Jerry Glanville & Warren Moon had returned playoff football to the city of Houston in 1987 after a six-year absence. Lest anyone think that was a fluke, a byproduct of the strike-torn year of 1987, the 1988 Houston Oilers validated the franchise’s rise to the status of a contender and returned to the postseason.
Moon orchestrated an explosive offense that, even with him missing five games due to injury, still ranked second in the NFL in points scored. Big plays were the key. While Moon’s 54% completion rate was a bit below the league average, he was third in yards-per-attempt at 7.9.
Pro Bowl receiver Drew Hill was the prime target, racking up over 1,100 yards receiving. Ernest Givens wasn’t far behind, catching 60 balls for nearly a thousand yards himself. Both players were shifty at getting open and could stretch the field, each averaging better than fifteen yards a catch.
Houston could also run the ball behind an excellent offensive line. Left guard Mike Munchak, eventually to become the franchise’s head coach after they had moved to Tennessee, was a Pro Bowler. Left tackle Bruce Matthews was 1st-team All-Pro and begin a string of fourteen straight Pro Bowl years in 1988. Mike Rozier ran behind them for a 1,000-yard season and a Pro Bowl trip of his own.
It was the defense that was the Oiler shortcoming. Individually, there were some good players in the front seven. Defensive ends Ray Childress and William Fuller each had 8 ½ sacks and Childress made the Pro Bowl. So did inside linebacker John Grimsley. On the edge, outside linebacker Johnny Meads added eight more sacks. But there were problems in the secondary and Houston ultimately finished 22nd in the league in points allowed.
The Oilers opened the season at Indianapolis. The Colts had reached the playoffs in 1987 and like Houston had exited in the divisional round. That the teams were seen as even was reflected in the fact Indianapolis was a three-point favorite, the customary edge given for homefield.
The plans for the season went immediately awry—Moon broke a bone in his shoulder and was going to the sideline as quickly as the year had begun. Cody Carlson came on to replace him and the game proved to be about running the football. While Indy’s future Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson went for 109 yards, Houston had more balance—100 yards from Rozier and 63 more from Allan Pinkett. They also got a Pick-6 from the defense and ultimately won in overtime, 17-14.
The home opener was against a mediocre Los Angeles Raiders team and the defense struggled early on, giving up 28 first-half points. Carlson’s overall numbers in his five starts weren’t great, but he was good in this game when he needed to be. The Baylor product went 21/34 for 276 yards, finding Givins nine times. Houston rallied and again won by a field goal, this time 38-35.
Carlson looked much more like a backup in Week 3 at the New York Jets. He went 9/25 for 108 yards against an average team. Houston turned the football over four times and were crushed 45-3. They immediately turned it around the next week at home against New England. Carlson found Pinkett out of the backfield twice for long touchdown passes and Pinkett ran in for another score. The final was 31-6.
Houston went to Philadelphia where the building program of third-year head coach Buddy Ryan was bearing fruit and would produce an NFC East title in 1988. The Oilers jumped out to an early 16-0 lead, keyed by a blocked punt recovery for a touchdown by rookie defensive back Cris Dishman. But the Oilers couldn’t run the ball or stop the run on this day and the Eagles turned it around and won 32-23.
The quarterback situation went for troublesome to worse the following week. Carlson was knocked out at home against Kansas City. Brent Pease, who had quarterbacked the Oilers as one of the replacement players during the 1987 strike got on the field again. His 3/14 for 26 yards performance wasn’t exactly inspiring. But there were three pieces of good news—one was that at least Pease ran for a touchdown. The second was that the defense was good enough against a bad opponent to make this stand up in a 7-6 win. Third, and most important was that Moon was ready to come back.
Moon delivered an efficient 11/19 for 174 yards and no mistakes performance in Pittsburgh. Most of the production went to Givins, who caught five balls for 104 yards. The Houston special teams again produced a touchdown and the result was an easy 34-14 win. But the good times stopped in Cincinnati, where the Bengals were having a great year behind MVP quarterback Boomer Esiason. The Oiler D got lit up for four touchdowns in the first quarter and lost 44-21.
The lights of Sunday Night Football—still a novelty in its second year—were on in the Astrodome the next week. The Washington Redskins were the defending Super Bowl champs, but they were having a tough year in 1988—the worst of the Joe Gibbs glory years in fact. Houston held the Redskins to 29 rushing yards, Drew Hill caught nine passes for 148 yards and the Oilers cruised to a 41-17 win.
Another prime-time home game was on deck, this time a Monday Nighter with the Cleveland Browns. The Browns were fresh off back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in the era where Marty Schottenheimer was their coach. They had also lost their quarterback in Week 1, in this case Bernie Kosar and just got him back a couple weeks earlier.
Both teams were in the mix for the old AFC Central title along with Cincinnati (Pittsburgh was the division’s other team). The Houston rush defense clamped down again for a national audience, holding the Browns to 44 yards on the ground. The Oilers jumped out to a 21-3 lead in the third quarter and held on to win 24-17.
After two stellar performances, the rush defense wavered the following week at playoff-bound Seattle. Even though Houston ran for 237 yards themselves and led 24-17 in the fourth quarter, a big game from big Seahawk back John L. Williams turned the game back around and the Oilers lost 27-24. They went to the desert to play the Cardinals and rediscovered the ability to stop the run, holding a mediocre opponent to 60 rush yards. Moon was clicking with Givins and Hill, who each racked up over 100 receiving yards and Houston coasted to a 38-20 win.
Houston was 8-4, a game back of Cincinnati for Central lead and a game ahead of Cleveland in a wild-card race the Oilers were in firm control of. They traveled to Dallas for a Thanksgiving feast against a bad Cowboy team, one that would get Tom Landry fired at year’s end. After some sluggish play that saw Houston trail 17-10 in the third quarter, they began to take over. Moon threw for 226 yards and nine of his passes were caught by Hill. The Oilers won 25-17.
The season would end with three straight divisional games and the easy one was first, at home against the Steelers who were on their way to a 5-11 campaign. Instead, Houston’s defense made Pittsburgh quarterback Bubby Brister look like Terry Bradshaw. The Oilers turned it over four times and ultimately gave up a late touchdown pass to lose 37-34.
Houston was now two games back of Cincinnati, taking at least a little bit of the steam out of their home game with the Bengals. At least Cincinnati must have thought so, because the Oilers dismantled them in every way possible. Rozier muscled for 126 yards. Moon finished 14/25 for 254 yards and two touchdown passes. The final was 41-6.
Houston’s September win over New England was now decisive. The Patriots joined the Oilers and Browns in a race for the two wild-card spots. Houston was 10-5, with Cleveland and New England at 9-6. The head-to-head win by the Oilers over the Patriots meant Houston had clinched a playoff berth.
They also had hope for the AFC Central title, though Cincinnati would lose a home game to Washington on Saturday afternoon. It almost happened—the Redskins were poised to win it before they shanked an easy field goal on the final play of regulation and enabled the Bengals to win in overtime.
The result meant that Houston took the field in Cleveland hoping only to host the AFC wild-card game and knock out the rival Browns. That’s something, but Cleveland was fighting for its life. The difference showed in the second half—after looking in control with a 23-7 lead against a backup quarterback in Don Strock, the Houston defense fell apart and lost 28-23.
Instead of a playoff game in the comfort of the Astrodome, Houston had to come right back to Cleveland and play on Christmas Eve afternoon. And the Oilers picked up where they had left off in the second half of the regular season finale. Moon threw an early interception that set up a field goal and a quick 3-0 lead for the Browns. After the ensuing kickoff, Houston was pinned inside its own 10-yard line.
This time the Oilers found their footing and they put together a 91-yard drive, chewing up nearly ten minutes of clock. Pinkett caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Moon to finish it off. Houston then recovered a fumble and quickly got another Pinkett touchdown, this one a 16-yard jaunt. Strock was knocked out of the game, the Browns were forced to go to Mike Pagel and everything was going right for Houston.
Until the latter part of the second quarter. With a chance to put the game away early, Moon threw an interception in the end zone. Pagel drove the Browns two different times for field goals before the half and cut the lead to 14-9.
It was a sloppy game, with a combined 22 penalties and a fight between the teams at one point. For Houston, the bigger sloppiness problem was Moon’s carelessness. He threw a third interception, one that set up an easy Cleveland touchdown. The game Houston had threatened to blow open now saw them trailing 16-14.
Once again though, the Oilers showed resilience with a long drive. This one went 76 yards and ended with a short TD run by rookie Lorenzo White. Late in the fourth quarter, the beleaguered secondary delivered. Richard Johnson intercepted a pass that set up a field goal. In the days prior to the two-point conversion, a 24-16 lead was huge. The Browns got a touchdown with 31 seconds left, but the Oilers covered the onside kick and celebrated a 24-23 win.
It marked the second straight year Houston was not only in the playoffs, but advancing to the divisional round. It was also the second straight year that the run ended here, this time in Buffalo.
Houston didn’t play well and trailed 17-3 with five minutes left. After a Rozier touchdown and a defensive stop, it looked like Moon would get a chance to try and pull it out, but a fumble on the punt return ended the season with a 17-10 loss.
The 1988 Houston Oilers season was clearly a success, overcoming the normally fatal combination of a leaky defense and an injury to a Hall of Fame quarterback. It was part of a solid run for the franchise where they would make the playoffs seven consecutive seasons. The lingering disappointment is that the divisional round is as far as they ever got.