Unappreciated and even ignored by the citizens of their own home town, the Houston Oilers have become the most surprising team of the year in the American Football League. With one week left in the season, the Oilers can win the Eastern Division championship by defeating Miami, regardless of what the New York Jets do against San Diego. The Oilers suddenly found themselves heirs to that position after beating the Chargers 24-17 in Houston last Saturday before a crowd of 19,870—a small but noisy gathering that rattled around the 70,000-seat Rice Stadium like a handful of BB's in a stewpot.
Oiler Owner Bud Adams admitted he was touched by the standing ovations given his defensive unit in an important game, but nevertheless he is thinking seriously about moving the club to Seattle. It would be difficult to blame him. In eight seasons during the height of pro football's popularity, the Oilers have steadily lost money. Last year the amount was more than $600,000. This year the loss will be about $300,000.
"I didn't mind losing money when we were competing with the NFL," Adams says. "We were fighting the other side, and it was fun. But now that we have merged, it's more businesslike and those losses don't appeal to me as a businessman. I'm not going to talk about leaving because the people of Houston would think I was bluffing. I haven't made up my mind, anyhow.
"I might decide to stay and wait for realignment in 1970. Maybe if we can get the Rams and other NFL clubs playing here the attendance will pick up. But there's no doubt Seattle is a rich market, and somebody will grab it."
Adams says he has been in touch with representatives of Seattle, where a bond election next February will determine whether or not a domed stadium will be built, and has been assured that the University of Washington's stadium would be available during the interim. The Oilers were on the verge of playing in Houston's Astrodome before Adams and Judge Roy Hofheinz, the Dome's boss, disagreed over finances. The judge relented one rainy day last week and allowed the Oilers to use his stadium, free, to practice. "Then I asked him if we could move our San Diego game into the Dome," Adams says. "He said sure, if we would sign a 10-year lease."
Ironically, Rice Stadium is one of the very best football plants in the country, but it cannot match the comforts of the Astrodome, which probably draws as many people on its own as do the teams that play there. If Adams does move out of Houston, some NFL club—possibly Pittsburgh—may move into the Astrodome. Says Adams: "If that happens, they'd better come in with a lively, interesting team. Houston people are big supporters of Rice, the University of Houston, Texas, Texas A&M and Baylor. I haven't seen any red-hot romance for pro football."
The hordes who have stayed away from Oiler games have missed seeing an interesting team. Houston has a tough young defense and a solid running game built around Fullback Hoyle Granger (who has gained more than 1,000 yards this season). It also has the most meager group of pass receivers of any team that has ever contended for an AFL championship. Houston's starting flanker, Ode Burrell, a converted halfback, had caught only seven passes all year going into last week's San Diego game. With no deep receivers to look for, Quarterback Pete Beathard, who came to the Oilers at midseason from Kansas City, has been forced to rely on the running of Granger and Woodie Campbell. As a result, Houston has played old-fashioned ball-control, winning, when it did, on the strength of its defense.
The most amazing thing about the Oilers is their youth. Last summer the word began to leak out from the hills around the Houston training camp near Fredericksburg, Tex., that the Oilers had captured a splendid group of animals. The rookies, led by Michigan State Linebacker George Webster, were an exceptional crop. "By the end of the season, when our rookies get some experience, we'll be a good club," Oiler General Manager Don Klosterman said last summer.
The rookies, four of whom are starters, did not need that long. "These kids just aren't accustomed to losing," says Al Jamison, formerly an All-AFL tackle for the Oilers. Oiler Guard Sonny Bishop agrees that the rookies have helped immeasurably, but adds that "playing for the same coach two years in a row [ Adams had shown quite a fondness for firing coaches] has helped us a lot, too. This year when the veterans came to camp, we had some idea what Wally Lemm expected. We didn't have to learn a new system, and that cut down on our mistakes. We've always had a good offensive line. Now Granger and Campbell are giving us great running. And it's nice that we've had the same quarterback a few games in a row."
After trading George Blanda to Oakland, the Oilers started the year with Don Trull at quarterback, switched to Jacky Lee, then to Virginia rookie Bob Davis. Klosterman finally swapped Defensive Tackle Ernie Ladd to Kansas City for Beathard, who had spent three seasons playing behind Len Dawson. Although he has a very strong arm, Beathard had little success passing in his first few games as an Oiler. That was partly because his receivers kept dropping whatever passes he hit them with and partly because Beathard was still trying to adjust to a different offensive style. (Against San Diego, he once changed a play at the line of scrimmage without realizing it, found nobody to give the ball to, and ran for a nice gain.) "I know what he's going through," says Klosterman, an ex-NFL quarterback. "After four years of not playing much you get rusty and lose confidence. I'm convinced Beathard is going to be a top quarterback."