Dinnertime had just given way to dusk, and the air was about to go out of another day at the Houston Oilers' training camp in San Angelo, Texas. On a TV set in the lobby of the team's dormitory, one of those low-budget thrillers about a lot of fish with ugly dispositions was playing on a cable channel. The film, entitled Killer Fish, had aroused little enthusiasm among the football players in the room—until a jut-jawed young actor named Dante Pastorini appeared on the screen. Suddenly everyone began paying serious attention. What made the Oiler players take notice was the fact that Pastorini had been Houston's starting quarterback for nine seasons, and presumably would've been in 1980, too, had he not been traded last March to Oakland for the Raiders' starting quarterback, Ken Stabler.
Pastorini's old teammates quickly discerned that he wasn't exactly stealing any scenes from his aquatic co-stars, but he did have one dramatic moment in the picture. His role called for him to dive in search of treasure in a lagoon that, as luck would have it, was lousy with piranha. After putting up a commendably brief struggle, Pastorini is vanquished by the fish. The last we see of Pastorini, he is going down for the third time; score a sack for the killer fish.
What added weight to this scene was that just as Pastorini was sinking out of sight on the tube, Stabler was pulling into the dormitory parking lot in his black Snakemobile, a Ford Bronco with the rear end jacked up over its huge tires like a cat with its back up. It was Stabler's first appearance in the Oilers' camp, and coming as it did so suddenly after Pastorini's cinematic demise, it seemed fairly fraught with symbolism. Just exactly what it meant no one could say, but in the NFL you take your symbolism where you find it and try not to ask any questions.
The exchange of Stabler, who is 34, for Pastorini, 31, was certainly the most noteworthy trade that occurred since Super Bowl XIV. But it wasn't the only one. As the veterans began reporting to training camps around the league last week, there was a surprising abundance of old, familiar faces turning up in unfamiliar places. Trades, of course, aren't uncommon during that coffee break the NFL calls the off-season, but few years have produced deals for as many big-name players as 1980 has. In addition to the Pastorini-Stabler swap, there have been these eye-popping transactions:
•Oakland Managing General Partner Al Davis, trying to improve upon two straight 9-7 seasons that weren't good enough to qualify the Raiders for the playoffs, picked up Running Back Kenny King from Houston in exchange for Free Safety Jack Tatum, a three-time All-Pro, and two seventh-round draft choices, one in '80, the other in '81.
•The Denver Broncos gave up their first-and second-round draft picks in this year's draft and Quarterback Craig Penrose for Quarterback Matt Robinson of the New York Jets. The Broncos, who scored only 14 points in their final two games last season, also acquired Running Back Lawrence McCutcheon, a five-time All-Pro, from Los Angeles.
•The Rams, obviously expecting more great things from Wendell Tyler this year, also unloaded former Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti on San Diego. However, subsequently Tyler was in an auto accident and is expected to miss the first month of the season.
•New England acquired Running Back Chuck Foreman from Minnesota—and had to give up only its third-round draft pick in 1981 to get him. Once one of the best all-purpose backs in the NFL, Foreman was overweight and unhappy in Minnesota last year and wound up rushing for just 223 yards. Foreman has lost 21 pounds since he was traded in late April and seems ready to challenge for a starting spot.
•Conrad Dobler, a former All-Pro guard with St. Louis who had spent the past two seasons in New Orleans, was sent to Buffalo for a future draft choice. Dobler was once described as the meanest man in pro football, but arthritic knees have slowed him down and lately the meanest thing about him has been his contract, which is in the $125,000-a-year range.
The most momentous of these transactions, Stabler-Pastorini, was the first exchange of No. 1 quarterbacks by NFL teams since the Eagles sent Sonny Jurgensen to the Redskins for Norm Snead in 1964. The Raiders had been interested in Pastorini since before last season because of his strong arm, but it wasn't until the Oilers came up short against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game for the second year in a row that Houston Coach Bum Phillips decided to part with Pastorini. "We weren't looking for a better passer than Dan," says Phillips. "We were looking for a different passer, a more consistent intermediate-range passer who would fit in with our ball-control offense."
Stabler, who had been feuding with Davis, recovered from the worst season of his career in 1978—he threw 30 interceptions—with one of his best years in '79. But Davis and Oakland Coach Tom Flores had begun to feel that Stabler no longer was able to get the ball as deep as he once could. "We wanted to go back to pressure football and get away from the percentage game," says Davis. "From anywhere on the field the first thing we're looking for is a touchdown, but Kenny had been going to a more lateral game and we were starting to give in to his style." Davis also believes that after 10 years in the Bay Area, the Snake was showing signs of losing interest. "Kenny was getting a little stale," Davis says. "We got him going last year by challenging him publicly. He needs something like that to motivate him."
Pastorini never lacked self-motivation—he has played with all manner of injuries over the years—but no matter how much courage or skill he displayed, the city of Houston never warmed up to him. "I guess I didn't do a good enough job there," Pastorini said last week at the Raiders' camp in Santa Rosa, Calif. "I just didn't fit in. I wasn't the kind of boy they wanted. I've read that the people in Houston feel they got the better end of the deal, and I guess they feel that getting Kenny is going to push them over that edge [into the Super Bowl]. Stabler's going into a situation where most of the city hated the guy he's replacing. I'm coming into a place where the guy I'm replacing was loved by just about everybody. In Houston I was the dog to kick. Still, you don't like to hear bad things about yourself, or at least I didn't, after giving a city nine of the toughest years of your life. When I walked away from it, it seemed like nobody gave a damn."
If the people of Houston never held Pastorini in high esteem, they have taken to his replacement. Stabler is from the Alabama Gulf Coast and he can speak to Texans in their own language. One subject that seems to endlessly fascinate all Texans is Stabler's reputation as a hell-raiser. "I'd like to know why people are interested in my nightlife," Stabler says. "It's no different than anybody else's during training camp. Most evenings I'll just swing by the Christian Science reading room, pick up a good book, then swing by the Burger King and get some chow. After that I just head back to the dorm where I can kick back and read."
When Stabler isn't doing all those wonderfully exemplary things, which is most of the time, he can usually be found at either the Red Rooster Inn or the Santa Fe Junction, a couple of San Angelo honky-tonks where he goes to shoot pool and keep his finger on the pulse of the people, especially female people. He's working hard in training camp to get his arm ready for the coming season and the really challenging bars in Houston.
Stabler's training program comes as no surprise to at least one other Oiler; Tatum watched him get ready the same way for the nine seasons they played together in Oakland. Like Stabler, Tatum is the kind of player the Oilers believe will help them wrest the AFC Central Division title from the Steelers. Tatum is always very quiet and unfailingly polite, except when he decides to turn the lights out on some ballcarrier, a process he described vividly in his recent autobiography, They Call Me Assassin. He will probably be used as the Oilers' fifth defensive back on passing downs, unless he tries to crank up any of his old vicious tackling routines, in which case they may call him assassin all right, but they may also call him suspended for life, seeing that the NFL has already told him he'll be subject to special scrutiny.
The Denver Broncos are hoping that this year they won't have to keep telling people their offense went to Aspen for the season. By not having to rely, solely on their defensive unit to keep them in games, the Broncos hope to go far. Denver lost the AFC Western Division championship to San Diego 17-7 in its final regular-season game last year, and then lost to the Oilers 13-7 in the opening round of the playoffs. "I hated the way we finished the 1979 season," says Bronco Coach Red Miller. "We just can't let that happen again." To make sure it doesn't, Miller has hired former Stanford Coach Rod Dowhower as offensive coordinator, and together they have installed a new quick-release passing game that should allow Robinson to take full advantage of his maneuverability and fast reflexes. The all but immobile Craig Morton, who has quarterbacked Denver for the past three seasons, reported to the Broncos' camp in Fort Collins, Colo. in excellent shape, but he's been unable to defend his job since being stricken with back spasms on the first day of workouts. For his part, Robinson has been unimpressive and obviously feeling pressure he never had to. face when playing behind Richard Todd in New York.
"Everybody thinks it's going to be Matt, and that's good," says Morton. "That puts a lot of pressure on him, and that's what this position is all about. I'm counting on him. The fans are counting on him. I want him to be good. He better be good. We gave up a lot to get him."
The two biggest steals of the off-season may turn out to have been for a pair of running backs who perhaps prematurely were given up for dead by their old teams. McCutcheon lost his starting job with the Rams to Tyler, who's nearly five years younger than he. But in the Denver ground game, which is geared toward the use of many running backs instead of just one, McCutcheon may find himself useful once again. "I feel like I've still got a lot of football left in me," he says.
Foreman, too, may have several big games in him. "This could be the best thing for my career," he says of the trade to New England. "The offensive line here is better than the one I ran behind during our Super Bowl years in Minnesota. If I get a chance to play a lot, I could probably have the best year I've ever had." With the Patriots' regular fullback, Sam Cunningham, still not in camp because of a contract dispute, Coach Ron Erhardt may give Foreman his chance. "When Chuck showed up at 211 pounds, which is where we wanted him, our situation was settled," says Erhardt. "We're going to give him the ball on first down at fullback. He's going to run the ball inside, he's going to block, he's going to catch passes. In short, we're going to turn him loose." At least until Cunningham returns.
Less certain is the fate that awaits Dobler in Buffalo, where he will have to beat out three other players—all younger than he—for the starting offensive guard position supposedly vacated by All-Pro Joe DeLamielleure, a no-show in camp, who is unhappy with Coach Chuck Knox and wants to be traded. Even with DeLamielleure last season, the Bills were last in the NFL in rushing offense, and Dobler doesn't move as well as he did when he was trying to bite off people's noses. "Knees are knees," said Buffalo Offensive Line Coach Ray Prochaska. "Once they're bad, they're bad. But he [Dobler] has said that while he's not as fast as he used to be, he thinks his speed is adequate." Then Prochaska pronounced words that hang over the head of every player who has been traded from one team to another. "Adequate for him and adequate for me may be different. We'll see."