Sports Commentary: The 93 Houston Oilers - A Talented Team That Likely Got In The Way Of Themselves.
A Football Life: Houston 93
Before the current NFL franchise the Houston Texans existed in the city of Houston, Texas, there was once another team that resided in Houston. Still today, this team has a deep rooted history in the state of Texas. Many fans may know them currently as the Tennessee Titans. However, before there were the Titans, there were the Houston Oilers. Growing up as a youth in the state of Texas and watching football with my uncles, it was impossible not to know who the Houston Oilers and Dallas Cowboys were.
There's always a certain magic one feels when thinking back to past days of watching and playing sports as a child. I recently got the opportunity to recapture some of that magic that now feels like it happened a lifetime ago. On December 10, 2013, The NFL Network's Emmy-nominated series A Football Life aired a documentary titled 'Houston 93'. This documentary chronicled and provided an in-depth look at the 1993 season of the Houston Oilers, which to this day, is regarded as one of sports most unusual seasons for a single franchise. One may ask themselves; What exactly makes the Houston Oilers 93 season so significant?
There's no one simple way to answer that question, however, the easy answer would be that the Oilers 1993 season was one of sports most eventful seasons ever in team sports. For a team that had the overall talent, yet the volatile group of coaches and players that the Oilers had in 93, the chances of success or failure could have been viewed to the flip of a coin. Add that with several off the field incidents that kept media attention swirling around Houston for much of 1993, the 93 Houston Oilers were a team that were a perfect storm for crashing and burning.
Although the Houston 93 documentary aired in late 2013, I didn't actually catch a viewing of it until recently. Upon the viewing of what I thought was an incredibly in-depth documentary of the successes and failures of a team's individual season, I walked away with a better understanding of why the Houston Oilers could never quite live up to their expected potential.
In order for one to truly understand the significance of the Oilers season in 1993, one could go back only a year to the previous NFL season. The Oilers, under the leadership of head coach Jack Pardee, finished the 92 season with a record of 10-6. The 10-6 record was good enough to get the Oilers into the playoffs, and it marked the 6th consecutive season that the team made it to the post season. At the time in which the Oilers accomplished this feat, it was the longest such streak in the NFL.
The Oilers offense featured several All-Pro caliber players; names that many of you may remember even today. Among those names were quarterback Warren Moon, running back Lorenzo White, and wide receiver Haywood Jeffries. Moon, White, and Jeffries were all selected to the Pro Bowl in 1992. The Oilers franchise as a whole done some great things in 92, however, there is one playoff game in particular that would vividly define the Oilers season in 92. Over 20 years later, the referred to playoff game is still remembered by many to this very day.
The Oilers faced the Buffalo Bills in the 1992 AFC Wild Card Game. The Oilers would start off strong against the Bills, claiming a 35-3 lead at the games' halfway point. However, in the second half, Bills quarterback Frank Reich would lead the Bills on a 38-3 run against the Houston defense. The final result of the game was a 41-38 overtime victory for the Bills, who eliminated an Oilers team that many had predicted to be a favorite to go to the Super Bowl.
The game itself has earned the nicknamed 'The Comeback', and currently remains the largest comeback victory for a team in NFL history. Following the Oilers massive collapse against the Bills, defensive coordinator Jim Eddy was fired. There would be what some would call an overhaul of changes to take place for the Oilers following 1992. One of the biggest would be the entrance of new defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.
Enter Buddy Ryan
Following the Oilers defensive collapse against the Bills in the 1992 NFL playoffs, former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan was hired to be the Oilers new defensive coordinator. Ryan's 46 defense proved to be effective for the Oilers, however, Ryan's blunt and straight forward personality would quickly become a source of friction among the players and coaches.
Jack Pardee, who was the Oilers head coach at the time, was more of a passive type of leader. In the 'Houston 93' documentary, several former Oilers players mentioned that Pardee and Ryans' styles of coaching were different. While Pardee was seen as the head coach that somewhat shied away from the media, Buddy Ryan's outspoken personality made many wonder who was really in charge of the team from a coaching standpoint.
Buddy Ryan not only showed a lack of respect for Jack Pardee's authority, he also clashed with Oilers offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on many occasions. During the 93 season, Ryan was critical of the "run and shoot offense" implemented by Gilbride. Ryan disrespectfully referred to the run and shoot as the "chuck and duck". The tension between Ryan and the other coaches also led to intense exchanges between the Oilers offense and defense at team practices. According to former Oilers defensive end William Fuller in the Houston 93 documentary, Ryan consistently told his defensive players to ignore the game plan of the other coaches. Furthermore, Ryan often encouraged his defense to go after the offense hard, which often resulted in fights between the players.
Former Oilers quarterback Warren Moon stated in the documentary that Ryan's 46 defense couldn't stop the team's run and shoot offense, which was the catalyst for Ryan encouraging the intense practice battles. Speaking of Warren Moon, the veteran quarterback himself would play in a key role in the drama filled 1993 season of the Houston Oilers.
The Benching of Warren Moon
With an improved defense and most of the the Oilers core offensive unit from 92 back for another season, talks of Super Bowl were once again swirled around the Houston Oilers. However, after starting off the 93 season with a 1-4 record, those talks died down fairly quickly. For some, what was probably even more surprising than the 1-4 start was the decision by head coach Jack Pardee to bench franchise quarterback Warren Moon.
Because of to the high expectations placed on the team by owner Bud Adams along with the salary cap issues facing the team following the 93 season, Jack Pardee named Cody Carlson as the starting quarterback for the Oilers week 7 game against the New England Patriots. The benching of Warren Moon was viewed by some as a way for Pardee to take some of the heat off himself. As for being benched, Warren Moon understandably expressed disappointment with the decision.
According to the Moon in the 'Houston 93' documentary, he didn't want Carlson to fail, but he also wanted to be the one playing. Ironically, Moon would get his wish in his first game as a backup. Cody Carlson would get injured while running in for a touchdown against New England. Moon would come off of the bench, and ultimately lead the Oilers to a 28-14 victory over the Patriots.
Moon's performance earned him the starting job back, however, the biggest story line would be the momentum that the Oilers gained from the win over New England. Following the Oilers victory over the Patriots, the Oilers would run off a streak of 10 straight victories. Despite the success the Oilers were experiencing, there would be more story lines to form; the kind of story lines that no professional sports team wants to take center stage during a season where expectations are high.
The "Babygate" Scandal
Before the Oilers week 7 game against the New England Patriots, Oilers offensive tackle David Williams' pregnant wife went into labor the Saturday before the game. However, Williams' baby wouldn't be born on the Saturday his wife went into labor. Choosing to stay with his wife until she gave birth, Williams was unable to catch a flight to join the team in New England. He would miss Sundays game against the Patriots, and was fined $111,111 by owner Bud Adams.
Team owner Bud Adams would openly criticize Williams' decision to stay with his wife during the birth of their child. According to Adams, Williams decision was viewed as "misplaced priorities". When the mainstream media caught wind of the story, a media circus ensued around the Houston Oilers. Following the spectacle which earned the named 'Babygate', the Oilers organization would be surrounded by talk of heated criticism.
While the Babygate scandal wasn't viewed by the team as a disruption, it had definitely become a nationwide distraction to the Oilers. Several of Williams' teammates expressed support, however, there were also teammates of Williams that didn't approve of how he handled the situation. The entire Babygate situation brought to the forefront the argument over whether football is more important than family; a topic that has relevance even today.
The Death of Jeff Alm
On December 14, 1993, a tragic event took place that would leave a ripple effect within the Oilers organization. Oilers defensive tackle Jeff Alm lost control of his vehicle, and was involved in a car accident on Interstate 610 in Houston. Alm was the driver of the vehicle, which was also carrying his best friend Sean P. Lynch. Upon losing control of the vehicle on a curved exit ramp, Lynch was thrown from the vehicle.
Following the crash, Alm ran across the ramp to find his childhood friend lying 30 feet below him. Knowing that his friend had likely died from the crash and fall, a distraught Alm took out a shotgun and fired two shots into the air before shooting himself in the head. According to toxicology reports, Jeff Alm had a blood alcohol-level of .14, which was over the .10 legal limit.
In the Houston 93 documentary that aired on NFL Network, former Oilers running back Spencer Tillman recalled an incident between he and Alm that took place during an Oilers practice. The two players would come to exchange blows, which would lead to Tillman angrily leaving practice. However, before leaving the practice field, Tillman traded some extra verbal jabs with Alm. Nearly a week later Alm would be dead, and in the documentary, Tillman expressed regret over the entire incident between he and Alm.
The Buddy Ryan, Kevin Gilbride Feud Boils Over
Despite running off an eleven game win streak and finishing the the season with a first place finish in the AFC Central, the Oilers coaching feud between Buddy Ryan and Kevin Gilbride finally reached it's peak. If the the pot between the two had been boiling all season, it finally bubbled over in the team's final game of the regular season.
Now it's one thing for Ryan and Gilbride to have conflict during practice or team meetings. However, a nationally televised broadcast against the New York Jets would be the last place the Oilers organization would want to see any conflict between coaches boil over. The incident stemmed from a pass play called by offensive Kevin Gilbride just before the half. During the play, quarterback Cody Carlson would fumble the snap, a move that infuriated defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Ryan began to yell at Gilbride for the call he made, and the two began yelling at furiously at one another on the sideline.
When the two coaches were at arms length of each other, Ryan fired a punch at Gilbride's face. Several players stepped in to separate the two coaches, however, the biggest damage from the incident was that cameras caught the the confrontation. During the Houston 93 documentary, several players stated that although Ryan threw the punch at Gilbride, the punch didn't connect due to receiver Curtis Duncan stepping in. Regardless whether or not the punch connected, it was the final straw for the Oilers, who finished the season with a record of 12-4, but would have their playoff meltdown from 92, along with a season full of controversy during 93 hanging over their heads.
A Season Summed Up.
In the Divisional Round of the 93 playoffs, the Houston Oilers would lose in an upset to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Oilers jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead, and would carry that lead into the half. However, in the second half of the game, Chiefs quarterback Joe Montana along with running back Marcus Allen helped lead the Chiefs to 21 fourth quarter points. The final score was 28-10. The loss marked the second straight season where the Oilers blew a lead to lose a playoff game.
The year 1993 marked the final time the Houston Oilers made the playoffs while in the city of Houston. Owner Bud Adams kept his word from the 92 disappointment, and decided to dismantle the team. Quarterback Warren Moon would be traded to the Minnesota Vikings, while Cody Carlson took over at the team's starting quarterback. Buddy Ryan left as defensive coordinator for a head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals. Several key players on both sides of the ball also left the Oilers.
One of the NFL's best teams from a talent and statistical standpoint was officially done, and so were many of the fans of Houston. Owner Bud Adams lobbied for a new stadium for the team to play in, but never received the necessary funding. Adams eventually would begin to shop the Oilers for other cities. By the 1996 season, crowds at the Astrodome were fewer than 20,000. The team was eventually moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where they became the Tennessee Titans. The Titans have have been in the NFL since 1999. The city of Houston wouldn't see another professional football franchise until 2002, when the Houston Texans launched their inaugural campaign.
Why Did the Oilers Fail In 93?
When you take a good look at the level of talent that the Houston Oilers had in 1993, it's not hard to see why so many analyst had them predicted to go to the Super Bowl. So what exactly happened to the Houston Oilers in 92 and 93? Why weren't they able to meet the expectations that were placed upon them?
What I gathered from watching the The NFL Network's A Football Life: 'Houston 93' documentary was that the Oilers organization as whole got in the way of itself. When I say organization, I'm referring not only to the coaches and players, but the front office as well. When it comes to professional football, it's hard enough to win a championship as it is. Most would say that it not only takes having the right team and coaches, but also the right set of circumstances.
The circumstances that surrounded the Houston Oilers in 1993 are probably what helped lead to their demise. If you take unusual circumstances, controversial issues, feuding coaches and players from within the organization, and you have the recipe for what probably kept the Oilers from reaching their goal of going to the Super Bowl. The added media attention due to issues that weren't entirely football related didn't help either. Basically, the team as a whole probably wasn't as focused as they should have been, and there was too much division within the organization from top to bottom. The sad part about all of this was in essence, the Oilers position within the city of Houston rested on this one season. Things were never the same for the Oilers following this season.
A few quotes from the documentary 'A Football Life: Houston 93':
- “There were more good players here than anywhere I’ve been. And I’ve been on three Super Bowl teams.” – Buddy Ryan
- “I certainly had heard of the difficulty in Chicago with Mike Ditka. Until you go through the actual experience of it I don’t think you have any idea how bad it really is.” – Kevin Gilbride on Buddy Ryan
- “That was our primary purpose: to go out there and beat Buddy [Ryan] up every day because of the way he treated us.” – Haywood Jeffires
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