Listen to the blockin', the ramblin' and the roar,
As he glides along the sidelines, by the hash marks for the score,
From the fancy passin' Dago, to the Tyler bowling ball,
Those Patriots can be taken, by the Oiler Cannonball.
Those stirring lyrics, written last week by Houston Center Carl Mauck and sung to the tune of Wabash Cannon Ball, proved prophetic Sunday as Houston rambled and roared over befuddled New England 31-14 at Foxboro, Mass. Fancy passin' Dan Pastorini completed 12 of his 15 tosses for 200 yards and three touchdowns. The Tyler, Texas bowling ball, rookie Earl Campbell, carried 27 times for 118 yards and scored Houston's fourth touchdown. Together, Campbell and Pastorini outgained New England, the NFL's top-rated offensive team, 318 yards to 263. And now, while New England Coach Chuck Fairbanks turns his attention to recruiting players for the University of Colorado, the Oiler Cannonball is fueling up for the AFC showdown at Pittsburgh.
The fact that Houston will be the underdog for the third straight week is just one more reason to embrace these Oilers, who would not have made the playoffs if the NFL had not expanded its postseason format to include a second wildcard team from each conference.
Another reason is Pastorini, who has water on the elbow of his throwing arm, and wears a brace to protect strained cartilage in his right knee and a bulletproof flak jacket to shield three broken ribs. The Oilers also have 19 free agents on their roster, including one fireman (Defensive End James Young) and another who previously drove a cement truck (Johnnie Dirden). And, of course, there is Campbell, the NFL's most-heralded rookie since Phyllis George.
The Oilers never really gave the Patriots a chance. Pastorini's three scoring passes, two to Mike Barber, and a 30-yard Toni Fritsch field goal shot Houston into a 24-0 lead midway through the third quarter. At that point the Oilers, who had overcome a 23-0 deficit to beat New England 26-23 in the regular season, had scored 50 consecutive points on the Patriots. New England finally got on the scoreboard in the last minute of the third quarter when Andy Johnson passed to Harold Jackson in the end zone on a 24-yard halfback option play. Then, early in the fourth quarter, the Patriots scored again, this time on a 24-yard pass from Quarterback Tom Owen, who was substituting for Steve Grogan, to Tight End Russ Francis. Grogan had taken himself out of the game late in the first half when his balky left knee acted up.
Now the score was 24-14, and the Oilers suddenly seemed to be in trouble. But on New England's next possession, Houston Linebacker Gregg Bingham intercepted an Owen pass and turned the ball over to Pastorini's offense at the Patriots' 18. From there, Pastorini gave the ball to Campbell three straight times, and the rookie blasted into the end zone from two yards out for the game's final score. Moments later Defensive End Elvin Bethea, experiencing the playoffs for only the second time in his 11 years with the Oilers, was serenading his teammates in the locker room: "We're in the money, We're in the money."
Pastorini, too, has known mostly misery in his years in Houston. He has regularly voiced his unhappiness about life in the city, and earlier this year he walked away from a practice before it had ended. Now Pastorini claims he is happy, and in the Oiler playoff romps over Miami (17-9) and New England he has performed spectacularly, passing for more than 500 yards. Nevertheless, Pastorini has not received as much attention as has his flak jacket.
Pastorini was introduced to this remarkable device as he lay in a hospital bed following a 13-3 loss to Pittsburgh in early December. Into his room walked Byron Donzis, a 46-year-old inventor and partner in American Pneumatics, a Houston firm that manufactures air-inflated sports products. Donzis was wearing one of the flak jackets. With him, carrying a baseball bat, was Pete Charnoch. Donzis raised his hands over his head, and Charnoch whacked him on the jacket with the bat five times—as hard as he could. Donzis never flinched. Said Pastorini, "I want one of those." That came as no surprise to Donzis. "I figured if the jacket was designed to take a .357 Magnum point-blank, it could help Pastorini."
Unquestionably, the jacket, which weighs only 5½ ounces, helped protect Pastorini's ribs against the Patriots. On Pastorini's first and third touchdown passes, New England Linebacker Rod Shoate crashed into him just as he released the ball. Without the vest, Pastorini might simply have covered up and taken a sack; at the least, he might have flinched. Wearing it, "You can hit me as hard as you want," he says, "and I'm not going to feel it. The ribs are still broken, but I have no pain."
Pastorini's first touchdown pass came just when the Patriots seemed to be asserting themselves. The Patriots' defense stopped Campbell twice for a net of just three yards, leaving Pastorini with third and seven at his 29. In the huddle he called a short sideline pattern. Coming up to the line of scrimmage, however, Pastorini noticed New England bunching for a blitz, so he audibled a deep pass route to Wide Receiver Ken Burrough. Shoate blew past Houston's blockers, forcing Pastorini to hurry a high lob down the left sideline. The pass was underthrown, but the talented Burrough, covered only by Cornerback Mike Haynes, was able to slow up for the ball. Haynes fell, and once Burrough caught the lob at the New England 43, he tight-roped past the fallen Patriot and high-stepped his way to the end zone, completing a 71-yard play.
Houston broke the game open by scoring on each of its next two possessions. Both followed interceptions of Grogan passes by Free Safety Mike Reinfeldt, who had picked off just one pass during the regular season. The first drive covered nearly the length of the field—99 yards—and was made possible by a grant from New England. Patriot Safety Tim Fox was penalized for a late hit after New England had stopped the Oilers on a third-down rush back inside the Houston 10. Result: first down, no Oiler punt required. Pastorini eventually combined with Barber for a 19-yard touchdown, the tight end doing some neat running after taking Pastorini's short toss at the New England 11. The score became 21-0 with just 25 seconds left in the half when Pastorini, absorbing another blow from Shoate, hit Barber again, this time from 13 yards out. As the Patriots stumbled to their locker room at the half, someone shouted. "Colorado University just announced that it is hiring Bum Phillips as its new head coach."
Much of the pregame talk had centered around Fairbanks' decision to leave New England as soon as possible to become coach at Colorado. Fairbanks' announcement of his plans on Dec. 18, hours before the Patriots' last regular-season game in Miami, had caused New England owner Billy Sullivan to suspend him. Sullivan lifted the suspension two days later when Fairbanks, who had four years to go on his reported $180,000-a-season New England contract, agreed not to have any formal dealings with Colorado authorities until the end of the Patriots' season.
Many New England players insisted after Sunday's loss that Fairbanks' planned defection had not affected their play. And Sullivan maintained that he was going to try to talk Fairbanks into returning to the Patriots. However, it was clear that Fairbanks had destroyed much of the respect he had built up during his six seasons as coach and general manager. His assistants, suddenly without job security, were angry. On the day Fairbanks announced his desertion to the team, an assistant mumbled loud enough for nearby players to hear, "You bleep bleep. How could you be that selfish?"
As the final seconds ticked off on Sunday, Patriot fans in the end zone near the New England locker room made their feelings on the matter clear. "We want Shula," they chanted. And when the game ended, they started singing. The lyrics were a stark contrast to Mauck's rollicking Oiler Cannonball—and a sad epitaph to the Patriots' season.
Goodby Chuckie, goodby Chuckie,
Goodby Chuckie, we're glad to see you go.