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There the Houston Oilers were last week, a padded collection of Joe Btfsplks huddling behind the high fence that surrounds their practice field, seemingly the only remaining refuge from the derision that has been showered upon them all season long, when suddenly a voice thundered from on high. A hard hat was standing on the seventh floor of a building under construction that overlooked the field. "Hey," he hollered, "when are you guys ever gonna win a game?"
Sunday, it turned out, for they managed to beat the Baltimore Colts 31-27. The victory snapped Houston's 18-game losing streak and ended the Oilers' chances of surpassing the record of the Chicago Cardinals, who romped to 29 straight defeats in the early '40s. Still, the Oilers did not take victory lying down. Handed an 18-point first-half lead, they thrilled Baltimore fans with their subsequent maladroitness. First Lynn Dickey hit Fred Willis in the face mask with a pass that caromed to Colt Stan White for a touchdown. On Houston's next series Dickey went to Willis again, this time carefully underhanding the ball. Willis deftly swatted it to the turf and Baltimore scored a few plays later.
At the two-minute warning, Houston was trailing comfortably 27-24. But they stunned the Colts, the fans and—most of all—themselves by marching 85 yards in six plays, sure-handed Fred Willis taking a screen pass in for the winning score with 32 seconds left.
The Oilers still have the worst record in the NFL, but no matter. They ordered champagne for the flight home.
The man whom most credit with the current state of Oiler affairs, Owner Bud Adams, missed his team's finest moment. Perhaps due to growing frustration, he had decided to stay in Houston and watch the game on TV. A rotund multimillionaire, Adams owns 20-odd companies (after 20, who counts?) that gross $100 million per annum. He has a pond in his office to prove it. Yet in Houston, people gauge his genius solely on the won-lost record of the Oilers. And the word around town is that the only thing that will save the team is Bud Adams selling it.
Poor Bud. Even his new head coach, Sid Gillman, does not hesitate to point a finger. "It was bad management right to the core," he says when asked how the Oilers reached their present depths. "The success of a pro football team starts with the front office, with ownership, and works down."
If Adams has a failing (the Oilers have, after all, been making money) it is a penchant, one might even call it a passion, for dismissing head coaches who were hired by underlings to whom he delegated authority. "Bud knows football," says an associate, "but he doesn't know too much about people."
Lately Adams has sought solace in superstition. Last week while sitting at his massive mahogany desk, he held up a blue rabbit's foot. Oiler blue. He had dutifully stroked the good luck piece when Houston upset the Dallas Cowboys and the Colts in exhibition games. Now he absently brushed a forefinger over the tiny piece of fur. "But the next week it failed me," he said, tossing the charm to the far reaches of his desk. He had tried wearing his Oiler blue blazer, but that failed him, too. "It wasn't the same one I wore when Houston was winning," he offered as a possible explanation, patting his expanded waistline. He talked of a woman he knew who had held an unlit cigarette throughout the Cowboy exhibition and had brought it to every game since. "I finally had to tell her to throw it away," Adams said resignedly. "It wasn't any use."
It took a concentrated unbuilding program to reduce Adams' Oilers to their present state. Last Sunday the Denver Broncos, a team on the rise, started four former Houston players, while in Baltimore the Oilers had no one to show for them or for Placekicker Roy Gerela, Linebacker George Webster and Tackle Glen Ray Hines of Pittsburgh or Wide Receiver Jerry LeVias of San Diego.
Ed Hughes, who coached Houston in 1971 and whose five-year contract Adams terminated with four years remaining, engineered most of these deals; Bill Peterson executed the rest, which helped terminate his contract 3� years ahead of time. It was Peterson who got the 18-game losing streak rolling with a humiliating 34-0 loss to Oakland in a nationally televised Monday night game. "They won't put us back on TV for 10 years," moaned one Oiler player.