Question: What doyou do when your best runner, passer and catcher are out of action because ofinjuries?
Answer: You playdefense and try to win that way.
Some joke, huh?The Houston Oilers are minus Earl Campbell and Dan Pastorini and, for most ofthe game, Kenny Burrough, and now they're going to win it on defense? Againstthe San Diego Chargers, the passingest team in football, with a quarterbackwho's thrown for more yards in a single season than anyone in history?
So, what are theOilers going to do, steal the Chargers' signals or something?
January 7, 1980
On Saturdayafternoon in San Diego the Oilers stole 'em clean and upset the Chargers 17-14to reach the AFC championship game. It happened this way. Charger QuarterbackDan Fouts does not call his own plays; they are called by Offensive CoordinatorJoe Gibbs, who works from a booth in the press box. Gibbs phones the plays downto the sidelines, to Head Coach Don Coryell and his first lieutenant, JimHanifan. They confer, and Hanifan signals the play in to Fouts. Hand signals,baseball signals—you know, touch flesh, touch cloth, flash one, flash two, foldarms and go.
Fouts does notbelieve in changing the coaches' plays too frequently. Why should he? Thosesignals, teamed with his good right arm, gave the Chargers a 12-4 record andalmost 2½ miles in the air this season. "If you start changing things,you're putting all your eggs in one basket," Fouts says. "Then if thenew play doesn't work, it's demoralizing."
The only problemSaturday was that Eddie Biles broke the Chargers' code. Eddie Biles is thetricky little chap who coaches the Oiler defense. He watches for small tips,for giveaways. A few years ago, for instance, he discovered that whenCincinnati Tight End Bob Trumpy took one kind of stance, he was going to blockdown on the defensive end, and when he took a different one, he was going torelease inside for a pass. It never failed.
Now Biles hadfigured out the Charger signals. So, as Hanifan flashed the plays to Fouts,Wade Phillips, the Oilers' defensive line coach and son of Head Coach BumPhillips, would train his binoculars on Hanifan from the press box and relaythe Chargers' plays to Biles on the sidelines. Biles then would flash them toMiddle Linebacker Gregg Bingham, who called the defenses on the field.
It was clear thatthe Oilers had Fouts' number. They intercepted him five times. The Oilersflowed to the ball. Passes that normally would have been harmlessin-completions turned into interceptions. Strong Safety Vernon Perry, a rookiefrom the Canadian league, picked off four, three of them on doublecoverage.
Fouts seemed to bethrowing into double coverage most of the day. People who have been around theChargers for years said they had never seen him throw into so much doublecoverage. How could he help it? It's easy to double-cover when you know wherethe ball is going.
The Oilers'offense was a heroic operation, with Campbell's sub, Rob Carpenter, playing ona badly sprained left ankle. Houston gutted it out. Gifford Nielsen, the youngquarterback who filled in for Pastorini, threw just enough short stuff to keepthings moving, and the makeshift offense got two touchdowns and a field goal.But the touchdowns were set up by interceptions in San Diego territory. Anotherinterception killed a San Diego drive on the Houston 18 in the first quarter;another one stopped the Chargers on the Oilers' 32 with 3:18 left; and stillanother—the final one—snuffed out the Chargers in the game's dying seconds.
"O.K., so youknow their plays," said Bingham, "but you still have to tackle the guyor make the interception, don't you?"
Well, yes, but itgives you a decided advantage, to say nothing of a sense of security, when youknow what's coming.
"Everybodydidn't know," Bingham said. "I was the only one who knew. It just toldme what defense to put us into. It's not the kind of thing you want everybodyknowing, or pretty soon the Chargers are going to figure out what's happening.My job was to put us into the right defense—I guess you'd say the perfectdefense."
And how aboutFouts? Did he smell a rat? In the San Diego locker room a disconsolate Foutssaid mistakes were what beat the Chargers. "At times we played likeourselves, but we made too many mistakes," he said. "We should havetaken real control. Just too many mistakes."
"Fouts changedthe play twice, and once it hurt us," Bingham said. "It was in thefirst quarter when he hit their second tight end deep on a play-action pass. Itset up their touchdown. That was one time. I don't remember thesecond."
Still, not a badpercentage—two out of 68 snaps.
"Let's faceit, the information we had was golden—just golden," Bingham said. "It'spart of the game, these in-house secrets. It wasn't like someone walked in andstole something lying on a desk. It took a lot of brainwork on Coach Biles'part to figure things out the way he did. The guy's a genius. I've never seenthis happen before. A lot of times information like this can hurt you. Guysstart thinking too much. But today it was just golden."
Coryell seemed alittle shaken when it was suggested to him that some signal-stealing had goneon. "I find it hard to believe Houston would do that," Coryell said."I don't want to start making excuses. But if they did it? Well, there's noway we could have gotten them to give the information back to us."
Neither Biles norBum Phillips would discuss the matter. They had coached a patched-up,eight-point underdog into the AFC championship, a team that had to rely on guyslike Boobie Clark and Guido Merkens. They preferred to talk about the ballhawking of Perry and Carpenter's gutty performance. And very few Oilers couldtake a thing like signal-stealing seriously.
"Theirformations dictated our coverages," said Houston Cornerback J. C. Wilson,who had the only interception that wasn't made by Perry, the one that set uptouchdown No. 2, the winning score—a short Nielsen pass to Mike Renfro thatRenfro turned into a 47-yard play in the third quarter. "They try to mixyou up, and you have to stay with 'em."
But a few of theChargers had an inkling that something was up.
"I've oftenwondered why it wasn't done before," said one San Diego player."Stealing signals isn't that hard to do. People study films of your games.Why can't they study films of your signals?"
But let's hear itfor the Oilers' walking wounded, for Carpenter, who kept driving for toughyards, who took one horrendous three-way shot in the second quarter and had tocrawl off the field. "I got hit on my side," Carpenter said. OnWednesday he had tripped over a blocking dummy in practice and twisted anankle. When the Oilers' bus arrived at the hotel Friday, he was on crutches.The night of the long needle? Carpenter says no, no painkiller wasadministered.
"I played inpain," he said. "A lot of us did."
Well, Pastoriniand Campbell and Burrough all figure to be back next week for the Steelers. Andas for stealing signals—forget it. Terry Bradshaw's one of those old-fashionedquarterbacks who calls his own plays.