1993 Houston Oilers: A Big Tease & A Final Collapse

The 1993 Houston Oilers had spent the previous six seasons as a consistent playoff team that always seemed just ready to break through to the league’s elite. But postseason success was missing. They had not even made the AFC Championship Game during this time period, much less gotten to a Super Bowl. The ’93 Oilers, after a slow start, had the look of a team ready to do just that. But instead, another playoff collapse spelled the end of the era.

1992 had ended with the collapse of all collapses, blowing a 35-3 second half lead in the wild-card round at Buffalo. Suffice it to say, Houston was looking to make some changes. They went out and hired Buddy Ryan, architect of the great 1985 Chicago Bears defense, and more recently, a modestly successful head coach in Philadelphia, to be the new coordinator.

Buddy got the defense playing well, with the trademark pressure he liked to bring. A veteran defensive line, with all the key players 31-years-old, saw William Fuller, Ray Childress and Sean Jones combine for 31 sacks. Childress and Jones made the Pro Bowl.

The pressure allowed free safety Marcus Roberts to have the year of his life, intercepting seven passes and making 1st-team All-NFL. Cris Dishman and Steve Jackson at the corners combined for 11 more picks themselves. Houston’s defense ranked fourth in the NFL In points allowed.

But the Oilers of this era were ultimately defined by Warren Moon, the future Hall of Fame quarterback, and the spread-the-field attack that was the first of its kind to consistently use four wide receivers at a time. Webster Slaughter was the prime target in 1993, catching 77 passes for over 900 yards and making the Pro Bowl. Ernest Givins and Haywood Jeffires were each in the high 60s for receptions. Curtis Duncan caught 41 more balls.

In spite of these targets, Moon did not have one of his better statistical years. His 6.7 yards-per-attempt was squarely in the middle of the league and that was his strongest area. The 58 completion rate was subpar. And the 21-21 TD/INT ratio, while not as awful as it would be today, was still poor by the standards of 1993.

Houston might have been in serious trouble offensively, but the running game picked up the slack. Gary Brown emerged as a 1,000-yard rusher. He ran behind an offensive line  that had veteran Pro Bowlers in Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews. And it was enough for the Oilers to still rank fourth in the league in points scored.

The season started on a Sunday Night in New Orleans. The Saints had been another consistent playoff team going back to 1987, that also couldn’t advance deep in the playoffs. Even though they slipped to mediocrity this year, it didn’t start in Week 1. Houston lost four fumbles and were beaten up front to the tune of a 142-70 deficit in rush yardage. The result was a 33-21 loss.

The home opener was against Kansas City. The Chiefs were not only another consistent playoff team looking to take the proverbial next step, but they had signed the great Joe Montana as their quarterback. But Montana wasn’t ready to play yet and the Oilers had their way with the Dave Krieg-led offense. They forced five turnovers. Moon went 22/35 for 204 yards. Houston cruised to a 30-0 blowout.

A road trip to San Diego followed. The Chargers had won the AFC West a year earlier, and would slip to .500 this year. Like New Orleans though, their slippage didn’t come against Houston in September. Moon played terribly, throwing four interceptions. Some timely red zone defense and a Pick-6 by defensive back Darryl Lewis kept them in the game. But it ended an 18-17 loss.

A home date with a bad Los Angeles Rams team resulted in a passing battle between Moon and Jim Everett. But Moon was erratic in getting his 310 yards, while Everett’s 316 yards came with efficiency. The Oilers lost this one 28-13 and were 1-3 going into a bye week.

The two weeks prep time, combined with the revenge factor, didn’t help them in a return to Buffalo for Monday Night Football. Moon threw three more interceptions. Houston lost four fumbles. They lost the football game 35-7.

There was nothing in this Oiler team that looked like a contender. But a soft part of the schedule was ahead. Moon played clean football the following week in New England, where Bill Parcells was just starting on a rebuilding project. The Oilers beat the Patriots 28-14. They came back home and beat lowly Cincinnati 28-12, with Moon going 24/34 for 253 yards and spreading the ball around effectively.

1993 was the one year the NFL experimented with the concept of a double-bye, so just when Houston had some momentum, they took another week off. No matter. They were able to keep it going when they returned at home against Seattle. Moon played his best game of the year, going 36/55 for 369 yards. Slaughter caught nine balls for 135 yards and the Oilers won 24-14. They were back to .500.  

The alignment of the era had the Oilers in the AFC Central along with the Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers. The return visit to Cincinnati was next and it marked the emergence of Brown. He rolled up 166 yards, enabling Houston to control the ball for over 36 minutes in a 38-3 rout. Brown was even better a week later in Cleveland, piling up 194 yards and leading the way to a 27-20 win.

Pittsburgh had won this division a year earlier and would make the playoffs again in ’93. So the first matchup with the Steelers got the Sunday Night stage, a couple days after Thanksgiving. Fuller put on a show and picked up four sacks. Jeffires caught seven passes for 139 yards. The Oilers rolled, 23-3.

Then they came home to face Atlanta. The Falcons weren’t very good, but they were coached by Jerry Glanville, who had guided the Oilers to their playoff trips in 1987, 1988 and 1989 before being replaced by Jack Pardee. Ryan’s defense intercepted six passes and turned a 14-6 third quarter deficit into a 33-17 win.

Houston was riding high at 9-4. Their ability to run the ball and play defense was getting noticed nationally. They were a game up on Pittsburgh in the AFC Central and already had control of the tiebreaker, even if they were to lose the second game with the Steelers in two weeks.

With Brown surging, the Oilers didn’t look like they could lose. He went for 109 yards in a 19-17 win over Cleveland, who was making great strides under Bill Belichick and would get into the playoffs a year later. Houston had the chance to clinch when they went to Pittsburgh.

Brown showed he could also catch the football, bringing in a 38-yard TD pass from Moon. Safety Bo Orlando came up with a Pick-6 and the Oilers had a quick 14-0 lead. It was 23-3 by the third quarter and with Brown delivering another 100-yard game, Houston salted away the AFC Central title with a 26-17 win.

Now it was time to focus on getting one of the two first-round byes and, hopefully, the 1-seed in the AFC bracket. The Oilers, along with the Chiefs and Bills were 10-4. Houston had the tiebreaker on KC, did not with Buffalo, but in the event of a three-way tie, Houston would end up on the top line thanks to their conference record.

On Christmas Night, they went to San Francisco. The 49ers had an explosive offense led by Steve Young and were bound for the NFC Championship Game. In this high-profile spot, the Oilers showed how far they had come. Brown rushed for 114 yards. The defense was dominant. Houston won 10-7. A defensive-oriented game on the road was exactly the kind of game that had typically been their vulnerability. Winning it seemed to send a message on who the team to beat in the AFC was.

But the Oilers didn’t control their fate, and when Kansas City lost the next day, it reduced the top of the AFC to Houston and Buffalo at 11-4. That Monday Night debacle from October would be the difference for the 1-seed and the Bills wrapped it up on the early TV window in the final week.

The Oilers were locked into the 2-seed when they took the field Sunday Night against the Jets. It was not a game that had playoff implications and in our own day, would have been flexed out of the prime-time spot. Which would have denied America some considerable entertainment.

Not because it was a noteworthy game. Even with Moon and Brown sitting out, the Oilers got three sacks from Childress, dominated on defense and won 24-0. No, what was most entertaining is that the internal tension between Ryan and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride boiled over. What makes me say that? How about the fact that, on national television, Ryan threw a punch at Gilbride.

Even allowing the obvious dislike between the coaches, and even allowing that Buffalo was the 1-seed and three-time defending AFC champs, Houston still looked like the team to beat. Dallas, the defending Super Bowl champ and NFC 1-seed was the odds-on favorite to win it all, but this had the feel of a Lone Star State Super Bowl ahead.

After a week off, the Oilers hosted the Chiefs in the late Sunday afternoon window on Divisional Round Weekend. Montana was healthy, but for three quarters, Ryan’s defense continued to stay in control. With Moon on his way to a 32/43 for 306 yards performance, Houston led 10-0 at the half and 13-7 after three quarters.

But the offensive line was not able to keep control of the line of scrimmage. Brown was held to 17 yards. Gilbride only gave him the ball 11 times. With the season on the line, Houston was reverting to their complete dependence on Moon. And they paid the price for it. The quarterback was sacked nine times. The result was another collapse. Montana led KC to three fourth-quarter touchdowns and sent Houston packing with a 28-20 loss.

This is a franchise that endured its share of playoff disappointments—blown fourth-quarter leads against Pittsburgh in 1989 and Denver in 1991 also marked the recent landscape. This one, coming on top of the ’92 disaster in Buffalo, was the final blow.

With so many key players over the age of 30, it was time to rebuild. Moon was traded to Minnesota in the offseason. Munchak retired. And the Oilers completely collapsed in 1994. By the time the franchise started to be competitive again in the latter part of the decade, they had relocated to Tennessee. The city of Houston waited until 2002 to get pro football back. They’re still waiting for that first Super Bowl trip ever, and the first AFC Championship Game appearance since 1979.