December 21, 2009
The Houston Oilers nailed down a wild card playoff spot when they hosted the Minnesota Vikings in the Astrodome on December 21, 1980. By pulling out a 20-16 win, they finished with an 11-5 record along with Cleveland atop the AFC Central; however, the Browns won the division due to a better conference record.
Appropriately, it was RB Earl Campbell scoring the winning touchdown, on a three-yard run. With 203 yards on 29 carries, he topped the 200-yard rushing mark for a record fourth time during the ’80 season.
The pile-driving Campbell’s first two 200-yard games of the year had come in consecutive weeks – 203 yards on 33 carries against Tampa Bay on Oct. 19 and 27 rushes for 202 yards vs. Cincinnati on Oct. 26. His highest total, 206 yards on 31 attempts, occurred at Chicago on Nov. 16. As was the case in the season finale against Minnesota, all four games were won by the Oilers. All totaled, Campbell ran the ball 120 times for 814 yards (a 6.8-yard average) and three touchdowns in the four contests.
In the remaining 11 games (he missed one due to injury), Campbell gained 1120 yards on 253 attempts for a 4.4-yard average and 10 scores. As a result, he achieved career-high marks in yards (1934) and attempts (373) for a 5.2-per-rush average and 13 touchdowns – all league-leading figures. It was Campbell’s third consecutive NFL rushing title in three seasons, although it would also be his last.
Much had been expected of the Oilers entering the season, as they had reached the AFC Championship game the previous two years (falling to division rival Pittsburgh on each occasion) and had pulled off a significant trade during the offseason by dealing QB Dan Pastorini to Oakland for QB Ken Stabler. However, Stabler proved to be on the downside of his career, throwing far too many interceptions. The team was at its best when running a two-tight end offense (after TE Dave Casper was picked up from the Raiders during the season) with Stabler throwing high percentage passes and Campbell running the ball often.
Houston lost in the wild card round, 27-7, at Oakland, which cost Head Coach Bum Phillips his job (and which in turn also caused Campbell to demand a contract re-negotiation). Campbell’s numbers, while still good, dropped off as new Head Coach Ed Biles sought to diversify the offense. But the three-season playoff run was over.
The 5’11”, 232-pound Earl Campbell’s physical style of running made him a formidable power runner, but also shortened his effective career. By the time he reached the end of the line, reunited with Coach Phillips in New Orleans, the player known as “The Tyler Rose” (he was from Tyler, Texas) was only a shell of the great back that he had been. But in 1980, he was the most dominant running back in the game, and one who largely carried his team as far as it could go.