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Question: What do you do when your best runner, passer and catcher are out of action because of injuries?
Answer: You play defense and try to win that way.
Some joke, huh? The Houston Oilers are minus Earl Campbell and Dan Pastorini and, for most of the game, Kenny Burrough, and now they're going to win it on defense? Against the San Diego Chargers, the passingest team in football, with a quarterback who's thrown for more yards in a single season than anyone in history?
So, what are the Oilers going to do, steal the Chargers' signals or something?
On Saturday afternoon in San Diego the Oilers stole 'em clean and upset the Chargers 17-14 to reach the AFC championship game. It happened this way. Charger Quarterback Dan Fouts does not call his own plays; they are called by Offensive Coordinator Joe Gibbs, who works from a booth in the press box. Gibbs phones the plays down to the sidelines, to Head Coach Don Coryell and his first lieutenant, Jim Hanifan. They confer, and Hanifan signals the play in to Fouts. Hand signals, baseball signals—you know, touch flesh, touch cloth, flash one, flash two, fold arms and go.
Fouts does not believe in changing the coaches' plays too frequently. Why should he? Those signals, teamed with his good right arm, gave the Chargers a 12-4 record and almost 2� miles in the air this season. "If you start changing things, you're putting all your eggs in one basket," Fouts says. "Then if the new play doesn't work, it's demoralizing."
The only problem Saturday was that Eddie Biles broke the Chargers' code. Eddie Biles is the tricky little chap who coaches the Oiler defense. He watches for small tips, for giveaways. A few years ago, for instance, he discovered that when Cincinnati Tight End Bob Trumpy took one kind of stance, he was going to block down on the defensive end, and when he took a different one, he was going to release inside for a pass. It never failed.
Now Biles had figured out the Charger signals. So, as Hanifan flashed the plays to Fouts, Wade Phillips, the Oilers' defensive line coach and son of Head Coach Bum Phillips, would train his binoculars on Hanifan from the press box and relay the Chargers' plays to Biles on the sidelines. Biles then would flash them to Middle Linebacker Gregg Bingham, who called the defenses on the field.
It was clear that the Oilers had Fouts' number. They intercepted him five times. The Oilers flowed to the ball. Passes that normally would have been harmless in-completions turned into interceptions. Strong Safety Vernon Perry, a rookie from the Canadian league, picked off four, three of them on double coverage.