Thursday, January 24, 2013

Snake Eyes

Oilers vs. Steelers, September 7, 1980, Three Rivers Stadium

The 1979 Houston Oilers finished their season by losing to the eventual Super Bowl champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the AFC Championship Game, for the second year in a row. This was apparently too much for Oilers owner Bud Adams to take, because before the start of the 1980 season, he traded longtime Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini to the Oakland Raiders for their own longtime starting quarterback, Kenny Stabler. (The Raiders also traded, in a separate deal, Jack "the Assassin" Tatum to the Oilers for Kenny King and some draft picks.)

The 1980 Oilers opened the season, as luck would have it, against those same Steelers in Pittsburgh, with the Snake at the controls. And it was a disaster. Stabler's first pass was dropped by Earl Campbell, whom the Oilers were trying to make into more of a pass-catching threat. (According to Dick Enberg, in about the most interesting thing I ever heard him say, Pastorini claimed that Campbell couldn't catch a cold, and based on this game, Dante appears to have been correct.) Stabler's second pass attempt was intercepted. Stabler's third pass attempt was intercepted. Stabler's sixth pass attempt was intercepted.

At that point, I lost count of the number of Stabler's pass attempts, but he threw one more pick before halftime. Stabler finally completed more passes to Oilers than to Steelers sometime late in the second quarter, with a ratio of five to four. The score at that point was 17-0 Steelers. To be fair to Stabler, his best receiver, Kenny Burrough, was on the sideline in a Bum Phillips-style cowboy hat, blue jeans, and some kind of protective leg brace.

Although Stabler eventually stopped throwing picks, Phillips figured out a better use for Earl Campbell than catching passes in the second half: Earl threw a 57-yard bomb downfield to Billy "White Shoes" Johnson in the third quarter to close the deficit to 17-10. Steeler Theo Bell fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and the Oilers were in position to tie the game. Down by the goal line, new QB Stabler bumped into Earl Campbell on the handoff and the ball bounced into the end zone, then backward into the arms of a Houston lineman at the one. It sure was weird to see the ball land in the end zone on a non-scoring play, but there you go. Campbell took it in on the next play to tie it up at 17.

The Steelers added two fourth-quarter touchdowns to build up another lead. One of them featured Terry Bradshaw scrambling around before throwing a desperation heave down to John Stallworth at the goal line. NBC's cameras completely lost sight of where the ball went; they bobbed around the field after Bradshaw's throw, then finally found Stallworth after he had danced into the end zone.

Stabler iced it with yet another interception in the fourth quarter. The Snake finished 24 of 42 for 196 yards with five interceptions and no touchdowns.  Pastorini, for his part, didn't make it through the season as the Raiders starter.

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