The anticipation was high for the 1980 Houston Oilers. Two years earlier they had drafted running back Earl Campbell and he proved to be the missing piece for a team on the brink of the playoffs. The Oilers made the AFC Championship Game in 1978 before being blown out by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Houston made it back in 1979 and lost a more competitive game to Pittsburgh. 1980 was set to be the Oilers’ time.
Houston made a big trade in the offseason, swapping quarterbacks with the Oakland Raiders. The Oilers gave up Dan Pastorini in exchange for Ken Stabler. In the mid-1970s, Stabler had lost two straight AFC Championship Games to Pittsburgh before getting over the top against the Steelers in 1976 and winning in the Super Bowl. The Oilers wanted the veteran lefty to bring that same know-how to the rest of the time.
“…we knocked on the door,” head coach Bum Phillips told a rally of Houston fans regarding the 1978 season. “Then we beat on it. Next year, we’re gonna kick (profane slur) in!” The rallying cry for the Oilers was set.
The time to back up the talk would come right away when Houston visited Pittsburgh for a Week 1 game. In our own day, this would be in prime-time, probably a Thursday Night season opener. 1980 was a different time and it was a normal early afternoon kick in old Three Rivers Stadium.
It didn’t start well or finish well for the Oilers. They fell behind 17-0, and Campbell would only carry the ball 13 times. Houston rallied to tie the game 17-17, but Stabler threw five interceptions in what ended up as a 31-17 defeat.
Campbell completed a 57-yard touchdown pass, but perhaps that underscored the problem—if Houston had known that Earl was going to be their best passer, and that he would get as many yards in in the air as he did on the ground, the Oilers would have known this wouldn’t be their day.
Houston had never been a great offensive team in this short period of ascendancy. They were usually fairly average, relying on Campbell to exclusively carry the load. This season didn’t turn it out any different in that regard—Earl’s 1,934 yards won him a third rushing title in three NFL seasons, and left tackle Leon Gray was another 1st-team All-Pro.
But Stabler threw 28 interceptions against only 13 touchdowns and the Oilers still finished 20th in the NFL in points scored. The defense made up for it. Though the only Pro Bowl talent was outside linebacker Robert Brazile and corner Greg Stemrick, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts and Houston ranked 2nd in the league in points allowed.
The Oilers came out of Pittsburgh and had another tough divisional game against the Cleveland Browns, this one on Monday Night Football. The offensive struggles continued for a half and Houston trailed 7-3. But Stabler was staying away from mistakes this time. His high-percentage short-yardage passing produced a 23/28 for 187 yards and Campbell rushed for 106. The Oilers won 16-7.
Campbell only got seven carries in the next week’s home opener against the Baltimore Colts, but Rob Carpenter stepped and gained 114 yards. Stabler was 18/21 for 219 yards, and even with two interceptions, it was enough for a 21-16 win over a mediocre opponent.
The Cincinnati Bengals were the only non-contending team in the old AFC Central, joining Houston, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. But the Oilers had their problems in Cincy, trailing 10-7 in the fourth quarter and even when they rallied, two drives stalled in the red zone. Houston was still able to escape with a couple field goals in a 13-10 win.
A lousy team in the Seattle Seahawks visited Houston next and Campbell only ran for 50 yards, while Stabler threw five interceptions in an embarrassing 26-7 loss. The following week’s trip to Kansas City ended in another loss. Even though Earl got rolling with 178 yards, Stabler had an interception returned for a touchdown and the Oilers lost to a .500 team, 21-20.
Amidst the 3-3 record, the positive was that Campbell was untracked after slow start. He romped for 203 yards in a 20-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And the front office continued to go all-in, making another trade with the Raiders, this one for veteran tight end Dave Casper, a favorite Stabler target.
You could play with anyone at the skill positions when Campbell was in high gear though, and he continued to be at home against the Bengals, racking up a third straight 200-yard game in a 23-3 win. A road trip to Denver saw Earl get the ball 36 times, produce 147 yards and lead the way to a 20-16 win.
The New England Patriots had a high-powered offense and they were coming into the Astrodome for a Monday Night appearance. Houston was ready. Campbell had 130 yards and Stabler played perhaps his best game of the year, going 15/17 for 258 yards a great display of precision and big-play ability. The Oilers jumped out to a 24-6 lead and held off a Patriots rally for a 38-34 win. It was a game that would prove decisive in the push for the AFC playoffs.
After being “held” to 130 yards against the Pats, Campbell apparently felt he had something to prove in Chicago and he again rolled past the 200-yard mark in a tough 10-6 win. Houston was 8-3 and atop the AFC Central, with the Browns and Steelers both giving chase at 7-4. Maybe the Oilers really were going to kick that door in.
Then came an inexplicably bad showing at the New York Jets, a woeful team that won only four games. An early Houston drive ended with a Stabler interception being taken back the other way and Houston trailed 21-0 early. Stabler fought back gamely, and threw four touchdown passes to lead a furious rally to tie the game 28-28, skillfully working his tight end-heavy passing game of Casper, Mike Barber and Rich Caster. Stabler finished with 388 yards, but the Jets stole the game in overtime.
The final day of November saw Cleveland come into Houston for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff. The teams were tied for first, with Pittsburgh, showing their age and struggling a game behind. This game with the Browns, and a rare Thursday Night game five days later with the Steelers, gave Houston a perfect chance to put the division race under firm control.
But turnovers did them in against the Browns, five of them in all. Campbell ran for 109 yards, but Earl simply being good wasn’t enough—he always had to be great—and with the turnovers, the Browns won 17-14. Houston’s defense responded against Pittsburgh. Though the game took “ugly” to new levels, the Oilers picked off Terry Bradshaw three times, Campbell ground out 81 yards on 21 carries and Houston won 6-0.
With a record of 9-5, the Oilers were a game back of the Browns and a game ahead of the Steelers and the Patriots. You could reasonably assume that the AFC West was going to produce two playoff teams, Oakland and the San Diego Chargers, and in the format of 1980, that left one wild-card berth. Houston at least controlled their destiny for that.
And the Oilers locked up the playoff spot the next week in Green Bay. This writer grew up in southeastern Wisconsin and this December 14 game was my first trip to Lambeau Field at the age of ten. I remember Houston controlling the game, Campbell running for a touchdown and a bunch of guys near us passing around a bottle of rum. Houston won 22-3.
They also got a break when Cleveland lost at Minnesota, keeping the division title—and even in the #1 seed in play. The finale was Houston’s turn to play Minnesota. The Oilers trailed 16-13, but it was another vintage performance from Campbell, who ran for 203 yards. Stabler went 19/33 for 239 yards, with Casper being his top target.
Cleveland was taken to the wire in Cincinnati, but the Browns survived and won the division. Houston’s 11-5 record was tied for the best in the AFC—all five playoff teams finished with the same record. It was one game better than the Patriots, who ended up outside the playoff picture—that Monday Night win in November was the difference between Houston and New England. And the Oilers were two games better than the Steelers, who saw their dynasty end.
After all the preseason hype, was there anyone more appropriate for Houston to play in the AFC wild-card game than Oakland? Pastorini had gotten hurt and then lost his job to Jim Plunkett, so Houston wouldn’t face their old friend. They would have been better off if they had.
Campbell fumbled on the game’s first play and set up a quick Oakland field goal. The great running back was held to just 91 yards. Even though Houston trailed just 10-7 going into the fourth quarter, the roof fell in at the end. The Raiders scored ten points and then iced the win when Stabler threw the second of his two interceptions and it ended up returned for a score.
The year of great expectation ended in deep disappointment with the 27-7 loss. The disappointment only got deeper as it became apparent that Houston’s rise to contender status was over. The Oilers never again made the playoffs with this core group.
Campbell’s body wore down prematurely, a victim of both all those carries and the philosophy of defenses to put four helmets on him every time he touched the football. The man who was perhaps the greatest running back of the modern era ended up with debilitating lower body problems that have plagued him going forward. Although we must note that Campbell’s life overall is a success story, as he become a successful businessman and gives back to his alma mater, the University of Texas.
1980 was also a temporary end for the Houston Oilers. They didn’t make the playoffs until Warren Moon came to town in 1987, and this city has never reached the Super Bowl, with either the Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans) or today’s Texans.