A year ago the Houston Oilers startled even themselves. They moved into a new training camp in the wooded hills of Kerrville, Texas, established a new sense of discipline, congratulated themselves on a fine gathering of rookies and then began to speculate on how well they might do. The 1966 season had started off gloriously but had wound up a disaster. Oiler Coach Wally Lemm thought his team would be better in 1967, but he was unsure how much better. "I knew we'd had a good training camp and were in good condition, but we had so many rookies I figured if we finished 7-7 we would have had a fine year," says Lemm.
Instead, the Oilers had a 9-4-1 record, one game ahead of the New York Jets, and won the Eastern Division championship. They won it with a fine defense, with a powerful running game, with excellent play from their special teams and with luck on injuries. Only one starter, Offensive Guard Sonny Bishop, was hurt seriously, and that was by falling off a hay wagon and getting run over. For most of the season the Oilers had a passing offense that could most kindly be described as poor. They had a quarterback who joined them after the season had begun and who had to call the offense by rote. Their leading receiver was their fullback, who caught 31 passes to rank 23rd in the league. Their best outside receiver caught 23 passes and ranked 30th. But the Oilers took the division championship nevertheless, and this year they show every indication of being a vastly improved team.
Lemm feels this is the year Pete Beathard, who spent three-plus seasons behind Len Dawson at Kansas City, will become one of the AFL's leading quarterbacks, much as Daryle Lamonica did last year after being traded from Buffalo to Oakland. Beathard joined the Oilers four games into the 1967 season, only four days before Houston was to play the Jets at Shea Stadium. He moved into Lemm's home with his playbook, and the Oilers tied that game 28-28.
"I don't think most people realize what a fine quarterback Beathard is going to be this year," says Lemm. "I don't think they realize the improvement in our receivers, either. Beathard is like Charley Johnson in a way. He's smart and coachable. He's a drop-back passer with the ability to scramble. If we can improve our passing 100 yards per game, it will be a great help, and I think we can do it."
In preseason games Beathard has divided time with Bob Davis, a second-year man from Virginia and a quarterback of much potential. With the two of them throwing, 12 different receivers caught passes in an easy win over the Washington Redskins at the Astrodome, the Oilers' new playground which promises to be packed with customers this year. Last year, if one Oiler receiver caught a pass, sirens went off all over town. So Houston drafted Mac Haik of Mississippi, Jim Beirne of Purdue and Ed Carrington of Virginia. Dick Stebbins, who can fly, was called up by the Army. Charley Frazier, Alvin Reed, Glenn Bass, Lionel Taylor and Lawrence Elkins are veterans at receiver spots. Fran Polsfoot, called "the best end coach in the game" by Lemm, has worked carefully on patterns and timing with the receivers, and the results have shown up immediately.
In 1966 Frazier caught 57 passes for 1,129 yards and 12 touchdowns, and Lemm regarded him as outstanding. Last year he played 10 games with one sprained thumb and seven games with two sprained thumbs, and he could not hold on to the ball. But in the AFL championship game with Oakland, Frazier caught seven. "It restored my confidence," he says. "It proved to me that I could catch the ball, after all, against tough competition." Reed is tall, gangly and a good blocker. "He's a better tight end at this stage than Jackie Smith of the Cardinals," says Polsfoot, who has coached them both. "If we get one good receiver from our rookies, it'll really help. If we get two, it's gravy," Lemm says.
Even the toughest of defenses needs some help from the offense. What saved the Oilers last year was a running game that was the best in the league. They gained 2,122 yards for a 4.5-yard average per rush. The big man was Hoyle Granger, a thick-legged fullback who ran for 1,194 yards and a 5.1 average and missed overtaking Boston's Jim Nance by 22 yards. With experience, Granger seems to be running better than before. But Houston will miss the full-time service of Halfback Woody Campbell, who gained 511 yards rushing as a rookie. Campbell is an Army MP stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and may be available for some duty on Sundays. That means the Oilers are counting on Ode Burrell, who led the team in rushing in 1965 and 1966, and Sid Blanks, who had a fine rookie year in 1964 but has been hurt most of the time since.
The Oiler offensive line will suffer from the absence of Guard Bob Talamini, who was traded to the Jets, but it should remain a good one, with Tom Regner and Sonny Bishop at guards, Bobby Maples at center and Walt Suggs and Glen Ray Hines at tackles. They make the power sweep a dangerous part of the Houston offense. For depth, the Oilers are keen on rookie Elvin Bethea. Placekicker John Wittenborn can play guard or tackle.
At one point last year Houston's defense had scored more points than the offense. Every member of the defensive unit returns, and several were rookies last season. Miller Farr, the brilliant left cornerback, missed training camp because of hepatitis but will be back during the season. Larry Carwell and Zeke Moore, two of last year's rookies, are tall and have speed in the 9.7 range. Veteran Jim Norton is a leader, punter, and defensive signal caller and is healthy again after a hernia operation. W.K. Hicks is a veteran cornerback. Lemm is enthusiastic about Ken Houston and Pete Johns at cornerback and safety. The front four is so good that Lemm has discarded the blitz for which his St. Louis teams were famed. "You don't need to blitz if you have an effective pass rush," says Lemm. "We have three fine rushers in Pat Holmes and Gary Cutsinger [ends] and George Rice. Our other tackle, Willie Parker, is in his second year and is coming along." Carel Stith, 270, also in his second year, can play either end or tackle.