As more than 43,000 Texans shouted and sang and shook their blue and white pompons last Sunday in celebration of the Houston Oilers' 17-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the rollicking Astrodome, two things suddenly became very clear. One was that no team in the NFL—not Los Angeles, not Pittsburgh, not New England, not Dallas—is playing the game better right now than the souped-up Oilers. They have won six of their last seven games, including triumphs over Pittsburgh, New England and Miami, and it seems certain that Coach Bum Phillips will finally get to wear his blue and white checkerboard cowboy boots in a real live playoff game.
The other obvious fact was that rarely has one player given so much so often to so many. His name is Earl Campbell, and what the Longhorn from Tyler, Texas has given the Earl-ers, as they are now called around Houston, is a running game and some respect—not to mention a 9-4 record. Earl has played in only 12 games, having missed one because of a hamstring injury, but he leads the NFL in rushing with 1,265 yards and in touchdowns with 12—and he has three more regular-season games to play. Not only is Campbell a cinch to add the NFL's Rookie-of-the-Year award to the Heisman Trophy he won for his University of Texas heroics last season, but only Steeler Quarterback Terry Bradshaw now challenges him as the NFL Player of the Year.
Shy and silent—unlike that other young running back over in Dallas—Campbell lets the statistics do his talking; he would never think of politicking for any award. "I'm just a guy who believes that if you work hard enough, some rewards will come your way," Campbell says. "I've tried to work hard. That's all."
But Bum Phillips waxes eloquent when explaining what Campbell has meant to the Oilers. "Dan Pastorini now has some, weapons to fight with," Phillips says of his veteran quarterback. "Used to be that Dan was like a sword fighter with a pocket knife. Now he has his sword."
Last week Campbell carved up not one but two more defenses as he rushed for a total of 321 yards to surpass the NFL rookie rushing record of 1,162 yards set in 1974 by San Diego's Don Woods. He also tied the rookie record of Woods and Pittsburgh's Franco Harris by rushing for more than 100 yards for the seventh time.
On Monday night, on national television, Campbell led the Oilers to a 35-30 victory over the Dolphins by rushing for 199 yards on 28 carries. The last was an 81-yard romp to his fourth touchdown of the game, and it left him gasping for air in the end zone while the people in the Astrodome were going absolutely bonkers. After the game, though, Campbell did not seem unduly elated. In fact, he said that it had not been a particularly satisfying game for him because he had missed two blocks, including one that caused Pastorini to be sacked for the safety that gave the Dolphins a 23-21 lead early in the fourth quarter. Campbell promptly redeemed himself for his supposed blocking deficiencies by running for two touchdowns and shooting the Oilers to a 35-23 lead.
"Earl's always criticizing himself," says a Houston sportscaster. "I covered one of the first high school games he ever played, and he sacked the quarterback eight times while playing linebacker. But afterward he said he wasn't happy about it, because the other team had completed too many passes over him."
Campbell plans to celebrate his entrance into the NFL's 1,000-yard club by borrowing a page from O. J. Simpson's book of etiquette and taking his offensive linemen to dinner. "Earl always makes a point of thanking us for what we do for him," says Center Carl Mauck. "His mother did a great job raising him. Heisman and all, he came in here humbly and with a great attitude. As a person, he can't be beat. As a football player, the thing about him is that if you give him the same hole you'd give another back, he'll always get more yardage on the play. He hits the hole quicker, too, so you don't have to hold a block as long. And because we know he can break a run and go all the way, it makes us block a little harder for him."
In the first half on Sunday, the Bengals stormed to a quick 10-0 lead on a seven-yard touchdown pass from Ken Anderson to Don Bass and a 34-yard field goal by Chris Bahr. Campbell had banged up an ankle in the early moments of the game, but as soon as it felt better he was rushed back into the lineup. With the Oilers in dire need of at least a touchdown before the half, Pastorini passed for 33 yards to Richard Caster, the ex-New York Jet, and sent Tim Wilson up the middle for four yards to the Bengal 26. After that Pastorini did what any sensible Oiler quarterback would do: he called Earl Campbell's number on five straight plays. Bowling over Bengals on each carry, the 5'11", 225-pound Campbell went left, left again, up the middle, right and then left once more for a total of 22 yards. Then he took a break as Ronnie Coleman ended the touchdown drive by storming into the end zone from the four to narrow Cincinnati's lead to 10-7.
Two minutes later the Oilers had another touchdown, Pastorini hitting Caster with a 47-yard bomb to give Houston a 14-10 lead at the half. Toni Fritsch kicked a 38-yard field goal in the third quarter to make the final score 17-10. When it was over Campbell had 122 yards for his 27 carries.
Whatever the ultimate outcome of their season, one doesn't have to search very far to find the reason for the Oilers' reemergence as a team to be reckoned with. The victories over Miami and Cincinnati practically clinched one of the AFC's two wild-card playoff spots for Houston. With three weeks to play, Houston has lost only four games, while Miami, Oakland and Denver have lost five each. If Houston beats Pittsburgh again this Sunday in the Astrodome, it will chop the Steelers' lead in the AFC Central to just one game—and then, who knows?
Campbell's performance has eased the burden that the Oilers formerly placed on their overworked defense because of the ineptness of their alleged attack. Before Campbell arrived, Houston's offense consisted mainly of a couple of dive plays up the middle for no gain, followed by a Pastorini pass to Ken Burrough.
Now the Oilers have balance, which has enabled them to come from behind in eight of their nine victories. In the most memorable comeback, they spotted New England a 23-0 lead in the second quarter and then regrouped to win a 26-23 stunner. "When we fell behind like that in the past," says Defensive End Elvin Bethea, "we used to fold and then keep going on down the hill. Then we'd go into the next game and go straight down the hill further. But now we have confidence in our offense, and the offense has confidence in itself. [Campbell] has been an inspiration. When we can get the ball to him, we feel he can do it."
In addition to being a game-breaking runner (he has had four runs of more than 45 yards this season), Campbell also has been the Oilers' bread-and-butter plunger in critical short-yardage situations. Twenty-four times he has been given the ball on third down with three yards or less to go for the first down. He has made it 18 times. On one third-and-seven play, Campbell responded with a 73-yard touchdown run. And on fourth-down plays he has carried the ball four times for a mind-blowing average gain of 12.2 yards.
"I thought Earl would be the kind of runner he is," Phillips says, "but he's really surprised us with his blocking, faking and pass protecting. He's a good run-blocker when the other guy's got the football. He's got absolutely no regard for his body—or anybody else's body."
It is difficult to determine which Oiler has benefited most from Campbell's presence, although Pastorini certainly will do for starters. Now 29 years old and in his eighth—and happiest—season in the NFL, Pastorini has compiled the best statistics of his career; this year he has completed 55.3% of his 295 passes for a career-high 2,080 yards and 12 touchdowns. Almost overnight he has gone from being another "dumb" quarterback to a "field general." Against Miami, Pastorini led touchdown marches of 70, 87, 63, 80 and 93 yards. He has been sacked only 12 times. One reason is Houston's improved line; another is that Pastorini finally has learned to throw the ball to the cheerleaders when a sack appears imminent. Best of all, Pastorini has won over Houston's highly vocal fans, who used to boo the mention of his name in the pregame introductions.
Until this season Pastorini seemed to be his own worst enemy around Houston, where his name—and details of his now busted-up marriage to centerfold pinup June Wilkinson, as well as reports of his driving escapades on land and on sea—showed up in gossip columns more often than on the sports pages. But Pastorini arrived at training camp in superb condition, and he has toned down his lifestyle. "Dan is almost 30 years old now," says an acquaintance, "and maybe he's begun to realize that he's mortal after all, that there's going to be an end to football someday. Maybe he's trying to put that off as long as possible by doing the right things now."
For his part, Campbell always has done the right things. Says Bethea, "What's happened here is that Earl fits in like the last piece of the puzzle. We've needed him for years."
The people in Houston will wave their pompons to that.