The Houston Oilers decided to change horses in midstream coming into the 1990 season. Even though Jerry Glanville led the franchise to the playoffs each year from 1987-89, postseason disappointments cost him his job. The 1990 Houston Oilers were entrusted to Jack Pardee, who started a four-year run that was—for better and for worse—more of the same.
On the good side, more of the same meant future Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon spreading the field to a variety of good receivers. Moon made another Pro Bowl at age 34. His completion percentage of 62% and his TD-INT ratio of 33/13 were dazzling by the standards of the time. His 8.0 yards-per-attempt was excellent for any era.
Wide receiver Drew Hill was another 34-year-old Pro Bowler and he caught 74 balls for over 1,000 yards. The Oilers had a young dynamic target in Haywood Jeffires, who also caught 74 and cleared the 1K mark in receiving yardage. The balanced passing attack included Ernest Givins (72 catches and a Pro Bowl), along with Curtis Duncan who caught 66 more. Houston routinely put four receivers onto the field at a time when such a strategy was not in vogue.
The Oilers could also do the work in the trenches. They had a Pro Bowler in guard Mike Munchak (a future head coach with the organization after they moved to Tennessee) and 1st-team All-Pro Bruce Matthews, who ended up in the Hall of Fame.
It added up to an offense that was the second-most prolific in the league and they covered for a defense that was average. Houston had a strong defensive line, with William Fuller, Ray Childress and Sean Jones combining for 28 ½ sacks. They had aggressive players in the secondary, with Richard Johnson intercepting eight passes and Cris Dishman picking off four more. But there were also enough breakdowns to keep the Houston D ranked 14th in what was then a 28-team league.
The season did not start well. The Oilers went to Atlanta, where Glanville was now in charge, and he took his revenge in a 47-27 thrashing. Houston then traveled to Pittsburgh, who had eliminated them in the previous year’s wild-card game and lost again, 20-9.
Things started to look upward the next five weeks. Houston got on track with wins over subpar teams in Indianapolis and San Diego. A 24-21 loss to the two-time defending champion San Francisco 49ers was no shame. The Oilers responded by winning the next two home games against eventual playoff teams. They dropped 48 on Cincinnati in a blowout win, then churned out a victory over New Orleans.
But the offense sputtered the next two weeks against weaker competition. The mediocre New York Jets came into the Astrodome, sacked Moon five times and used a fourth quarter defensive touchdown to steal a 17-12 upset.
Houston then went west to face the Los Angeles Rams, who had been a playoff perennial through the 1980s, but were falling apart in 1990. A 40-yard touchdown pass from Moon to Hill got the game off to a good start, but the Rams pounded the Oilers on the ground, took control and won 17-13.
The positive was that no one had taken control of the old AFC Central, a division that then included the Bengals, Steelers and Browns. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were 5-4. Even going into their bye week at 4-5, the Oilers were squarely in the mix. They also had two games coming up with lowly Cleveland, another recent perennial contender that was beginning a collapse this season. Houston got back to .500 with a win at the Dawg Pound.
That set up a Monday Night showdown with Buffalo at the Astrodome. The Bills were in the middle of a big year, one that would see them make the first of four consecutive Super Bowl trips. Houston trailed 17-13 in the third quarter, but they were playing some of their best defense of the year. The Oilers held multi-talented Buffalo runner, Thurman Thomas, to just 54 yards.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo White was giving Houston a rushing attack. He finished the night with 125 yards. Moon was both efficient and made big plays, going 16/22 for 300 yards. Hill went over 100 yards receiving. The Oilers rallied and won 27-24.
There was a letdown overtime loss at a competitive Seattle team the following week, but the Oilers got well when the Browns came to town, opening up for 58 points. The win moved their record to 7-6 and the AFC Central race was a three-way dead heat.
A difficult road trip to playoff-bound Kansas City awaited on December 16. Moon and Jeffires took over against one of the league’s best defenses. They connected on an 87-yard touchdown strike in the third quarter. Jeffires caught nine passes for 245 yards. Moon finished 27/45 for 527 yards—just 27 yards short of the all-time record. Houston pulled away to win 27-10.
If there’s one thing the Houston Oilers of this era could do well, it’s dash hopes after they had been raised. With a division title in their grasp, they went to Cincinnati and laid an egg in a 40-20 loss. Worse, Moon was injured and would be unavailable for the season finale with Pittsburgh.
Cody Carlson was behind center for a prime-time Sunday Night game that was a de facto playoff matchup. The winner was going to the postseason, the loser was going home. Carlson met his moment—he went 22/29 for 247 yards and three touchdowns. One of them was a 53-yard strike to Jeffires in the second quarter that gave the Oilers a shocking 31-7 lead. They coasted him to a 34-14 win.
The win gave the Bengals the division title, the Oilers a wild-card berth and sent the Steelers home. It also gave Houston a rematch with Cincinnati in the wild-card round. But it did not end well—Moon was still out, Carlson’s magic was gone and another blowout loss went down at old Riverfront Stadium. This time the Oilers lost 41-14.
Pardee would spend three more years producing playoff teams in Houston, all of which were better than this edition. But he also spent three more years producing heartbreak. The 1990 Houston Oilers were part of a seven-year run that was remarkably consistent—for better and for worse.