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moon BEAMS
Peter King
December 16, 1991
The Houston Oilers' run-and-shoot aerial act may revolve around quarterback Warren Moon, but his array of talented wide receivers gives it brilliance
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December 16, 1991

Moon Beams

The Houston Oilers' run-and-shoot aerial act may revolve around quarterback Warren Moon, but his array of talented wide receivers gives it brilliance

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Every week during the NFL season, Houston Oiler offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride wonders what newfangled defense will show up against his run-and-shoot offense on game day. Will the Miami Dolphins fall back into a dime zone on every play, using six defensive backs to prevent the Oilers' four wide receivers from finding open turf? Will the Cleveland Browns blitz quarterback Warren Moon silly and leave their secondary vulnerable? Will the Pittsburgh Steelers pack the middle and put their trusty cornerbacks in man coverage against two of the Oiler wideouts? "I never know what I'm going to see when the game unfolds," says a nervous-sounding Gilbride.

Gilbride isn't as antsy on the inside as he appears to be on the outside, because no matter how the opposition tries to thwart his attack, he knows he has a terrific quarterback in Moon and the best combination of four wideouts—Haywood Jeffires, Drew Hill, Ernest Givins and the platoon of Curtis Duncan and Tony Jones—in the league. "There's a lot of wealth in this offense," says Moon, "and I try to spread it around [box, page 54]. What that basically means is, I don't care which one I go to. I trust them all."

Case in point: Oct. 13, Oilers versus New York Jets, Giants Stadium. When these two teams played in 1990, New York mixed its coverages well, put a ferocious pass rush on Moon and defeated Houston 17-12 at the Astrodome. Surely, Gilbride thought, the Jets will use the same strategy again. But a few plays into this year's game, Gilbride watched New York clog the middle of the field to shut off the run and disrupt midfield passing lanes. And every time the Oilers sent a receiver in motion, he saw the Jets flood that receiver's zone. The Houston offense was impotent early, and New York took a 10-0 first-quarter lead.

But as happens most every week—on Sunday, the Oilers beat the Steelers 31-6 to improve their record to 10-4 and clinch the AFC Central title—the swarm of Houston receivers eventually found a soft spot in the coverage. Jeffires, stationed wide left, was in single coverage from the first snap. "I'm going to you all day," Moon told him in a first-quarter huddle. And so he did; Jeffires finished with 186 yards on a career-high 13 receptions. Inside receivers Hill and Givins, rocked around like pin-balls all afternoon, still caught six and four balls, respectively, and Duncan, who was split wide right, caught eight. Moon chipped away at New York's coverage before hooking up with Hill on a 37-yard pass play in the fourth quarter for the decisive points in a 23-20 victory.

Any one of Houston's receivers can serve as Moon's primary target. Givins had 151 yards on five catches in a 42-14 rout of the Denver Broncos on Oct. 6; Duncan had a nine-reception day in A a 35-3 romp over the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 27; Hill had 11 grabs for 144 yards in a 28-24 win over the Browns on Nov. 17. On most occasions, though, no single receiver stands out from the pack, which was the case in Houston's 26-23 defeat of the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 10. In that game, Moon completed four passes to Givins and eight each to Jeffires, Hill and the Duncan-Jones platoon.

For the Oilers, this season is almost a replay of 1990, when they made NFL history by having four receivers each catch 65 or more passes. Jeffires and Hill were the AFC coleaders with 74 receptions, Givins was fourth in the conference with 72, and Duncan was seventh with 66. At the midpoint of last year, the Fab Four—as Oiler director of media services Chip Namias tabbed the starters—ranked 1-2-3-4 in the AFC, though they couldn't maintain that frantic pace.

You would think that such numbers would bring universal respect, but they don't. The accomplishments of Houston's receiving corps have been overshadowed by the greatness of Moon and by the fact that in the run-and-shoot, the Oilers throw the ball about 25% more than the league average. "I don't want to take anything away from them, because they're real good, but I don't know that they're any better than the guys I face every day in practice," says Atlanta Falcon cornerback Deion Sanders. "If our offense threw on every down like they do, we'd have four guys with 50 to 60 catches, just like them."

"I don't think they're better than what a lot of teams have," says New England Patriots defensive coordinator Joe Collier. "The system helps them, and the quarterback helps them. I think there's a bunch of receivers as good as those guys."

That's the kind of talk that burns these guys. It's as if, because Moon is their quarterback and the run-and-shoot is their offense, their achievements should be marked with an asterisk.

"There's no defensive coverage in the world that can stop four good wide receivers," says Givins. "The other team can't say, 'We're going to freeze Haywood Jeffires.' You freeze him, Curtis steps up, or Drew, or me. But if we weren't outstanding receivers, we wouldn't have the ability to step up and have great games. We do. We live and die by the pass; they don't. We succeed; they don't. Until you do it, don't knock us. We're happy because of what we've accomplished, don't get us wrong. And we're not trying to be greedy and get all the attention in the NFL. But give us what we deserve. That's all we ask."

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