This is the second part of Tale From Sport’s ‘The Comeback’ series. If you have missed it, please read Part 1 first.
After being on the wrong end of the greatest comeback in NFL history, the Houston Oilers entered the most turbulent time in their history. With issues such as the owner threatening to break up the team and clashing with the players, an all-out civil war between the offensive and defensive coordinators, a tragic death and relocations, this article will explore the events following that fateful day at Rich Stadium where ‘The Comeback’ occurred.
Immediately following the dramatic conclusion to this all-time great contest, fans, pundits and even the players themselves debated whether Buffalo accomplished the greatest comeback in history or if Houston committed the biggest choke. Cris Dishman certainly believed it was the latter. According to ESPN, the Oilers defenceman stated that “I don’t know what was going on, it’s as simple as that. We choked. We choked as a team. We choked as management. Everybody in this organisation just choked.” After leaving the locker room, Warren Moon’s first instinct was to call his family to check on his wife and children’s well-being. He was aware that being a high-profile athlete in a large market would open those closest to him to unfair and frankly disgusting behaviour from so-called supporters. The Quarterback wanted to ensure his children would not experience any retaliation from their schoolmates either, telling the Pro Football Hall of Fame that “All the way back on the plane, I thought about whether we should send them to school the next day because kids can really be cruel with their teasing.” With the circumstances surrounding the loss so uniquely different compared to others he had faced in his career, the father of four would decide to keep them from going into classes for a day to “let some of it blow over.”
The players and staff would face national ridicule for their performance, with the legendary TV host David Letterman openly mocking the defeat on his show. While they were a nationwide joke, at home, the tensions were considerably higher. The local broadcasters mercilessly tore into the side, condemning every person associated with the franchise. One radio station would go as far as arranging a funeral for the team, complete with coffins and pallbearers. Dr Larry Adams, a Houston-based psychologist, believed that the fans would cope by repressing the pain of this loss. However, they would still remember the hollow feeling 20 years later. The doctor speculated that this was more than just a sporting contest to many of the supporters. He theorised that their mental welfare was likely affected by the loss, remarking that they “had their feet pulled out from under them and they lost a major chunk of themselves.”
The Oilers owner Bud Adams’ unhappiness with his organisation’s failure was on full display at the end of the 1992 season. Just one day removed from their collapse at Rich Stadium, he announced that defensive coordinator Jim Eddy and defensive backs coach Pat Thomas had been dismissed. Eddy’s departure would allow Buddy Ryan to fill the vacant position. Ryan is often credited as the mastermind behind the legendary ‘Monsters of the Medway’ Chicago Bears defence that led the Windy City team to their first and only Super Bowl victory. The experienced coach would be expected to recreate the magic he built in Illinois for his new team. Before starting their next campaign, Adams would also tell his players and staff that he would break up the group if they could not secure a Super Bowl appearance.Embed from Getty Images
RIP Jeff Alm and Sean P. Lynch
The Oilers 1993 season is widely regarded as one of the most turbulent and heartbreaking seasons for any NFL team on and off the field. Adams’ words prior to the season took some time to sink in, as his side started their campaign 1-4. This run of poor results included an anticipated rematch against the Buffalo Bills on week six. This time no miraculous comeback was needed as Houston was handily dismantled 35-7. The Texas-based team would manage to win their next game against the New England Patriots, but a bizarre off-field issue overshadowed their victory. Offensive Tackle David Williams’ wife went into labour the day before the game, causing the player to miss his flight and the game. Incredibly, Bud Adams deemed this a misplacement of priorities for his Offensive Lineman and fined him a ridiculous $111,111, a move heavily criticised by the fans and players alike.
Despite the squad’s feelings about their owner after that unusual episode of events, the Oilers’ victory over the Patriots proved to be a turning point of their season. Jack Pardee’s men would win every game until the end of the season, with their 11-game streak being the longest in the NFL since 1972. This remarkable run would earn them the second overall seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye. Despite the success on the field, the AFC team had to endure tragedy during the winter. Houston’s Defensive Lineman Jeff Alm would take his own life on 13th December 1993. Alm was involved in a car crash on a freeway exit ramp after losing control of his vehicle. Whilst Alm Himself suffered no injuries, his childhood friend Sean P. Lynch was thrown from the convertible and fell 20 feet below onto a service road beneath the overpass, unfortunately losing his life due to the impact. According to the police, after Alm discovered Lynch had died, he took a shotgun from the wreckage of his car and, in a fit of guilt or despair, fired two shots into the air before turning the gun on himself.
The former Notre Dame star’s brother Lance told the New York Times that “I think the whole accident was just so traumatic that Jeff lost his mind.” The elder Alm would also state that the two were as close as brothers, a sentiment echoed by their former high school teammate Danny Schumacher, who would say that “They were closer than most friends are.” Jack Pardee believed that whilst his Linebacker was “Probably a little bit” depressed in the weeks before the accident due to suffering a hairline fracture in his lower right leg during the season, no one in the organisation believed that he was suicidal. The Head Coach presumed that it was an impulsive choice, stating that “Evidently, he convicted himself for doing something wrong. It’s a pretty stiff sentence he put on himself.” It was later uncovered that Alm’s blood-alcohol level was above the legal driving limit. The former second-round pick was also taking the prescription barbiturate, Fiorinal. It was not believed that Alm was abusing this drug, with the Chief Medical Examiner Joseph A. Jachimczyk proclaiming that his barbiturate level was within the therapeutic range. However, users of this drug are advised not to mix it with alcohol or get behind a wheel of a car due to the potential dizziness or drowsiness it can cause.
Despite the horrific tragedy, the Oilers players maintained their focus on the field, winning their last three games. On the other hand, the coaching staff would implode on the final day of the regular season. Tensions had been building between the Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride and Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan throughout the season. Ryan was outspoken about his dislike for Gilbride’s’ Run and Shoot’ approach, renaming it the ‘Chuck and Duck’ system. The Super Bowl XX winner believed that the offence’ inability to use conventional running plays, which would have drained the clock and ended games, caused the Defence to put in multiple unnecessary shifts, which lead to numerous injuries in his unit. The Offensive Coordinator was enraged at the Defence during training as he felt that his players were on the receiving end of regular cheap shots during practices. The coaches’ disdain of each other would cause friction between the players as they were forced to pick sides. Tensions would boil over during one Pre-Season session, resulting in a fight between the two units. The clash became public knowledge, with the media publishing the story nationwide. Nevertheless, Buddy Ryan refused to yield, publicly stating that Gilbride would be selling insurance by the season’s end.
With the Division already secured but a higher playoff seed to play for, the Oilers welcomed the New York Jets to the Houston Astrodome for their final regular-season game. Whilst the home side dominated and shut out their opponents 24-0, securing the second seed, it was Gilbride and Ryan who made the headlines for the wrong reasons. At the end of the first half, Houston’s Backup Quarterback Cody Carlson, who was playing due to Pardee resting Warren Moon for the playoffs, was sacked and fumbled the ball, causing another needless shift for the Defence. Incensed by this, Ryan yelled at the Offensive Coordinator. Gilbride would engage in the yelling before marching up to his supposed colleague.
A season’s worth of resentment and anger towards each other was finally unleashed on national television. The Defensive Coordinator threw a punch as the current head coach of the New York Guardians got within his range, glancing the side of his face. Gilbride imminently attempted to strike back, although he would lose his balance before he was able to. The Houston players, likely not believing what they were witnessing, quickly intervened and separated the two. The Offensive Coordinator was still determined to fight, wanting to repay the favour, but players from both the Offence and the Defence united and begged him to refrain from retaliating. They cited that they were winning a vital game in their season and did not want this personal rivalry to impact their performance. Gilbride would eventually reluctantly agree. However, he would ignore Ryan for the rest of the game. Some reports suggest that he never spoke to the former Philadelphia Eagles head coach in any form ever again.
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The highly acclaimed statistic website Football Outsiders calculated that the Oilers were the team to beat going into the Playoffs. Their eleven game winning streak and their impressive Defence, who only allowed their oppositions to reach 20 points in just one game, meant that they were heavily favoured to go all the way. The Houston side avoided the wildcard round and would be handed a favourable home tie against Joe Montana’s Kansas City Chiefs, whom they had easily beaten 30-0 in the regular season. Despite leading 13-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Oilers would once again collapse under the postseason pressures. After only conceding 20 points one time in 11 games, the home side’s implosion gifted their opponents 21 points in one quarter. The game ended 28-20 to the underdog Chiefs.
Despite continuing their playoff streak in 1993, many believe that ‘The Choke’, as it would be locally known, was the catalyst for the franchise’s turbulent period. The organisation appeared unable to shake the ghosts of that game in Rich Stadium, with playoff meltdowns becoming ingrained in the team’s culture. A man of his word, Bud Adams started to dismantle the squad following their surprising playoff loss to Kansas. Warren Moon was traded to the Minnesota Vikings for a 1994 fourth round and 1995 3rd round draft pick, leaving Cody Carlson as the first choice Quarterback. The Oilers would finish with a disastrous 2-14 record, which remains to this day the worst season-to-season drop-in games won in NFL history. Head Coach Jack Pardee was relieved of his duties after ten games. This decision ultimately led to Jeff Fisher being promoted to the top job. The Former Chicago Bears Defensive Back replaced Buddy Ryan as Defensive Coordinator at the start of the season after Ryan was recruited by the Arizona Cardinals’ to become their Head CoachArizona Cardinals’ Head Coach.
With more and more pieces of the team that established the franchise’s impressive playoff streak leaving for greener pastures, the Oilers would not manage a winning season ever again in Texas. Bud Adams flirted with the idea of relocating the team for some time. However, in 1996, he would secure the league’s approval to relocate the Oilers to Nashville, Tennessee. With the move not scheduled to happen until 1998, the city of Houston, not wanting to support an organisation that wanted to leave, gave up on the team. The attendance level for home games was diabolical, the team’s radio team would disband, and the local broadcasters would even forego the ending of their games to show meaningless NBA pre-season games.
Bud Adams refused to spend another season in Texas due to the damage caused by the backlash to his wallet and reputation. With their home stadium in Nashville still under construction, the franchise would hastily move temporarily to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis for the 1997 season. In 1998, the team was forced to find a temporary home once again after low attendance saw them ousted from Memphis. The undersized Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville would host Adams’ team before moving into their own stadium the season after. The franchise was renamed the Tennessee Oilers in 1997 before becoming the Tennessee Titans in 1999, the name they still use to this date.