"I can see things on the field I couldn't see when I was younger, but physically, I can see myself slowing down. I still have pretty good escapability, but once I turn upfield, I don't move as quickly."
Two days later he took the field against the New York Jets at the Astrodome and showed some good escapability—29 yards on five carries—but he also took some mean shots. The Jets sacked him five times, the worst one being a blindsider by 258-pound rookie end Darrell Davis. Moon was looking to pass from his own end zone when Davis hit him. The ball popped loose, and Davis recovered for what proved to be the decisive touchdown in New York's 17-12 win.
The game showed the best and the worst of the run-and-shoot. The Oilers had the ball 15 minutes longer than the Jets, ran 24 more plays and gained almost 200 more yards. Moon completed 30 of 43 throws for 381 yards, with no interceptions, but Houston endured an afternoon of long, artistic drives that usually ended in disaster: two missed field goals, back-to-back sacks and, on third-and-goal at the one, a pitchout that bounced off running back Lorenzo White's face mask and was recovered by the Jets.
Moon did some remarkable things. In the third quarter, with New York blitzing a linebacker and the free safety, he stood in against the rush and fired a nine-yard touchdown pass to Jeffires from back on his heels. The throw was all arm. In the second quarter he rolled to his left and delivered a perfect ball to Hill 40 yards downfield. The pass was dropped.
The game was a mirror of the Oilers' 4-4 season—moments of brilliance coupled with catastrophe. "I have faith in this offense," said Moon afterward. "I know we can move the ball consistently. We just have to take that step upward."
The step upward. For Moon, it's the difference between being another good quarterback—Pro Bowl starts the last two years, playoff appearances the last three, appreciation as the Oilers' alltime leader in completions and passing yards—and a guy mentioned with the likes of Montana, Marino and Elway. "I'm used to it by now," says Moon, "but somehow I never seem to be spoken of in the same breath with the really top names in the game. Well, hopefully, there's still time.
"Look at the quarterbacks who make the Hall of Fame, and you'll see they have two things in common. One, they have a minimum of 10 solid years in this league. And two, you have to get to a championship. If I last 10 years, I should have some pretty good numbers piled up. The championship? Well, we're trying."
Recognition is something that hasn't come easily for Moon. He spent a year in junior college because he wasn't heavily recruited out of Hamilton High in Los Angeles. At Washington he was under the microscope as a black quarterback at a school where the student body was only 3½% black. As a senior he led the Huskies to a 27-20 victory over Michigan in the 1978 Rose Bowl and was named Pac-8 Player of the Year. But when the NFL scouts projected him as no better than a fourth-round draft pick, he chose Canada. Black quarterbacks were still on the exotic side in the late '70s, projected first as "athletes," then as signal callers.
While with Edmonton he put up some stunning numbers—21,228 yards passing and 1,700 yards rushing. He had back-to-back 5,000-yard passing seasons. In the latter, 1983, his 5,648 yards over 16 games remains an alltime high for pro football.
The time was right to make a move south. The Seattle Seahawks were interested, but the Oilers prevailed by offering a more appealing contract and the chance to rejoin his Edmonton coach, Hugh Campbell, whom Houston had hired a month earlier. The two joined the sorriest franchise in the NFL, a team that had won a total of three games the previous two seasons. After Houston went 3-13 in '84 and 5-9 with two games to go in '85, Campbell was fired, and his defensive coordinator, Jerry Glanville, took over.