Friday, April 16, 2010

1995 NFL Mail Bag: The Houston Oilers

I'm sure most of you are bleary-eyed after staying up last night to watch Mikael Samuelsson's overtime winner in Game 1 of the Canucks-Kings series. Surely, the Stanley Cup Playoffs has you all rapt at attention. But if I can manage to bring back your attention and wake you up a hair, I just might do it with my latest 1995 NFL Mail Bag installment, and frankly, it's been too long.

This week, I recall the curious case of the Houston Oilers, who sent me no letter, no order form and no offer to join their kids club. The Oilers only sent me a copy of their 1994 NFL Yearbook, without any explanation.

What follows in the yearbook, which has a picture of the immortal Ray Childress on the cover, is an interesting journey through memories that trend the bizarre, the comical and perhaps most of all, the disappointing. I say disappointing, and I specifically note that Childress is on the cover, because Childress is a native of the state of Tennessee, and if you glance in today's NFL standings, you'll notice the Houston Oilers are nowhere to be found.

Two short years after I got my mail from the Oilers, owner Bud Adams pulled up stakes and took his franchise to the Volunteer State, where they now play as the Tennessee Titans. Yes, I know, over the course of sports history, teams move for one reason or another, but it's somewhat distressing to see a team with history as rich, and a place so important as the Oilers leave town.

The Houston Oilers literally changed American professional football in 1960. With the NFL being a tight group unwilling to accept overtures from business men across the country who wished to enter an expansion franchise into the league, Adams and late Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt banded together with six other men, who would come to be known as "The Foolish Club", to create a rival known as the American Football League. While the AFL experienced some hiccups in the early going, and was considered a second tier operation in comparison to the NFL, success soon came that would dramatically alter the game.

A decade later, the NFL had absorbed the new group, nearly doubling its size and laying the foundation for the AFC and NFC Conference structure we have today. While Adams and Hunt are generally considered the founders of the AFL, the Oilers hold an even more noteworthy spot in that they won the first AFL Championship in 1960. It's somewhat maudlin to see such an important franchise leave its historic home, though one might argue the franchise reached new heights in Nashville, when the Titans nearly won Super Bowl XXXIV, but flipping through the pages still manages to give me some laughs.

For one, the very first thing you see is an advertisement for Sony's Surround Sound television system. Normally I wouldn't think twice about this, but I thought it was extremely peculiar that in 1994, they didn't have flat screen TVs. Think about it. When was the last time you saw an ad for a tube television?

But quirky old ads aside, the most amusing thing in these old publications to me is always the stories that, with some hindsight, we can tell didn't quite pan out. In the case of the 1994 Oilers, the sad case of Cody Carlson seems to take the cake.

Carlson had spent the first seven years of his career backing up the legendary Warren Moon in Houston, but with Moon dealt to the Minnesota Vikings in the offseason, the article boasted that it was finally Carlson's time to lead the Oilers into their next period of glory. Of course, Carlson's Wikipedia page also notes that he's "best known for curling into a fetal position whenever he was hit hard," so you can probably see how this wound up. Carlson would be injured early in the season, and miss the remainder of the year. As an interesting coda, he retired after the team let him go following a coaching change.

That coaching change, however, is where things get interesting, as the Oilers promoted first-year defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher to head coach. This is interesting because 16 years later, Fisher is still in charge for the now Tennessee Titans, and he has arguably the strongest job security of any coach in the league after leading the Titans to multiple playoff appearances and an AFC Championship. It is also worth noting that of all the people in this yearbook, he's the only one who doesn't appear to have aged significantly. Sure a few years have been tacked on, but he certainly has fared better than most of the other big names in the front office.

In fact, Fisher may not only have aged the best, but he's also managed to keep his reputation fairly clean, unlike the rest of them. Adams certainly looks to have had a few run-ins with Father Time, but that hasn't prevented him from showing the spunk of a teenager recently. Still, a middle finger is probably less damaging than Kevin Gilbride, who might be most well known for getting into a fistfight on the sidelines with previous Oilers defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.

Of course, both of them are eons ahead of blogosphere whipping boy Sean Salisbury, who had recently arrived in Houston in 1994 via Minnesota. Aside from being a bombastic and irritating TV personality, Salisbury came under scrutiny three years ago for supposedly showing off pictures of his penis on a cell phone while employed at ESPN -- a charge he recently admitted to. Why couldn't he have just been proud of how awesome his hair looks coming out the back of his helmet?

Other interesting things of note in these pages include the page of Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews, who is referred as "the best offensive lineman in professional football", a charge I might have argued at the time, and the forgotten old-timey cheerleading troupe of the Lone Star State: the Derrick Dolls. The Derrick Dolls seem to have been lost to posterity in the franchise's move to Tennessee, particularly since I imagine they always played second fiddle to the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, but there is something about them that seems a bit more wholesome and not quite so overtly sexual and tawdry.

Or maybe that's just my hatred of the Cowboys shining through. But what can I say? I never claimed to be objective.

Also, and this must not be understated, throughout the magazine you get page after page of the old Houston Oilers Derrick logo. It was awesome then, and it was awesome this year when the Titans wore Oilers throwbacks for the AFL's 50th anniversay.

Speaking of uniforms, a bizarre moment in NFL fashion that will interest only me can be found in these pages. When the NFL celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1994, the League required each team to play in throwback uniforms at some point in the season, which led to some entirely awesome duds being strutted around. Interestingly, however, the NFL allowed you to alter your uniforms if you so wish, and the New York Jets apparently decided that their white helmets from Super Bowl III were no longer good anymore. The solution? Let's make them green! For two games! This is particularly odd since the team went with its old white helmets full time just four years later. The Jets were wearing green helmets at the time, but these peculiar buckets made their appearance once and once only, but you can find them in an advertisement in the Oilers yearbook.

Lastly, the joy ends when you get to the final pages of the yearbook. And that's because you are treated with an excited presentation for the stadium that will replace the aging Astrodome and keep the Oilers in Houston. The final page is title "21st Century Sports Facility Proposed by Oilers" and notes that it will be a first class building with a low roof that would save energy savings and create an intimate and exciting atmosphere. While baseball's Astros were not in the mix, the building expected an annual attendance of 3.5 million fans for NFL games, NBA games, concerts, college basketball and football and, and I find this the most interesting part, "44 NHL games". Apparently, the expectation was that Houston would be involved in the wave of 1990s NHL expansion, which, in hindsight seems like a potential disaster, despite the success of the Dallas Stars, but a quick google search shows that some are still looking to bring ice to one of the hottest cities in America.

Regardless the final page of the yearbook is a dour coda to an otherwise amusing trip to the past. Yes, the Oilers later got the expansion Texans, who look to have a bright future ahead of them, but something is classic about the derrick on the side of the helmet. You get the feeling that this team should never have moved. And more than anything else, reading through this simply made me wonder what could have been. In the meantime, I'll just have to be satisfied that my letter writing campaign left me with a little piece of football's past.

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