A Sour Ending For The 1989 Houston Oilers

The 1989 Houston Oilers came into the season looking for more. In both 1987 and 1988, they made the postseason and advanced to the divisional round. The Oilers had clearly arrived as a playoff contender under the coaching regime of Jerry Glanville. Now it was time for more—like a division championship and deeper advancement into the playoffs. The ’89 Oilers were squarely in position to accomplish their goals…until a sudden and late fade ended the season and ended Glanville’s tenure.

Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon was the clear leader of a team that was built around its offensive firepower. Moon had a vintage Pro Bowl season in 1989. His 60 percent completion rate, 7.8 yards-per-attempt, 23 touchdown passes and 3 percent interception rate were all in the top eight among starting quarterbacks.

The Oilers of this era were known for their “Run-And-Shoot” offense, the first of its kind to spread the field with four different receivers. With Moon pulling the trigger, all four had big years—Drew Hill, Earnest Givins, Curtis Duncan and Haywood Jeffires all averaged 13-14 yards per catch and all shared the wealth that Moon distributed.

Running the ball wasn’t a priority, but Houston had good options. Alonzo Highsmith and Allen Pinkett each averaged better than a four yards a pop. Lorenzo White was another capable back. All three shared the load. Pinkett was also a threat in the passing game, catching 31 balls.

The interior of the offensive line was as good as it gets. Two future Hall of Famers held down the guard spots and both were in their prime in 1989. Mike Munchak made the Pro Bowl and Bruce Matthews was even better, earning recognition as 1st-team All-NFL.

All told, the offense ranked seventh in the league in points scored. And it was necessary, because the defense was a sieve.

Ray Childress was a good defensive tackle, recording 8 ½ sacks. Houston was breaking in a rookie strong safety, Bubba McDowell, who would turn out to be pretty good. But the Oilers as a whole ranked 26th in points allowed in what was then a 28-team NFL. They weren’t going to win games by stopping anyone, something that became painfully clear in the season’s decisive moments.

A high-profile season opener came at Minnesota. The Vikings were a team similar to the Oilers, one that had come into their own in 1987 and was now looking for the next step. Like the Oilers, the Vikings would also come up short, but they would still make the playoffs this season and they certainly looked the part of a Super Bowl contender today. Houston was outrushed 155-70. Moon only threw for 69 yards. The Oilers lost the turnover battle 3-zip. The final was an embarrassing 38-7 loss.

Houston went on to play the subpar San Diego Chargers on the road and turned things around. They got the running game going, to the tune of a 132-41 edge in rush yardage. Moon went 21/35 for 235 yards. They won the turnover battle 5-zip. The Oilers took a 34-14 lead and then held on to win 34-27.

That set up another high-profile game, this one at home against Buffalo. The Bills had reached the AFC Championship Game the previous year, would win their division again this season and were on the verge of becoming a conference dynasty. Moon and Buffalo counterpart Jim Kelly put on a passing show.

Both Hall of Fame QBs threw for over 300 yards. Kelly did it by frequently targeting Andre Reed. Moon did it by spreading the ball all over. The Oilers rallied from 27-10 down to take a 38-34 lead in the fourth quarter.  The game eventually went overtime, tied at 41-41 before a Buffalo touchdown won it. A thrilling home opener ended on a disappointing note.

Houston welcomed a Miami Dolphins team that would stay on the playoff fringe throughout the year. And for the first time this season, the Oilers played a complete football game. They ran for nearly 200 yards. Moon went 19/23 for 254 yards with no mistakes. The defense completely dominated. The only points the Oilers allowed came on a kickoff return for a touchdown late in what ended as a 39-7 rout.

But Houston could not build on the success. They went up to New England and lost 23-13 to a bad team, thanks to five turnovers and a spotty performance from Moon. Houston was 2-3 and on their way to visit what looked like a good Chicago Bears team.

The Bears were one of the league’s perennial contenders under Mike Ditka and were off to a 4-1 start. The Oilers trailed 28-19 in the fourth quarter. Then Moon opened up. Playing against a traditionally good defense on the road, Moon threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Hill caught five balls for 128 yards. Houston won 33-28. The game started Chicago spiraling toward a surprising collapse. The Oilers were just happy to be back to .500.

Pittsburgh, a division rival, came into the old Astrodome and Houston delivered a 27-0 beatdown behind 132 rushing  yards and three TD passes from Moon. But a road trip to another division rival in Cleveland didn’t go as well. Even though an early Moon-to-Jeffires touchdown pass keyed a 10-0 lead, the defense allowed a couple of long TD passes. A game where the Oilers generally outplayed the Browns ended up as a 28-17 loss.

We were now halfway through this season that was supposed to be a springboard to bigger things. And the Oilers were only 4-4.

This might be a good spot to step back and remind younger readers that the alignment of the NFL prior to 2002 was only three divisions per conference. The Oilers shared the AFC Central with the Steelers, Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. All four teams would be contenders this season. And as hard as it might be for a younger generation to grasp, Cincinnati was coming off a Super Bowl season and Cleveland was one of the AFC’s most consistent teams.

Furthermore, prior to 1990, only five teams per conference made the playoffs. So if Houston could not win what was shaping up as a competitive AFC Central race, there were only two wild-card berths available.

In short, the Oilers needed to get their act together. They fell behind mediocre Detroit 24-14 at home, thanks to sloppy play that resulted in ten penalties. But Moon covered for a lot of mistakes. On this day, he went 30/38 for 345 yards. He threw second-half TD passes to Givins and Hill, then ran for another. Houston pulled out a 35-31 win.

That set up a Monday Night visit from Cincinnati. The game would be a classic. The Oilers recovered a fumble in the end zone early in the game. They led 16-14 in the second half. The leaky defense again allowed a long touchdown pass. Moon answered right back, leading a drive that ended with a TD pass of his own. The Bengals got a field goal to get the lead. Moon answered again, leading a drive that ended with a game-winning field goal. Houston had a thrilling 26-24 win.

Now they had some momentum, but could they keep it going on a short week, facing another playoff contender in the Los Angeles Raiders? The answer was yes. Playing for both the home crowd and the late Sunday afternoon national TV audience, the Oilers played a terrific all-around game and won 23-7.

At 7-4, Houston went on to visit Kansas City. The Chiefs were in their first year under Marty Schottenheimer and on the fringes of wild-card contention. Today, the Oilers made them look like a Super Bowl team. They committed 16 penalties, Moon was horrible and the end result was a 34-0 debacle.

We were headed into the season’s final quarter. Houston’s 7-5 record had them a half-game behind Cleveland, who was 7-4-1. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were both 6-6. In the wild-card picture, the Oilers and Dolphins, who were also 7-5, held the lead for the two spots. But the Raiders, Colts and Chiefs all joined the AFC Central in giving chase.

Furthermore, Week 13 was an AFC Central-fest. The Oilers were visiting the Steelers, while the Browns and Bengals squared off. Houston took care of their business. After spotting Pittsburgh a 10-0 lead, Moon went to work. He threw an 18-yard TD pass to Duncan and a 16-yard scoring pass to Hill. McDowell recorded a sack for a safety.

Holding on to a 16-13 lead, the defense came up with a big red zone stop, forcing the Steelers to settle for an 18-yard field goal. The game was tied, but it could have easily been worse. Moon led one more touchdown drive that pulled out the 23-16 road win. Meanwhile, Cincinnati beat Cleveland. Houston had the lead in the AFC Central.

The Oilers hosted a bad Tampa Bay team and jumped out to 20-3 lead by the first quarter, then held on for a 20-17 win. Cleveland lost again. So did Cincinnati. Houston was now 9-5. Cleveland was 7-6-1, while Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were 7-7. With two weeks to go, the Oilers had complete command of the AFC Central.

A road trip to play the Bengals was up next. It was no secret that Glanville and Cincinnati head coach Sam Wyche absolutely loathed each other. That made the possibility of clinching the franchise’s first-ever division title in old Riverfront Stadium more appealing…and what actually happened all the more humiliating. The Oilers were down 21-0 after the first quarter…31-0 at half…52-0 after three quarters…and lost 61-7.

Now, everything was up for grabs heading into the final week of the season that would be played over December 23-25. Here’s the scenario—Houston was hosting Cleveland on a Saturday night game that would kick off the season finales. This was winner-take-all for the division title. The AFC Central champ would also be the 2-seed in the playoffs and get the divisional round game at home. Simply taking care of business in the Astrodome would get the Oilers to the AFC Championship Game.

But if they lost…then all bets were off. Houston could not even be assured of a playoff berth if they didn’t win this game.

And they didn’t come out like a team that had a lot on the line, digging a 17-3 hole. Moon, never to be counted out, rallied with a nine-yard TD pass to Hill. A Houston field goal cut the lead to 17-13. Moon stepped up and threw another TD pass to Hill, this one from 27 yards. Hill would finish the game with 10 catches for 141 yards. But it wasn’t enough. Moon was also sacked five times and a late Browns drive produced the decisive touchdown in a 24-20 loss.

Now there was nothing to do but wait. The Colts and Bengals held the inside track to the two wild-card spots. If either one lost, Houston was in. Indianapolis was playing mediocre New Orleans on Sunday, but Monday Night offered reason for hope—Cincinnati had to go to Minnesota, where the Vikings were also playing with win-or-go-home stakes.

The tension ended early when the Colts were shockingly flat and got leveled 41-6. The Oilers were at least back in the playoffs. When the Bengals lost to the Vikings, Houston got the wild-card game at home. And on top of it all, it was the Steelers—whom the Oilers had already beaten twice, that snuck into the last playoff berth through the backdoor.

So here we were again. Houston still had a chance to reclaim their momentum if they just won a home playoff game as a 6 ½ point favorite. But it was a virtual repeat of the Cleveland game. The Oilers were flat early and trailed 16-9. Moon rallied and threw two touchdown passes, this time to Givins and gave his team a 23-16 lead. The defense gave it back by allowing a late drive that tied it up. Houston lost this one in overtime 26-23.

It was a terribly bitter end to the season. Not only had the Oilers missed out on their preseason goals, but it was three straight losses to divisional rivals—one of them a colossal embarrassment and two heartbreaks as a home favorite that drove the knife in.

The front office responded by firing Glanville and hiring Jack Pardee. The move didn’t hurt—Houston kept producing playoff teams for four more years. But it only made things marginally better. While the Oilers under Pardee did win a couple division titles, they never did get past the second round of the playoffs.