When The Houston Oilers Sprung A Leak

Welcome to another trip into the Football Attic. If you were with me last time, you’ll remember that we talked about some pretty great football, a 1969 game between the 10-1 Vikings and the 11-0 Rams.

Well today, we’re going to balance things out and talk about one or make that two, of the worst football teams ever to take the field. Those were the Houston Oilers of 1972 and ’73.

This article is also a podcast over at the Football Attic if you are interested in listening, you can do so below.  You can also read the full article if this is your preference.

Click below for the full article.

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Every Friday, host John Gidley shares interesting stories of games, players, coaches and teams that aren’t necessarily forgotten, but are not as well-known as they should be. 

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First: A Little Back Story

In case you don’t know, the Houston Oilers are currently the Tennessee Titans. The Oilers were founded by Bud Adams as a charter member of the upstart American Football League in 1960. They played 36 years in Houston before moving to Tennessee in 1997.

At first, the nickname didn’t change, and they were called the Tennessee Oilers. But after two seasons, everyone realized that oil isn’t equated with Tennessee like it is with Texas, so in 1999, the nickname of Titans was adopted. I’ve always found the Houston Oilers to be a fascinating case because it always seemed like they were at either extreme in terms of their level of play.

In other words, they were rarely mediocre. Either they were really good, or really, really bad. In their first three seasons in the AFL, from 1960 to ’62, the Oilers went 31-8-1 and won each of the first two AFL championships.

That was their first great era. The second was from 1978 to 1980, the period in which Oiler fans adopted the slogan “Luv Ya Blue.” They were coached by Bum Phillips, and their star player was running back Earl Campbell. In those three seasons, Campbell averaged almost 1,800 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns per season.

He was absolutely unstoppable in that period. They went to the playoffs in each of those three seasons but came up short each time, most notably losing to their arch-rival Pittsburgh in back-to-back AFC championship games.

The third great era of Oilers football was from 1987 to 1993, when they were led by quarterback Warren Moon and implemented an offense known as the “Run and Shoot.” They made the playoffs in each of those seven seasons but never made it past the AFC divisional round. In these eras, it was great to be a fan of the Houston Oilers, though it always meant heartbreak come January.

To match those three great eras, there were three dreadful time periods. One of them was from 1982 to ’84. Mercifully for Houston, the 1982 regular season was cut in half by a players’ strike. Otherwise, they may have been remembered as one of the worst teams ever. In those three seasons, the Oilers’ combined record was 6-35.

They also went 5-11 in both 1985 and ’86, which isn’t good, but it wasn’t as dreadful as those teams from ’82 to ’84. Fast forward to 1994, when the Oilers’ leader, Warren Moon, was traded to Minnesota. This was basically the end of the Houston Oilers. After going 12-4 in 1993, they bottomed out by going 2-14 in ’94. Their final two seasons in Houston were mediocre: they went 7-9 in 1995 and 8-8 in ’96, but the fanbase became extremely apathetic, due to both an uninspiring team and swirling rumors that the Oilers would soon be leaving for Tennessee.

In 1996, their final season in Houston, the average attendance at the Astrodome was just under 32,000. Compare that to the average crowds of between 55 and 60,000 they were drawing just a few seasons before, and that’s a pretty steep drop. The final home game in Houston Oilers franchise history, a 21-13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on December 15, 1996, drew only 15,131 fans, a sad ending for this star-crossed franchise.

Can It Get Any Worse?

As bad as both of those aforementioned eras are, however, no Houston Oilers teams were even worse than the two that took the field in 1972 and ’73. Both of those teams finished the regular season with one win and 13 losses. The Oilers had been slipping before this: they went 3-10-1 in 1970, and 4-9-1 in ’71, but ’72 and ’73 were when the bottom completely dropped out.

It all began in the 1972 offseason when the Oilers hired Bill Peterson to be their head coach. Prior to this, Peterson had absolutely no experience in the National Football League, either as a coach or a player. He spent five years coaching high school football in Ohio, then four years as an assistant coach at LSU before taking the head coaching job at Florida State in 1960.

Long before Bobby Bowden, Bill Peterson was the one who put Florida State football on the map. He coached the Seminoles for 11 seasons and left with a career record of 62-42-11. For just one season, in 1971, he coached the Rice University football team, also in Houston, going only 3-7-1 before leaving to take the Oilers’ job.

You could argue that this futility wasn’t entirely Peterson’s fault, having inherited one of the worst rosters in the league. At the same time, however, players and reporters both recall that he seemed intimidated by the NFL and never really had either his words or his bearings straight.

He once told the players to stand on their helmets with the sideline under their arms as the National Anthem was played. Another time, he perplexed the team by calling for a punt on third down.

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    Houston Oilers 1972 Season

    In 1972, the Oilers ranked second-to-last in the NFL in both points scored and points allowed. The average final score of an Oilers game that year was 27-12. The most points they scored in ’72 were 26, in their only victory of the season, a 26-20 win over the Jets in week three.

    The next week, the Oilers hosted the Oakland Raiders on Monday Night Football and were humiliated in front of a national audience. Quarterback Dan Pastorini completed only three passes on 21 attempts, with 31 passing yards and four interceptions. Houston gained only 89 total yards in a 34-0 defeat. Towards the end of the game, the ABC cameras began to pan the near-empty Astrodome.

    They zeroed in on a fan who was sleeping. When he woke up, he realized he was on camera, and gave the middle finger. This caused announcers Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, and Don Meredith to crack up, with Meredith quipping, “They’re number one in the nation!” This was one of two instances that season in which the Oilers laid a goose egg. Four weeks later, they were shut out by the Browns in Cleveland, 20-0.

    The next week, they lost 18-17 at home to the equally embarrassing Philadelphia Eagles. All of the Eagles’ points came on six Tom Dempsey field goals. The 1972 Oilers season was put out of its misery on December 17, with a 61-17 defeat at home to Cincinnati. As I perused Houston’s final statistics for the season, I noticed that all of their running backs, along with a few quarterbacks and receivers, combined for only 1,518 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.

    That’s among 11 players! For comparison, the defense allowed almost 2,600 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns.

    1973 Must Be Better, Right?

    Normally, when you win only one game all season, you’re bound to improve the next year, but there was nothing normal about these Houston Oilers. After an 0-5 start in 1973, Bill Peterson was fired as head coach and replaced by Sid Gillman, who had previously won an AFL championship with the San Diego Chargers.

    Gillman wasn’t much of an improvement, as the Oilers still won only one game all season, a 31-27 victory at the Baltimore Colts on November 4. The offense was just as bad as it was in ’72, but the defense was somehow even worse, allowing an average of 32 points per game. Over a five-week stretch from late September to late October, Houston gave up 192 points in five games, 38 per game.

    In ten starts in 1973, quarterback Dan Pastorini lost all ten, throwing just five touchdown passes to 17 interceptions. It led Pastorini to wonder if he was playing the right sport, as he had been offered a baseball contract by the New York Mets before being drafted by the Oilers in 1971.

    Fortunately for Pastorini and the rest of the Oilers, their fortune began to change almost immediately. After starting 1-5 in 1974, they finished the year winning six of eight for an even record of 7-7. In 1975, Houston finished 10-4 but missed the playoffs. This was because they lost both of their games against division rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

    The Steelers finished 12-2 on their way to a Super Bowl win, and the Bengals went 11-3 to take the AFC’s only wild card spot. 0-4 against the Steelers and Bengals in ’75, but 10-0 against the rest of the NFL: a perfect summation of life as a fan of the Houston Oilers.

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