The Houston Oilers were a team that was mired in absolute failure during the first few years of the decade of the 1970s. They held onto the label of mediocrity until 1970 when they seemingly drowned in a very deep tank. As their lack of good luck would have it, however, Houston was just beginning to explore the depths of defeat. The 1970 Oilers could only manage to win three games, and their 1971 team finished with only four wins.
Those two years would be viewed as successful when compared to 1972 and 1973, however. During those two seasons. Houston could win only once in each of those years. They were easily the worst team in the league, and most of their opponents did not really take them seriously. Throughout all of 1972 and the first five games of 1973, Bill Peterson served as the head coach of the Oilers. Peterson’s record with the team before he was terminated? A dismal 1-18.
Houston general manager Sid Gillman had seen enough after the team started 0-5 in 1973. Rather than go through a detailed and longsuffering search for a new head coach during the season, Gillman just decided to promote himself to the head coaching position to finish out the 1973 season. He had no grand illusions at this time about what he could accomplish.
Indeed, Gillman—who was one of the American Football League’s most successful head coaches during the 1960s—could only win one game at the helm of the Oilers in 1973. But in a way, that one win was enough to convince him that he could not go out with a losing record. Personal pride and a legacy of winning was at stake for him. He decided to stay on as Houston’s head coach for one more year.
As a tonic aimed at success, the Oilers consumed what Gillman was preaching, as they benefitted from a full offseason and training camp with him as their head coach. The 1974 Houston club had nowhere to go but up in the league standings, and right from the very first regular-season game, Gillman’s players showed off a definite winning attitude. It was an attitude which was missing all throughout the previous four years. The Oilers began what would be a turnaround season in 1974 with a stunning 21-14 win over San Diego on opening day at the Astrodome.
“We showed some real character today,” said Gillman following his team’s first win of the year. “I don’t know how many characters Oiler teams in the past have shown, but this team showed some real class.”
While it was great to initiate a new year with a victory, some old habits had a difficult time leaving the scene. In truth, it was the Houston team that had difficulty, as they lost their next five games to Cleveland, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and St. Louis. Gillman’s team played a competitive brand of football in all but one of those losses, a 51-10 thrashing against the defending National Football Conference (NFC) champion Vikings. But now for all realistic intents, the Oilers were out of the postseason picture.
How does a team – any team – stop a losing streak? Simply put, by putting all your effort into winning just one game. No need to look ahead. Just win one game. That is exactly what Houston did when they showed up in Cincinnati on October 27. The Oilers offense finally played mistake-free football, as they committed zero turnovers. Houston’s defense was also earning high marks, as they took advantage of six Bengals turnovers, which indirectly led to 28 second-half points in a 34-21 win.
A big reason for another victory involved a new player. In October the Oilers traded troublesome defensive linemen John Matuszak and a third-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for Curley Culp and a first-round pick (that first-rounder was used to draft Robert Brazile and the third-rounder the Chiefs acquired became receiver Henry Marshall.
Both Culp and Matuszak had signed future contracts with the upstart World Football League so both teams and were considered expendable. Matuszak had been sitting out due to a lawsuit attempting to allow him to jump immediately to the WFL. The trade put that on hold and Matuszak honored the trade. While Gillman was a head coach in San Diego during the 1960s, he had his hands full in dealing with Culp in the old AFL games.
The addition of Culp to the Houston defensive line produced immediate dividends, as Gillman’s defense suddenly had the ability to dominate the line of scrimmage. But Culp was not the only new addition to the lineup. Gillman had long since earned the reputation as a head coach who was more than willing to cut players who were not performing well enough to meet his minimum standards.
By the end of 1974, the Oilers had no less than 22 new players on their team, compared to those who were in uniform in 1973. During the second month of the 1974 season, many of those new players started to excel. As a result, Houston got back on the winning track.
Houston won three straight games following their big win over the Bengals. First, they traveled to New York to take on the Jets, and they pulled out a last-minute 27-22 triumph. Then they went across the Empire State to Buffalo.
The Oilers played an improved brand of football in their 21-9 win over the playoff-bound Bills. Houston’s defenders intercepted six Joe Ferguson passes and limited the incomparable O.J. Simpson to just 57 yards rushing in that contest. A 20-3 victory over division rival Cincinnati was next, and it boosted the Oilers’ record to 5-5, a mark that was certainly not foreseen just a month prior.
“We’re going to drive a lot of people crazy in Vegas if we keep this up,” said Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini. “They keep picking us to lose.”
Vegas would prove to be correct the following week, however. Up next for Houston was a battle for the bragging rights in the state of Texas. The Dallas Cowboys were languishing amid their worst season in the past nine years, and if they were ever ripe for an upset, now was the time. Unfortunately for the Oilers, however, Dallas played one of its better games of the year against their Lone Star State rivals. The Cowboys won this defensive struggle, 10-0.
In previous seasons, a loss like that would be detrimental enough to Houston to send them on another losing streak. But that did not happen in 1974. Instead, Gillman’s boys regrouped immediately by winning a game that nobody expected them to win. The Oilers crept into Three Rivers Stadium on December 1 and upset the eventual Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, 13-10. It was indeed a sign that this Houston club had undeniably improved by leaps and bounds over the team that bore the derrick standard in previous years.
Gillman’s team relapsed the following week, however. They lost miserably to a team that they probably should have beaten, the Denver Broncos. Virtually all phases of Houston’s attack were missing in their 37-14 defeat at Mile High Stadium. The Oilers now had a grip on a losing record with one game remaining on their schedule.
If they somehow pulled out a win over the Cleveland Browns on December 15, however, they would earn a 7-7 record. It was a time to show off whatever amount of character that the team possessed. They got behind early to Cleveland, a team that was having its worst season ever. But Houston rallied in the second half to achieve a 28-24 triumph. Coach Gillman had somehow willed his team to their seventh win, and a respectable .500 record.
“I’ve been in this business for a long time,” admitted Gillman, “but this is the most satisfying season I’ve ever been through.”
Oilers fans, and perhaps even Gillman himself, did not know it at the time, but 1974 would stand out as the solid foundation for the team. The following year, O.A. “Bum” Phillips would be chosen by Gillman to replace him on the sidelines. All Phillips did was produce a winning record in 1975 and help the team to grow in ability and talent. But the 1974 Houston club took that first step toward winning. They took that first foundational step.
Associated Press, “Houston Rips Buffalo, 21-9.” Victoria Advocate, November 11, 1974, 10.
Robinson, Barry “Satisfying year, says Sid Gillman.” San Antonio Express, December 16, 1974,
United Press International, “Attention world; Oilers unbeaten.” Port Arthur (Texas) News,
September 16, 1974, 8.
Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Pro Football Researchers Association. He recently completed work on a biography of former Philadelphia Eagles free safety Bill Bradley, and a screenplay about 1920s pro football in Pennsylvania’s coal regions.