NO OILER CHANGE
Amid the roar in San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium late Sunday afternoon, Oiler defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan unwrapped a stick of Juicy Fruit, stuffed it into his mouth and threw the paper angrily to the ground. With seven seconds left, Houston was leading the Chargers 17-15, but the San Diego offense had just moved 75 yards to the nine and an almost certain field goal. "How can they drive on us like that," Ryan said to no one in particular. "——ridiculous!" Then, San Diego kicker John Carney, who has not missed a three-pointer since Nov. 15, 1992, grooved the winning field goal, and suddenly the Oilers were 1-2.
So it begins anew, Houston's annual journey to frustration. When owner Bud Adams hired Ryan to replace Jim Eddy after the Oilers had blown a 35-3 second-half lead at Buffalo in the playoffs last January, the Houston D was supposed to lay down the law, not lay down. But in its first nail-biting challenge of '93, Ryan's defense twice blew fourth-quarter leads and let backup quarterback John Friesz—who had played one real game in the last 20 months—engineer the winning drive. Dare we say it? Friesz and the Chargers looked hauntingly like Frank Reich and the Bills on that crazy day in Buffalo.
In the decade that Warren Moon (page 60) has quarterbacked the Oilers, they have never made it past the first round of the playoffs. Defensive end Sean Jones stated the reason rather neatly on Sunday. "We have to make plays at consequential times, which we don't do," he said. The night before, wideout Haywood Jeffires had said, "What's wrong with us? Why can't we win? Do we choke? I can't figure it out, but it's like, if we've got a big game and we're up and there's one second to go and the other team has 99 yards to go, my money's on them."
The job of knitting this team together for a run at the Super Bowl falls to Ryan. Eddy was a nice guy. Head coach Jack Pardee is a nice guy. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is a nice guy. The Oilers need cranky old Ryan to pick them up by the scruffs of their necks and give them a good shaking. "Look," Ryan says. "I've got a great rapport with the players and coaches here. They all know I know how to win. Everywhere I've coached, people have respected me."
Same old Buddy. But for now, same old Oilers, too.
TERRIBLE TAMPA BAY
The for-sale sign on the lawn in front of offensive tackle Paul Gruber's house in Tampa is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the Buccaneers, the most relentlessly dismal franchise in the NFL. Gruber, the Bucs' first-round draft pick in '88, has played every offensive down for the team since the first game of his rookie year, but he is now a holdout, having spurned an offer of $2 million a year. As Tampa's designated franchise player, he is not free to sign elsewhere this season and appears willing to sit out the year. But money is not the only issue. Says Gruber, "I want to go somewhere where there's a chance to win." Adds one of Gruber's friends, "Paul just views the situation of the team as hopeless."
Hopeless is the word for the Bucs, who have lost at least 10 games a year since 1983. How does a team sustain that sort of futility? Well, of Tampa Bay's eight first-round draft choices from 1983 to '92, only one—outside linebacker Broderick Thomas, its '89 pick—is still playing for it. Here is a rundown of Tampa Bay's wasted No. 1 selections, perhaps the sorriest record of talent acquisition and development in the history of football.
1983—The Bucs had traded the pick to the Bears in '82 for defensive end Booker Reese. He started seven games for the team and was out of football by '86.