They have finally found an offense for Warren Moon in Houston, the run-and-shoot, and if ever a player was born for a system, that player is Moon. First they told him, you had better keep your arm healthy, because you're going to throw, maybe more than any quarterback has ever thrown in one year. Throwing? No problem. Whip it or dink it or gun it deep or throw the touch pass—Moon can do it all. Always has.
Wait, that's not all. You're going to have to run, too, because a lot of the stuff comes on rollouts and half rolls, throws on the move. You'll also have to be able to read defenses as well as your wide receivers. You'll have four of them on every play, with each having as many as four routes from which to choose. That's 16 reads every snap of the ball.
And you had better be tough because you're going to get hit. Oh, brother, are you going to be hit. All that running and throwing means all those pass rushers.
Moon qualifies—in all categories. As a runner he's right up there with the premier quarterback-athletes—Randall Cunningham, John Elway and Boomer Esiason—the guys who can make tacklers miss. He's smart. That's the first thing that University of Washington coach Don James noticed about him in 1975, when Moon arrived in Seattle from West Los Angeles Junior College. It's what people mentioned in Canada when Moon was leading the Edmonton Eskimos to five straight Grey Cup championships, from 1978 to '82, during his six seasons in the CFL. Tough? Beyond question. He has taken more than his share of hits and come back. When he takes off on a scramble, the guy doesn't even like to slide when he's about to be tackled.
"I'd rather dive headfirst," says Moon. "You get more yards that way. You get the ball spotted farther upfield."
So this season the Oilers gave him this nifty offense. The guy who installed it is the new coach, Jack Pardee, who had used the run-and-shoot for three years at the University of Houston, which set more than 100 NCAA and SWC passing and total-offense records in 1988 and '89. The assistant coach Pardee retained to work with Moon is Kevin Gilbride, who was once a run-and-shoot specialist in the CFL. Moon's four wide receivers—Drew Hill, Ernest Givins, Haywood Jeffires and Curtis Duncan—are mostly little guys who fly, run any route invented.
The result is that Moon is sprinting away from the rest of the NFL in the numbers department and that he has a shot at breaking Dan Marino's single-season passing records for attempts, completions and yardage, if not his record for TDs:
Already this season, Moon has thrown for more than 300 yards five times, and he had a five-touchdown day in a 48-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 6. Moon is delighted by the offense. Trouble is, he wasn't turned loose in the run-and-shoot until late in his career.
"I'm 33," he said last Friday, "so I'm in the winding-down stage of my career. How long that stage lasts, I don't know. I'm definitely playing some of my best football right now, and I don't know if that means I'm in my prime or not. To me, being in your prime means playing your best and feeling your best, too.
"I can see things on the field I couldn't see when I was younger, but physically, I can see myself slowing down. I still have pretty good escapability, but once I turn upfield, I don't move as quickly."
Two days later he took the field against the New York Jets at the Astrodome and showed some good escapability—29 yards on five carries—but he also took some mean shots. The Jets sacked him five times, the worst one being a blindsider by 258-pound rookie end Darrell Davis. Moon was looking to pass from his own end zone when Davis hit him. The ball popped loose, and Davis recovered for what proved to be the decisive touchdown in New York's 17-12 win.
The game showed the best and the worst of the run-and-shoot. The Oilers had the ball 15 minutes longer than the Jets, ran 24 more plays and gained almost 200 more yards. Moon completed 30 of 43 throws for 381 yards, with no interceptions, but Houston endured an afternoon of long, artistic drives that usually ended in disaster: two missed field goals, back-to-back sacks and, on third-and-goal at the one, a pitchout that bounced off running back Lorenzo White's face mask and was recovered by the Jets.
Moon did some remarkable things. In the third quarter, with New York blitzing a linebacker and the free safety, he stood in against the rush and fired a nine-yard touchdown pass to Jeffires from back on his heels. The throw was all arm. In the second quarter he rolled to his left and delivered a perfect ball to Hill 40 yards downfield. The pass was dropped.
The game was a mirror of the Oilers' 4-4 season—moments of brilliance coupled with catastrophe. "I have faith in this offense," said Moon afterward. "I know we can move the ball consistently. We just have to take that step upward."
The step upward. For Moon, it's the difference between being another good quarterback—Pro Bowl starts the last two years, playoff appearances the last three, appreciation as the Oilers' alltime leader in completions and passing yards—and a guy mentioned with the likes of Montana, Marino and Elway. "I'm used to it by now," says Moon, "but somehow I never seem to be spoken of in the same breath with the really top names in the game. Well, hopefully, there's still time.
"Look at the quarterbacks who make the Hall of Fame, and you'll see they have two things in common. One, they have a minimum of 10 solid years in this league. And two, you have to get to a championship. If I last 10 years, I should have some pretty good numbers piled up. The championship? Well, we're trying."
Recognition is something that hasn't come easily for Moon. He spent a year in junior college because he wasn't heavily recruited out of Hamilton High in Los Angeles. At Washington he was under the microscope as a black quarterback at a school where the student body was only 3½% black. As a senior he led the Huskies to a 27-20 victory over Michigan in the 1978 Rose Bowl and was named Pac-8 Player of the Year. But when the NFL scouts projected him as no better than a fourth-round draft pick, he chose Canada. Black quarterbacks were still on the exotic side in the late '70s, projected first as "athletes," then as signal callers.
While with Edmonton he put up some stunning numbers—21,228 yards passing and 1,700 yards rushing. He had back-to-back 5,000-yard passing seasons. In the latter, 1983, his 5,648 yards over 16 games remains an alltime high for pro football.
The time was right to make a move south. The Seattle Seahawks were interested, but the Oilers prevailed by offering a more appealing contract and the chance to rejoin his Edmonton coach, Hugh Campbell, whom Houston had hired a month earlier. The two joined the sorriest franchise in the NFL, a team that had won a total of three games the previous two seasons. After Houston went 3-13 in '84 and 5-9 with two games to go in '85, Campbell was fired, and his defensive coordinator, Jerry Glanville, took over.
"The lowest point in my career came after Coach Campbell was fired," says Moon, who has been the Oiler starter since he arrived. "I had been lied to. I'd been told that he would have an opportunity to rebuild. I didn't feel that I fit in. I didn't feel that I was being used right. It was frustrating.
"I had three quarterback coaches or offensive coordinators in three years. The first one was Kay Dalton. He used the Redskins' two-tight-end system. Earl Campbell was on his last legs. We had no speed at wideout. The next year they brought in Joe Faragalli, who'd been my quarterback coach in Canada. Then in 1986, the quarterback coach was Gary Huff. We copied the Raiders' system, slam-bam football—run, run, then throw deep. Nine go-routes a game was what they wanted. Except that the deep routes never seemed to come into it that much.
"I remember we played the Dolphins at midseason. They were 27th in the league in pass defense, and 18 of our first 19 snaps were runs. I ended the first half five for eight, and one pass had been tipped and intercepted. They sat me down and put in Oliver Luck for the second half.
"It was the only time I ever criticized Coach Glanville publicly. He called me in and said I should have spoken to him first. He said from now on we would open up the offense. Trouble was, we were 1-8 and out of it. We did open our offense, and we won four of our last seven games."
In 1987 the quarterback coach was June Jones, who had been with Mouse Davis, the modern-day architect of the run-and-shoot, in the USFL. The Oilers called the run-and-shoot the Red Gun, but it was used as a mixer, not a steady diet. When Jones joined Davis in Detroit in 1989, Glanville hired Gilbride—Moon's fifth position coach in six years.
"Jerry's system was to let June and then Kevin handle the concept, the game plan," says Moon. "He would let them do all the work during the week, and then on Sunday, Jerry would take over the play-calling. It was done by instinct! He would say, 'This series we're gonna open it up in a no-huddle and surprise 'em. Next series we're gonna punish 'em, run the lead draw right down the field. The next series we're gonna open it up again. You got me? You thinking with me?' O.K., Jerry."
The Oilers were turning into a freak show: House of Pain, the Man in Black, the tickets for Elvis. Moon kept his mouth shut. Everyone did. No one wanted to get into Glanville's doghouse. In private, though, Moon echoed what most of the other offensive players felt. All that smash-mouth House of Pain stuff was fine for the defense, but then the offense had to take the field against an enemy defense psyched to inflict some pain of its own.
A coolness developed between coach and quarterback. Glanville never criticized Moon publicly, knowing that the quickest way to turn the town against him would have been to rip Moon in print. Moon was one of, if not the most likable sports figures in Houston. The Jaycees named him one of the Five Outstanding Young Men of Texas. The Travelers insurance company honored him with its coveted NFL Man of the Year award. When Moon's church in Houston, Windsor Village Methodist, needed $200,000 to complete a community center, Moon donated the entire amount.
Moon is comfortable with the Oilers' new system. Pardee devotes most of his attention to the defense and leaves Gilbride and his quarterback alone to dream up wrinkles in the run-and-shoot. Everyone gets along fine.
If Moon can stay healthy and if Houston can put together an outstanding second half, the best of Moon's 13 pro seasons could reach a happy fruition. The guy has paid his dues. He deserves it.