The citizenry of Houston has hated Oilers owner Bud Adams for
nearly three decades now. His meddling in team affairs, his
firing of beloved coach Bum Phillips in 1980 and his constant
whining about the Astrodome's inadequacies have usually been met
with quiet contempt. But last November, after he signed the deal
that made good on his threat to move the franchise to Nashville
in 1998, Adams was labeled Public Enemy No. 1. "In Houston they
wouldn't even vote me in for dogcatcher," says Adams. This Bud,
apparently, is not for them. The relationship could reach
royal-family lows this season.

General manager Floyd Reese and coach Jeff Fisher have put
together the best staff Houston has ever seen--since January no
fewer than five assistants have received job offers
elsewhere--and a team with a young nucleus that should mature
into a Super Bowl contender within two years. The problem is,
that's about the same time Adams will be shipping them all off
to Tennessee in search of the almighty buck. Houston will lose a
quality team that will go to waste this season and next playing
in a half-empty stadium. Crowd levels, which dropped to 35,000
last season, may dip into the teens in 1996. "I don't think the
fans owe [Adams] any support," says Houston mayor Bob Lanier. "I
would urge support at least to the degree the Oilers have
supported them. How about that?"

In 1995 Houston was one of only two teams in the league with a
better record on the road than at home (Cincinnati was the
other). Still, the Oilers rang up a league-high five-win jump
over 1994. "We have a challenge in front of us because of the
Tennessee situation," says Fisher. "If we have small crowds in
the Dome again, the key for us is not to use that as an excuse.
We have to find a way to play better at home than we did last
season."

Whoever does show up is sure to see defense played at a fever
pitch. Houston's 46 scheme--the in-your-face attack implemented
by former defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan in 1993--packs a
punch. As many as eight men take position up front looking for
big hits and turnovers. Curse his methods, but the short, fat
guy with the girly-man right cross was the best thing that ever
happened to the Oilers. With the league's fifth-ranked defense,
Houston led the AFC in take-aways, with 38. "You concentrate on
one thing in the 46," says nine-year cornerback Cris Dishman.
"Kicking the ass of the player across from you."

In charge of butt-kicking duties are a group of savvy veterans
like middle linebacker Al Smith, who begins his 10th year in
the league, and brash players like outside linebacker Micheal
Barrow. Led by all-rookie tackle Gary Walker, the imposing
defensive line averages a youthful 25 years and 287 pounds.

The Oilers also have arguably the best defensive backfield in
the business, with Dishman, safety Blaine Bishop (a team-high
97 tackles in '95) and cornerback Darryll Lewis (11
interceptions over the last two seasons). "I'm not saying we're
going to the Super Bowl this season," says Barrow, "but you can
mark it down: The Oilers will contend for the playoffs."

Jot this down too: Last year's draft picks quarterback Steve
McNair, wide receiver Chris Sanders and running back Rodney
Thomas are the team's offensive stars of the future. "They're
not just the foundation of the future," corrects left guard
Bruce Matthews. "They're the foundation for the present." Under
the tutelage of offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome, McNair played
the final 10 quarters of 1995, grabbed two wins and threw just
one bad pass. The first time oft-injured veteran Chris Chandler
gets banged up, McNair will take control of the offense. He'll
be looking downfield for Sanders, who as a rookie led the NFL
with 23.5 yards per catch. Thomas and the team's 1996 No. 1
pick, Heisman winner Eddie George, will rush behind a line that
features Matthews and center Mark Stepnoski, who have a combined
12 Pro Bowl appearances.

It will be up to Matthews and Stepnoski to guide this team
during what is sure to be a tumultuous season. "I think we'll
get the fans out, especially if we're winning," said Adams
during a goodwill trip to Nashville in May. "Who knows? Maybe
we'll go to the Super Bowl."

Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen--preferring to focus on the more
distant future--quickly replied, "Uh, could you wait a couple of
years on that?"

--D.F.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Barrow leads a brash defense, but will Houston fans say, Who cares? [Micheal Barrow]

BY THE NUMBERS

1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)

Rushing Passing Total

OFFENSE 104.0 (18) 202.6 (19) 306.6 (23)
DEFENSE 95.4 (8) 195.3 (3) 290.7 (5)

Running Out of Gas

With its first-round choice in this year's draft, Houston
selected Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George. In so doing, the
Oilers addressed the problem of a running game that finished
29th in the NFL in yards per carry last season (3.48), barely
ahead of expansion team Carolina (3.46). The productivity of
Houston's rushing game has fallen by more than a full yard per
carry since 1992.

Houston's Running Game over the Last Four Seasons

Att. Yards Avg. (NFL rank)

1992 353 1,626 4.61 (3)
1993 409 1,792 4.38 (4)
1994 417 1,682 4.03 (5)
1995 478 1,664 3.48 (29)

PLAYER TO WATCH

Last August, two days after being cut by the Redskins, Frank
Wycheck got a call from the Oilers at around 11 a.m. "Frank was
on the plane by noon," says his agent, George Mavrikes.
"[Houston] is perfect for him." Indeed, the Oilers' H-back
offense kick-started Wycheck's career, which had stalled since a
suspension for steroid use in 1994. The 6'3", 247-pound Wycheck
caught 28 passes for 335 yards over the last half of the season.
"Frank is not an afterthought in this offense," says coach Jeff
Fisher. "There's no limit to what he can accomplish in our
system."

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP

Head coach: Jeff Fisher

Offense

QB Chris Chandler 356 att. 225 comp. 63.2%
2,460 yds. 17 TDs 10 int. 87.8 rtg.

RB Rodney Thomas 251 att. 947 yds. 5TDs
RB Eddie George (R)[*] 303 att. 1,826 yds. 23TDs
TE Frank Wycheck 40 rec. 471 yds. 1TD
WR Chris Sanders 35 rec. 823 yds. 9TDs
WR Willie Davis[*] 33 rec. 527 yds. 5TDs
WR Derek Russell 24 rec. 321 yds. 0TDs
LT Brad Hopkins 6'3" 306 lbs.
LG Bruce Matthews 6'5" 298 lbs.
C Mark Stepnoski 6'2" 269 lbs.
RG Kevin Donnalley 6'5" 305 lbs.
RT Irv Eatman 6'7" 305 lbs.
PK Al Del Greco 33/33 XPs 27/31 FGs

Defense

LE Anthony Cook 4 1/2 sacks 0 fum. rec.
LT Gary Walker 2 1/2 sacks 0 fum. rec.
RT Bryant Mix (R)[*] 9 sacks 0 fum. rec.
RE Henry Ford 4 1/2 sacks 0 fum. rec.
OLB Micheal Barrow 3 sacks 0 int.
MLB Al Smith 0 sacks 0 int.
OLB Joe Bowden 1 sack 0 int.
CB Cris Dishman 3 int. 0 sacks
SS Blaine Bishop 1 int. 1 1/2 sacks
FS Marcus Robertson 0 int. 0 sacks
CB Darryll Lewis 6 int. 1 sack
P Reggie Roby[*] 77 punts 42.8 avg.
PR Mel Gray 30 ret. 10.1 avg.
KR Mel Gray 53 ret. 22.3 avg.

[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)