to the ground when Houston's Dan Pastorini tried to work his "throw it to Ken Burrough" offense.
The game's most fascinating play occurred early in the first quarter before many of the 42,338 fans had found their seats in that former Eighth Wonder of the World, the Astrodome. The play was the Oilers' fourth from scrimmage, in fact. That was when Pastorini, operating from the Oakland 34-yard line, hurled the football in the general direction of Houston's downtown skyscrapers and into the Raiders' end zone just at the time when Burrough, his favorite receiver, arrived there along with Oakland's George Atkinson. George is the safety who owes Pete Rozelle $1,500 for the migraine he gave Pittsburgh's Lynn Swann a couple of weeks ago.
Here was a moment the more bloodthirsty customers had been anticipating. Burrough is Houston's Lynn Swann and Atkinson is Oakland's terrorist, who had said after the Swann incident, "What am I supposed to do, let him catch passes and put me out of work?"
Pastorini is a gifted athlete who throws wonderful spirals and boots them as well, but it has been said that he is not as serious a student of opposing defenses as he should be. As one NFL quarterback notes, "Dan will fade back and look around and say, 'Hell, I can't read that defense. I'll just throw it to Kenny.' " Meaning old Double Zero.
Whether that was what Pastorini had in mind on this stirring play did not matter. Burrough had a step on Atkinson in the end zone, and the ball appeared to be within his reach. But Atkinson's arm struck Burrough on the Easter bonnet, as they say, and he suddenly had no chance to catch the football. The official on the play saw the infraction, called the interference penalty, and Houston got the ball at the Oakland one-yard line.
It was here that Houston started losing the game, for the Oilers came away with only three points on a Skip Butler field goal. It also was the first indication that Philyaw, the mammoth rookie end from Texas Southern, would almost personally demolish Houston's offense.
In the third quarter, Houston was at the Oakland one-inch line but the Oilers came away with nothing, because Philyaw and some other white-jerseyed Raiders created such an enormous pile of human debris on the goal line that Pastorini, trying to sneak the ball in on fourth down, went absolutely nowhere.
Let us speak of Philyaw one more time. Back in the second quarter, with Oakland leading 7-6 and less than three minutes left in the half, Houston seemed to be moving for at least a go-ahead field goal as Pastorini had a third-down-and-nine at the Raiders' 17-yard line. If he failed to get the first down—or the touchdown—the Oilers would surely get a field goal out of Butler that would put them in front.
One thing kept that from happening. Philyaw. Pastorini tried a drop-back pass—that being the best way he could possibly lose enough yardage to take Houston out of field-goal range. And there came Philyaw to bury Pastorini for the 12-yard loss that put the three points just out of Butler's range—the kicker missing from 46 yards.
When you added it up, the Oilers had three marvelous opportunities that should have produced a total of 17 points at least, and, in the end, they got only three.
Bum Phillips, the unique individual who coaches the Oilers, chose to take the blame for all of this. He was especially unhappy with himself for not going for the field goal on fourth and one inch, there in the third quarter, which would have enabled Houston to move ahead 9-7—the time Phillips ordered Pastorini to try the sneak into Philyaw's paws.
"It cost us the ball game," Phillips said later. "I felt like, well, forget what I felt like. I made the wrong decision, that's all. That Philyaw is something. He's only bigger than the Shamrock Hilton."
Despite all their generosity, though, the Oilers came within about two of Phil-yaw's feet from winning the game on the final play, Butler's 55-yard field-goal try sailing wide to the right.
Don't be mad at Phillips. He has the Oilers battling for him and playing with emotion, thus making up for some of their shortcomings—like the lack of highquality running backs, a tight end with reliable hands and a little more beef in the offensive line. And when Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, the noted kickoff and punt returner, gets to touch the ball only four times, as he did against the Raiders, Phillips can't hide the Houston weaknesses under his cowboy boots.
The Oilers scrap for Phillips because he's honest and amusing, and he has found ways to get them together. The Oilers did not scrimmage in their training camp, for instance, and when Phillips was asked why, he remarked, "The Oilers aren't on the Oilers' schedule."
Phillips also has come up with what he thinks is a nice way for the Oilers to get to know each other. Each Thursday, after their workout, he has a few cases of beer brought into the training room, and everyone relaxes and gets to know everyone else. Bum, himself, plays dominoes. "If they're going down to the corner in twos and threes to get a beer," he says, "they might as well do it here so they can all hang around together."
The day before the Oakland game, there was an interesting contrast between the way Phillips operates and the way those big-timers from Oakland like to do things. For Houston's final practice session, Phillips did what he usually does: he invited all of the players' wives, dogs and kids to the workout. What did it matter? The Oilers obviously weren't working on their goal-line punch.
Oakland, on the other hand, went to the Astrodome Saturday afternoon for its usual secret stuff. The secret turned out to be Mike Rae, who was going to play quarterback against Houston because Stabler was going to rest whichever knee it was that he bruised in the Monday night win over Kansas City. And Rae wouldn't be throwing to Biletnikoff, because the receiver had bruised his back in the same game.
The Raiders did a lot of joking about injuries and fines last week after Atkinson ($1,500) and Jack Tatum ($750) received their bill in the mail from Rozelle for mugging Swann and some other Steelers. Al LoCasale, the right-hand man to Oakland Boss Al Davis, was asked before the start of the Oiler game exactly how it was that Stabler had been hurt against the Chiefs.
"Around our office, we refer to it as one of Kansas City's unfined hits," LoCasale said, smiling so he would not get fined himself.
For those who do not remember Rae, he happens to be the quarterback who took USC to the national championship in 1972. He was drafted by the Raiders in 1973, but there were three splendid reasons why he went north and east to Toronto in the Canadian Football League instead. Plainly ecstatic about the fact that he had thrown two touchdown passes to Cliff Branch—the first for nine yards, the second for 33—to beat the Oilers in his first NFL start, Rae related the three reasons.
"Their names were Stabler, Blanda and Lamonica," he said. It turns out that Rae was Oakland's fifth-or sixth-string quarterback as recently as a few weeks ago. Even when it became obvious that Stabler would not be playing against the Oilers, Oakland Coach John Madden never had a private talk with Rae to say something on the order of, "You're my starting quarterback. Snake is hurt. It's all on you. Don't choke." Rae, who had played the last half of the fourth quarter of the Kansas City game, worked with the first team in practice, and the other Raiders naturally assumed he would be the starter.
Rae has pretty good size at 6'1" and 190 pounds, and he still has the strong arm he displayed as a Trojan. He threw to a variety of receivers against Houston, completing 13 of 22 attempts for 170 yards, and on those occasions when it seemed wiser for him to take the sack instead of throwing away the football, he took it. Mostly, he had plenty of time to look around.
The two touchdown passes to Branch were beautifully executed. On the first, which came early in the second quarter on a third-down play from the Houston nine-yard line with the Oilers leading 6-0, Branch was crossing in the end zone with his man beaten, and Rae, who had been searching all over for somebody, laid it right into Branch's hands. On the second, the 33-yarder that increased Oakland's lead to 14-6 in the fourth quarter, Branch deserved much of the credit, but Rae had the ball where it was supposed to be. Branch was racing down the sideline, having beaten Mike Weger, and he had to make one of those over-the-head, over-the-shoulder circus-type things, remembering to keep his feet in bounds. Cliff Branch did exactly that.
While Rae moved Oakland when he had to and kept the Raiders unbeaten at 3-0, though only tied for first place in the AFC West with amazing San Diego, there were countless instances when Pastorini had his life made slightly miserable by Philyaw. No statistics are kept on such things, but Philyaw had to have batted down more screen passes than any other defensive end in the NFL last week. And he did it only on those occasions when he wasn't tossing Oiler blockers into the air, bottling up the Oiler runners, stopping Pastorini at the goal line and, in general, messing up most everything Houston attempted. Not bad for someone San Diego had passed up in the draft with the explanation, "He can't play. No way."
"The balls just didn't stay up in the air long enough for me to find them," said Philyaw, trying to explain why he knocked Pastorini's passes down instead of intercepting them.
Rae's spirals stayed in the air long enough for Branch to find them, and, all in all, these two things helped the Raiders get through a tough Sunday with their second-string offense—and without another aggravated assault charge or a jail sentence from Judge Rozelle.