This is the one in a series of posts about the best teams that never won a championship in the NFL.
The Oilers of the late 70s were a team that revolved around personality. They had an Italian-American, Texas-raised quarterback, a big huge bowling ball of a running back, and a coach who wore a cowboy hat and chewed dip. But they were a pretty good team, too.
Bum Philips was an incredibly charismatic coach who was a great motivator. He was hired as the Oilers’ head coach in 1975, after Houston had won 9 games over three seasons. He quickly turned them into contenders, with a 10-4 record in his first year. In 1978, the Oilers finished 10-6, and traveled to the AFC Championship game, where they lost to the 14-2 Steelers 34-5. In 1979, they finished 11-5, again finishing second in their division.
Dan Pastorini didn’t have a great season stat-wise, as he had to adapt to the new offensive rules just like every other NFL quarterback. He completed 50.3% of his passes for 2,090 yards, 14 touchdowns and 18 interceptions for a rating of 62.1. He led the team to 10 wins.
Earl Campbell had one of the best years ever in 1979, as he won a plethora of awards while setting a then-NFL record for touchdowns in a season with 19. He bowled over people with incredible power, but had a surprising amount of speed. Campbell ran all over the league, leading the NFL with 1,697 yards. He won NFL MVP, was named All-Pro, was sent to the Pro Bowl, received the Bert Bell award, and was also named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
Ken Borrough, wearing #00, was the Oilers’ leading receiver. He recorded 40 receptions for 752 yards and 6 touchdowns, while finishing with an 18.8 yards per reception average.
The defense, despite giving up 331 points, was one of the best in the league in terms of turnovers and sacks. They picked off 34 passes, 12 of which came courtesy of NFL interception leader Mike Reinfeldt. They beat division rival Pittsburgh in Week 15 20-17, earning themselves credibility that had been absent in previous years.
In the AFC Wild Card game, the Oilers shut down the Broncos, allowing 7 points and shutting them out in the final 3 quarters.
The AFC Divisional Playoff was a mismatch. Pastorini, Campbell and Borroughs were all injured, and the Oilers had to play the Chargers and their famed Air Coryell offense. Houston’s offense could only bring 259 yards to the table, but the defense came through when it needed to. Vernon Perry set a playoff record by intercepting 4 passes. The Oilers defeated the Chargers 17-14 in one of the biggest playoff upsets ever. Although future Hall of Famer Dan Fouts threw for 333 yards in his first playoff game, he tossed 5 interceptions.
The Oilers then had to travel to Pittsburgh for the AFC Title game, in which the feeling was that whoever won the game would win the Super Bowl. Dan Pastorini was beaten all day long, and when trailing 20-13, Pastorini threw an apparent touchdown pass to Mike Renfro, but the call was blown.
I think it was a touchdown. You be the judge.
Earl Campbell was stuffed all day, and the Oilers went on to lose the game 27-13 in a crushing defeat.
The Oilers again were an excellent team in 1980, but lost in the playoffs to the Raiders 27-7. After the loss, Bum Philips was fired. Houston never recovered, and didn’t record another winning season until 1987.
The Oilers, had they surpassed the Steelers in either 1978 or 1979, would have reached the Super Bowl and probably won it. But they had the misfortune of sharing a division with what was probably the best team ever at that time, the Steelers. Had it gone the other way, the Oilers would still be around today, and we wouldn’t be mocking the unidentifiable Titans today.