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NFL '98
By the Numbers | Inside Slant | Lineup
Scouting Report

3 - Tennessee Oilers

Settled in one place and tuned up with some new game-breaking receivers, the balanced Oilers may be the next big hit out of Nashville

  Eddie George
Defenses stacked to stop the workhorse George now will suffer at the hands of Thigpen & Co. (Patrick Murphy-Racey)
The Oilers have underachieved like few other teams the past two seasons, but at least they had excuses. One day, the team was in Houston. The next day, Memphis. Now, unless owner Bud Adams's love of Peru overwhelms him, the club's based in Nashville.

The Oilers' quarterback was Chris Chandler. No, it was Steve McNair. No, Chandler. Yes, McNair—definitely McNair.

The Oilers would practice in Nashville, then drive to Memphis for home games. No, fly to Memphis. Drive. Fly. Drive. Fine, fly.

The Oilers will change their name. No, they won't. Yes, they will. No. Yes. No. Yes. Fine, yes—but not until 1999. And not to something stupid like Banjo Pickers, dammit.

This is the life of the vagabond football team. Who are we? Where do we belong? What's our name? "It was hard to concentrate on football with all that other stuff," says running back Eddie George, the main bright spot in back-to-back 8-8 seasons. "We can focus on football finally, and not on getting our families settled and trying to find a bank. The little things, they weigh on you."

There are no little things anymore for the Oilers, just big talk of a big passing game with several big new weapons. Moreover, the team has finally rooted itself in Nashville, practicing at Baptist Sports Park and playing its home games at Vanderbilt Stadium until a new facility is completed in 1999.

Hence, the new alt-band-sounding motto: No excuses.

The Oilers are way beyond 8-8 talent and maybe not as far below Jacksonville and Pittsburgh in the AFC Central as most people think. "We won't be satisfied just making the playoffs," coach Jeff Fisher says. "We're going for it all." The offense, which ranked third in the league in rushing but 29th in passing last year, has been bolstered and tinkered with.

Schedule
Sept. 6 at Cincinnati
13 SAN DIEGO
20 at New England
27 JACKSONVILLE
Oct. 4 OPEN DATE
11 at Baltimore
18 CINCINNATI
25 CHICAGO
Nov. 1 at Pittsburgh
8 at Tampa Bay
15 PITTSBURGH
22 N.Y. JETS
29 at Seattle
Dec. 6 BALTIMORE
13 at Jacksonville
20 at Green Bay
26 MINNESOTA (Sat.)
 
Tennessee already had one of the NFL's toughest offensive lines, and now it has two big-play receivers in Yancey Thigpen, a free-agent pickup, and rookie Kevin Dyson, the team's first-round draft choice out of Utah, plus soft-handed tight end Jackie Harris, another free-agent signee. McNair, who completed 52% of his passes and threw for 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 1997, looked anxious in the pocket in his first full season as a starter but has been ordered to load the cannon for this fall. "We're ready to explode," says fourth-year wide receiver Chris Sanders, a part of what suddenly seems to be one of the league's juiciest receiving corps. "Everyone here knows we're not some .500 team. With the receivers we've got now, we're going to make some things happen."

Last season the Oilers' offense was George, George and more George. He rushed for 1,399 yards on a whopping 357 carries. (By comparison, Barry Sanders reached 2,053 yards on 22 fewer chances.) Opposing defenses, which stacked as many as eight or nine men near the line, knew what was coming. George, who turns 25 on Sept. 24, is hauntingly similar to the last great Oilers running back, a chap named Earl Campbell—a young, bruising runner who pulverized as many defenders as possible. At 24, Campbell was the best thing since Jim Brown. At 30, he was a worn-out shell collecting dust in New Orleans.

Perhaps that is why Fisher, a mild-mannered sort, was so upset with George for his infrequent participation in the team's voluntary 18-week off-season lifting and conditioning program. Fisher also was annoyed last year with George's habit of flying out of Nashville on Monday evening and spending Tuesday, the team's day off, somewhere—anywhere—else. "The thing we want to get across to Eddie is that every year you get older, and you have to work harder to maintain that level," says Fisher. "It's difficult to do when you have so much going on."

During the winter, George says, he worked out regularly at his alma mater, Ohio State, and in fact reported to training camp looking as hard as a rock. During late-July practices he was running fast, hard and—as usual—through people. The Oilers even have designs on making the '95 Heisman winner the complete player Campbell never was. George caught only seven passes last season. This year, expect at least 20. George, who ran for just six TDs in '97 season, was often replaced on third downs. This year he's in there.

"Eddie's not like Terrell Davis, trying to pop that 60-yard run," says H-back Frank Wycheck. "He's a grinder, and eventually he's going to wear on those defensive backs. I saw it last year. Early on they come in hard on him, but by the third quarter everyone shies away. He's just too tough to handle."

As may be the Oilers.

Jeff Pearlman

By the Numbers | Inside Slant | Lineup

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