The 1978 Houston Oilers came into the season looking to break dry spell for their franchise and they moved aggressively draft Heisman Trophy-winning running back Earl Campbell, a hero of the University of Texas. The Oilers, one of the most successful teams in the first years of the AFL when it was founded in 1960, had never made the playoffs since the merger with the NFL in 1970. Campbell made the difference in 1978’s success.
A big bruising runner, with the power of a fullback and the breakaway speed of a halfback, Campbell joined a team that was showing clear signs of progress. The Oilers had winning seasons in two of the previous three years and in 1977 they’d gone 8-6. They aggressively traded up in the draft to get the star runner with the first overall pick and Campbell rushed for 1,450 yards.
The rest of the offense was not exceptional. Dan Pastorini was up and down at quarterback. The receivers were competent—Ken Burroughs had some deep speed, Mike Renfro was a rookie possession receiver and tight end Mike Barber was pretty good—but there was nothing spectacular. There were no Pro Bowlers on the offensive line.
There was more talent defensively, with two Pro Bowlers up front in Curley Culp and Elvin Bethea and another at outside linebacker with Robert Brazile. But there was no game-changer, no defensive equivalent of Campbell and the D finished 16th in the league.
Houston opened the season at the Atlanta Falcons, who would make the postseason for the first time in the Super Bowl era. Campbell rushed for 137 yards, but four turnovers doomed the Oilers in a 20-14 loss.
It looked like the season might get off to a really rough start when Houston fell behind in two consecutive games against bad teams in the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. Campbell scored two second-half touchdowns to carry the Oilers to a 20-17 win in KC. And a late field goal from Toni Fritsch got Houston past San Fran, 20-19.
Houston dropped a tough home game to the Los Angeles Rams 10-6, the second straight game that Campbell was held under 100 yards. The defense stepped up with a big game in Cleveland the following week. They picked off Browns quarterback Brian Sipe three times, Pastorini threw for 215 yards and Houston won 16-13.
Campbell got back on track with 104 yards in Oakland and the Oilers built up a 17-7 lead as the Raiders, a perennial AFC contender and two years removed from winning the Super Bowl, committed five turnovers. Houston was going in for a touchdown that would have put it away, when a fumble was returned 96 yards for a touchdown. The Raiders stole a 21-17 win and dropped the Oilers to 3-3.
A must-win home game against lowly Buffalo was next. Pastorini was efficient, 12/22 for 158 yards, and Campbell churned out 105 yards in a 17-10 win. Houston was in contention, but there was nothing to suggest this was a team in the midst of a special season. Then came Monday Night in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers were a division rival in the old AFC Central (including the Browns and Cincinnati Bengals) and they were off to a 7-0 start. It was the age of the “Steel Curtain” and Pittsburgh was a feared force. Houston simply controlled the game on the national stage.
No one overwhelmed anybody, but Campbell ground out 89 yards on 21 carries, while Steeler counterpart Franco Harris was held to 56 yards on 16 carries. Pastorini was 13/19 for 160 yards and no interceptions. The lead was 24-10 in the fourth quarter and ended 24-17.
The coming out party of the Oilers was dampened with a letdown loss in Cincinnati, as Houston was carved up Bengal quarterback Ken Anderson, fell behind 28-6 and lost 28-13. But the Oilers got back on track with another hard-fought win over Cleveland. The Houston defense held the Browns to 28 yards rushing and Rob Carpenter provided some support to Campbell, with 54 yards and two short TD runs in a 14-10 win.
Two consecutive big games with AFC East contenders awaited and all facets of the offense were on display. The Oilers went to New England and fell behind 23-0. Pastorini responded by throwing for 200 yards and Houston beat the Patriots 26-23. Then it was a Monday Night home game with the Miami Dolphins. In a big-and-forth battle, Houston trailed 23-21.
Campbell first ran in from 12 yards to get the lead. Then he took off on an 81-yard jaunt for a touchdown that sealed the 35-30 win. Earl finished with 199 yards and went a long way to cementing a season where he would emerge as the alternative to Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw in the MVP race. Bradshaw won the AP vote, but Campbell got his share of awards from other outlets.
Cincinnati came to Houston and this time the Oilers didn’t let down against a team that would finish 4-12. Campbell ran for 122 yards, Pastorini threw for 122 yards and they won 17-10. At 9-4, the playoffs were within reach when the Steelers came to the Astrodome for the rematch. In a tough defense-oriented game, Pittsburgh got their revenge. They intercepted Pastorini three times and won 13-3.
Pittsburgh had the AFC Central wrapped up, but a wild-card berth was one win from being clinched. Houston went to New Orleans and were leading the Saints 10-7. Pastorini rifled an 80-yard touchdown pass for a 17-7 lead and that all but sealed the game that ended 17-12. The Oilers were in the playoffs.
This was the first year the NFL, then using a three-division format for each conference, had a wild-card round in its playoffs. Houston was the #4 seed and in position to host the first-ever AFC wild-card game if they could win their finale with the San Diego Chargers. The Oilers lost at home, 45-24 and when Miami won on Monday Night it dropped Houston to the 5-spot. They would go on the road.
On the late afternoon of Christmas Eve, the Oilers and Dolphins squared off in the old Miami Orange Bowl. Houston fumbled a punt early in the game and fell behind 7-0, but was able to tie it up by halftime. Campbell was running consistently, 84 yards on 26 carries, but it was Pastorini was really playing well. The quarterback finished 20/29 for 306 yards and outplayed his more accomplished counterpart, Bob Griese.
A Fritsch field goal gave Houston a 10-7 lead, and an interception set up a Campbell touchdown run. The Houston defense had Miami locked down. Pastorini voluntarily took a safety late in the game to make it 17-9—with no two-point conversion, the eight-point lead was insurmountable—and Houston had an impressive win.
Just like in the regular season, Houston would draw the powers of the AFC East back-to-back, as they traveled to Foxboro to meet New England. The Patriots were the 2-seed, but they were in turmoil, as head coach Chuck Fairbanks had already announced he would be leaving at season’s end. Houston took advantage.
After a scoreless first quarter, Pastorini found Burrough down the right sideline on a 71-yard strike for a 7-0 lead. New England drove it back down the field, but Oiler safety Mike Reinfeldt intercepted a pass at the goal line. Houston returned on a drive of their own, and Pastorini connected with Barber for a TD. Another Reinfeldt interception set up another Pastorini-to-Barber touchdown pass. It was 21-0 and all but over, with the game ending 31-14.
Round Three against Pittsburgh awaited in the AFC Championship Game and the special season finally came to an end. In a freezing rain, Campbell couldn’t find traction to run, and the Steelers were just too good and too battle-tested. The Oilers turned it over nine times, five of them interceptions by Pastorini and the final was 34-5.
Nothing could take away what a breakout year it was for the 1978 Houston Oilers though. They produced the league’s brightest young star, made the playoffs and saw Pastorini come through big-time in the first two postseason games. It was something to build on going forward.