The Houston Oilers reached the AFC Championship Game for the first time in the Super Bowl era in 1978. The Pittsburgh Steelers were all that stood in their way. The 1979 Houston Oilers saw the same ending, but they seemed to be an inching just a little bit closer to the ultimate goal.
Houston’s success of this season, along with the previous one, was built around Earl Campbell. The power running back who won the Heisman Trophy at Texas in 1977, had been blazed onto the NFL scene in 1978, and he was even better in his second year. Campbell rushed for nearly 1,700 yards and won the MVP award.
Campbell’s MVP season made him the most notable of a lineup that was top-heavy in terms of its contributors. Left tackle Leon Gray was also a 1st-team All-Pro, as was outside linebacker Robert Brazile.
The only other Pro Bowler was defensive end Elvin Bethea. Although free safety Mike Reinfeldt picked off twelve passes and rookie defensive back Vernon Perry would make an unforgettable mark on the season before it was over
The presence of Campbell made up for a mediocre passing game. Dan Pastorini was up and down at quarterback, throwing for 2,100 yards—acceptable for the era—but also had a TD-INT ratio of 14/18, and there was no real top threat at wideout. Even so, Houston ranked 8th in the NFL in points scored, compared to more mediocre defensive numbers, which saw the Oilers rank 16th in points allowed
Houston opened the season with tough road games, starting with a road trip to a Washington Redskins team that would win ten games, and then going to Pittsburgh. The Oilers fell behind the Redskins 27-13 after three quarters, with Pastorini throwing three interceptions. But Campbell ran for 166 yards, and Houston rallied for a 29-27 win.
When the Oilers played the Steelers in the previous year’s AFC Championship Game, the result had been an ugly 34-5 loss played in the sleet. The weather was better this time but the result wasn’t. Pastorini threw five interceptions, Campbell was held to 38 yards and Houston didn’t score until a meaningless touchdown in the fourth quarter finished a 38-7 rout. The gap between Houston and the dynasty in their division was still substantial.
Gifford Nielsen had stepped in for Pastorini at the end of the debacle, and with the starter injured, Nielsen played Week 3’s home opener against the mediocre Kansas City Chiefs. Nielsen played efficiently, 12/18 for 173 yards and most important, no interceptions. Reinfeldt and J.C. Wilson each picked off two passes of their own, and Campbell churned out 131 yards. The result was a 20-6 win.
A road trip to the horrible Cincinnati Bengals, with Pastorini back in the saddle, couldn’t have started worse. Houston was in a 24-0 hole by the second guard. But then the quarterback started to play well for the first time in 1979. He threw a 35-yard pass to Ken Burrough and a 22-yard strike to Richard Caster. Houston actually led 27-24 before the Bengals tied it on a 55-yard field goal. The Oilers survived the wild game in overtime.
Pastorini took the positive momentum to a home game with the Cleveland Browns. This time he played a clean football game, no mistakes and the Oilers churned out a 31-10 win. The team was rolling at 4-1, but then they dumped a home game with a bad St. Louis Cardinals team. Campbell didn’t produce in this one, while the Cards got 109 yards rushing from Ottis Anderson. Houston led 17-10 in the fourth quarter, but gave up two rushing touchdowns to lose it 24-17.
Another bad opponent, the Baltimore Colts, was up next, this one on the road. Jesse Baker returned a fumble for a touchdown to get the scoring started. Reinfeldt had two interceptions and Campbell got back into gear with 149 yards, keying an easy 28-16 win. But another loss followed, with the Oilers being dominated in all phases of the game in a 34-14 loss at Seattle.
The record was 5-3, and in the second half of the season the Oilers started to roll. Pastorini got into a passing battle with the New York Jets’ Richard Todd, and Pastorini pulled it out 27-24 in overtime. Then came a Monday Night visit to the Miami Dolphins, a return to where Houston won the AFC wild-card game the prior year, and the Dolphins were on their way to an AFC East title this year.
Pastorini only completed 6/10 passes for 25 yards, but Campbell ground out 120 yards, the Oilers won the turnover battle 4-zip and survived a game of all field goals, 9-6. Pastorini again was mistake-free in a home game with the Oakland Raiders. His numbers were 8/13, but they went for 207 yards, including two long strikes to Burrough in a 31-17 win.
The success in the turnover battle continued with the Bengals made their return trip to the Astrodome (Houston was then in the old AFC Central, along with Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati). The Oilers forced six, committed none, Campbell churned for 112 and the result was a 42-21 rout.
Now it was time for a Thanksgiving Day trip to Dallas, where the Cowboys were on their way to an 11-win season and the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Campbell put on a big-time show for the national TV audience. After Dallas scored first, Campbell rumbled 61 yards for the tying touchdown. Then he took off on a 27-yard scoring jaunt in the second quarter.
For the game, Campbell carried 33 times for 195 yards, completely outplaying counterpart Tony Dorsett, a fellow Heisman Trophy winner (1976, Pitt) and star young back, as Dorsett only gained 54 yards. Pastorini threw the winning touchdown pass, a 32-yard pass to Burrough in the fourth quarter, as Houston won 30-24.
Houston was now 10-3. The AFC would end up with several teams stacked at 9-7—the Raiders, Browns, Seahawks and New England Patriots, while the Jets ended up at 8-8. But with three weeks to play, Houston’s race was pretty simple. They were in good shape to at least make the playoffs, with two-wild card qualifiers and only the Denver Broncos within one game. And the Oilers were tied with the Steelers for first in the AFC Central.
A trip to Cleveland though, resulted in a tough loss that ended the win streak. Campbell and Browns’ counterpart Mike Pruitt each ran for over 100 yards, but Cleveland got the fourth-quarter touchdown to win 14-7. The Broncos, who had lost, were each within one game of Houston, and now it was time for a Monday Night battle in the Astrodome with the Steelers.
Campbell, having been stymied in the last two meetings with Pittsburgh, finally got rolling against the Steel Curtain He ran for 109 yards and this time Pastorini stayed away from mistakes. He went 10/16 for 170 yards and outplayed Terry Bradshaw, who struggled to 14/29 for 237 yards, and two interceptions. The Oilers led 20-17 and covered an onside kick with 1:10 left to secure the win.
Houston had clinched a playoff berth and still had a shot at the division, sharing an 11-4 record with Pittsburgh, though losing the tiebreaker. The Oilers’ finale was a late Sunday afternoon game with a fellow playoff-bound team, the Philadelphia Eagles.
By the time the game began, Pittsburgh had beaten Buffalo to clinch first place. Houston lost 26-20, and then found out their wild-card opponent the next night when Denver lost a head-to-head battle with the San Diego Chargers for the AFC West title on Monday Night Football.
The Oilers were still hosting a playoff game for the first time in the Super Bowl era on December 23. They opened as a solid (-7) favorite over the Broncos. Campbell ran for a touchdown in the second quarter to give them a 10-7 lead, but then the worst possible scenario went down—the big running back went down. Then Pastorini also left the game with an injury.
It was up to the defense to take over and that’s exactly what happened. Houston registered five sacks, two by nose tackle Curley Culp and three more by defensive end Andy Dorris. Gregg Bingham intercepted a pass that set up a field goal with less than five minutes left and Houston survived 13-7.
The bad news was that Campbell, Pastorini, along with Burrough were ruled out of the following Saturday’s trip to San Diego. The Chargers were the AFC’s top seed. Their high-powered passing attack was led by quarterback Dan Fouts and orchestrated by offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs, who would eventually accomplish some pretty big things as a head coach.
When San Diego marched for a touchdown on their first possession, it seemed like the game everyone expected. Then Houston scratched back in. Vernon Perry blocked a field goal, returned it 57 yards and set up a field goal. With 19 seconds left in the first half, the Oilers faced fourth-and-goal inside the 1-yard line. Head coach Bum Phillips decided to go for it. Without Campbell, the play went to the outside and running back Boobie Clark won the race to the goal line.
Houston led 10-7, and Perry had intercepted two passes. They fell behind 14-10, but then Gifford Nielsen threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to Mike Renfro to get the lead. But a 17-14 lead couldn’t be enough to hold off Fouts, could it? Perry intercepted a third pass…then a fourth. The unlikely hero delivered a stunning upset.
Afterwards, defensive coordinator Ed Biles confirmed that the Oilers had the drop on San Diego’s signals, and usually knew when they were going to pass. In case you’re curious, the answer is no—a young Bill Belichick was not on the staff and not employing an early version of Spygate.
Houston was going back to the AFC Championship Game and again going back to Pittsburgh. Pastorini and Campbell were both cleared to play.
They played much more competitively this time, trailing 17-10 early in the fourth quarter and driving for the tying touchdown. Pastorini appeared to complete the game-tying pass to Mike Renfro in the back of the end zone. Officials conferred and ruled Renfro was out of bounds. It was extremely close, but I think the wrong call was made.
In any case, the Steel Curtain again locked down Campbell, and the Oilers only had 24 rush yards as a team and Pittsburgh took over the remainder of the game, winning 27-13.
The season still concluded with a lot of optimism. Houston appeared to be gradually pushing towards a Super Bowl. But, as it turned out, the 1979 Houston Oilers were the high point of the franchise, at least until they moved to Tennessee and became the Titans. The Oilers lost the wild-card game the following year. Campbell started to wear down after too many hits. The city of Houston has never again experienced the AFC Championship Game.