September 4, 2011
On the morning of September 4, 1983 it seemed doubtful that Lynn Dickey would start at quarterback for the Green Bay Packers later that day in the season-opening game against the Houston Oilers. During the preseason, he had suffered from back spasms and, more recently, missed practice the preceding Friday due to severe headaches as well as the effects of a virus.
“He looked terrible at breakfast,” said seventeenth-year veteran PK Jan Stenerud. “I didn't think there was any way he could play.”
But when the game started before 44,073 at the Astrodome, the eleventh-year veteran and ex-Oiler was behind center for the Packers. Dickey not only played, but excelled as he completed 18 straight passes to start the game. His first incompletion came on an overthrown pass intended for WR John Jefferson with 1:12 left in the half, but by then he had tossed four touchdown passes.
The first had been a 25-yard completion to TE Paul Coffman in the first quarter. Houston responded with a 49-yard field goal by Florian Kempf and then took the lead with a 47-yard TD pass from QB Archie Manning to WR Tim Smith.
Green Bay dominated the second quarter, though, as Dickey connected with Jefferson twice on scoring passes of five and 13 yards and then with RB Gerry Ellis for an 11-yard touchdown. The Packers were ahead by 28-10, but the lead would prove to not be secure in the second half.
Star RB Earl Campbell scored three touchdowns of his own for the Oilers in the third and fourth quarters. The first came in the third period from seven yards out and was countered by a 46-yard Stenerud field goal. Campbell ran for an eight-yard TD in the fourth quarter, and the home team was now only a touchdown behind at 31-24.
After Dickey threw his only interception of the game, in which LB Robert Abraham gave Houston possession at its own 36, the Oilers tied the score at 31-31 when Campbell scored his third touchdown, from one yard out. Green Bay responded with a 74-yard scoring bomb from Dickey to WR James Lofton to go ahead 38-31 with 3:13 to go in regulation.
With 48 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, RB Larry Moriarty dove into the end zone from two yards away to cap an 81-yard drive and, with the successful extra point, the contest was again tied at 38-38 and remained so at the end of regulation.
Green Bay’s backup QB David Whitehurst took over for the first overtime possession as Dickey was again suffering from headaches so severe that he needed to leave the field. Starting at the 17, Whitehurst completed a key 10-yard pass to WR Phillip Epps in a third down situation, RB Eddie Lee Ivery had runs of 9, 12, and 8 yards, and the Packers drove to the Houston 24, from where the 40-year-old Stenerud booted the game-winning 42-yard field goal at just under six minutes into the extra period. The high-scoring contest ended with Green Bay on top, 41-38.
The Oilers, playing catchup throughout the second half, outgained the Packers (498 yards to 479) and led in first downs (28 to 22). Overall, the statistics were as close as the final score, with Houston holding a 15-yard edge in rushing (150 to 135) and gaining just four more passing yards (348 to 344). Each team turned the ball over twice.
Lynn Dickey was successful on 27 of 31 passes for 333 yards with five touchdowns and the one interception – the TD passes tied the club record, while the consecutive completions streak of 18 broke the existing standard. James Lofton caught 8 passes for 154 yards and the one long TD, while John Jefferson contributed 6 receptions for 60 yards and two scores. Eddie Lee Ivery paced the running attack with 71 yards on 12 carries.
For the Oilers, Archie Manning went to the air 34 times and completed 22 for 348 yards with a TD and two picked off. Lost in the defeat was Tim Smith’s 8 catches for 197 yards and a touchdown, as well as Earl Campbell’s 123 yards on 27 attempts that included three TDs before he had to leave the game late in the fourth quarter with a bruised knee.
“I'm glad it's over. In the first quarter I was wishing it was over,” said Dickey. “I really don't remember half of it. I never knew anything about a streak. When your line gives you time and your receivers don't drop the ball, you are going to have a good day.”
“It was a great game, gentlemen,” Oilers Coach Ed Biles said to his defeated team. “It's unfortunate we didn't win it but we can't give a better effort. We grew up in the second half.”
For the Packers, it was an encouraging beginning to a season of great expectations following a 5-3-1 record in the strike-shortened ’82 campaign that had the team in the postseason for the first time under Head Coach Bart Starr. Dickey and the passing game had been a big part of that, especially following the arrival of John Jefferson, disgruntled in San Diego, in ’81 to combine with fleet James Lofton and the productive tight end, Paul Coffman.
Alas, any visions of a return to the glory years of the Lombardi era were dashed in what ended up being a disappointing 8-8 season in 1983. Dickey was certainly productive, throwing for a league-leading 4458 yards and 32 touchdowns - however, he also led the NFL with 29 interceptions. Lofton (58 receptions, 1300 yards) and Coffman (54 catches, 814 yards, 11 TDs) were again highly successful, and so was Jefferson (57 receptions, 830 yards) who chafed at being used more as a possession receiver. The defense played poorly, however, and overall the club was as inconsistent as the record indicated. It spelled the end for Starr as head coach after nine years at the helm.
For Houston, the opening-game loss was the team’s eighth consecutive regular season defeat. The Oilers, one of the AFC’s strongest teams under Head Coach Bum Phillips in the late 70s, suffered through a dreadful 1-8 year in 1982 under Biles. With poor play by the offensive line combined with the effects of wear-and-tear from carrying a heavy workload since his rookie season in 1978, Earl Campbell’s production dropped off significantly. His performance against the Packers was heartening, and he went on to rush for 1301 yards and 12 touchdowns in ‘83. But 34-year-old Archie Manning, obtained from New Orleans during the ’82 season, started just three games for the Oilers as the club lost another nine straight contests and finished at a miserable 2-14. By that point, Ed Biles was gone as head coach and Chuck Studley guided the club the rest of the way in the interim.