December 29, 2010

1979: Injury-Wracked Oilers Upset Chargers in Divisional Playoff Game

Coming into the AFC Divisional playoff game at San Diego Stadium on December 29, 1979, the odds were not favorable for the visiting Houston Oilers. The team, coached by O.A. “Bum” Phillips, had finished second in the AFC Central with an 11-5 record, good enough to secure a wild card spot. They also won the Wild Card playoff against Denver the previous week, but it was at high cost. QB Dan Pastorini and WR Ken Burrough had gone down with groin and tailbone injuries, respectively, that would keep them out of the game at San Diego (Burrough would come in during the second half, but was used solely as a decoy). Even more significant was the loss of the consensus league MVP, RB Earl Campbell, who had run for 1697 yards and scored 19 touchdowns during the season and would also be unavailable due to a groin injury.

The San Diego Chargers had prospered in their first full season under offensive-minded Head Coach Don Coryell, going 12-4 to win the AFC West. The explosive passing attack was led by QB Dan Fouts, who set a new league record with 4082 yards through the air and included outstanding receivers in WRs John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner as well as TE Bob Klein (rookie TE Kellen Winslow played well until lost seven games into the season with a broken leg). The defense was solid, too, and it seemed certain that they would defeat the crippled Oilers.

All seemed to be going to plan when San Diego scored on its first possession of the game, driving 81 yards in 11 plays. Highlights were a 34-yard pass from Fouts to TE Greg McCrary to the San Diego 43 and, three plays later, a completion to Jefferson for 17 yards to the Houston 26. RB Clarence Williams capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run.

However, another San Diego drive into Houston territory during the first quarter ended when Oilers SS Vernon Perry intercepted a Fouts pass at his own 18 to shut down the potential scoring threat.

Midway through the second quarter, Perry made a big play on special teams when he blocked a 26-yard field goal attempt by San Diego’s Mike Woods, then picked up the ball and ran 57 yards before being forced out of bounds at the San Diego 28. Five plays later, Toni Fritsch kicked a 26-yard field goal to make the score 7-3.

Before the half ended, Perry struck again, intercepting a second pass; he lateraled to FS Mike Reinfeldt (pictured at top), who picked up seven yards to the San Diego 38 yard line. On the fourth play of the Houston possession, QB Gifford Nielsen ran 18 yards to the San Diego four, and after two more running plays got the ball down to the one. Nielsen threw an incomplete pass to stop the clock and, at that point, Fritsch kicked a field goal. However, the Chargers were penalized for having 12 players on the field and, with the ball moved half the distance, Coach Phillips gambled. He took the points off the board and the Oilers went for it with fourth down and less than a yard to go with 19 seconds left on the clock. It paid off when RB Boobie Clark took a pitchout and found running room to his left to score a touchdown that put Houston ahead, 10-7, at halftime.

The Chargers regained the lead on their first possession of the third quarter. Starting at the San Diego 35, Fouts completed passes of 20 yards to Joiner and 16 to Klein, and with the help of a roughing the passer penalty, the ball was at the Houston 14. Williams ran for six yards and then RB Lydell Mitchell finished off the drive with an 8-yard TD run.

Later in the period, CB J.C. Wilson intercepted a Fouts pass at the San Diego 45. RB Rob Carpenter, who was filling in for Campell although playing hurt himself, was thrown for a one-yard loss and Nielsen threw an incomplete pass. Facing a third-and-13 situation, Nielsen connected with WR Mike Renfro over the middle, who proceeded to break a tackle and run for a 47-yard touchdown. There was 2:05 left in the third quarter, but that would prove to be the end of the scoring.

San Diego had two more shots in the fourth quarter, and both ended in Perry interceptions. With 3:18 left in the game, Perry picked off his third pass at the Houston 35 and his last interception came on a desperation pass by Fouts intended for Jefferson with two seconds remaining in the game. The Oilers came away with a stunning 17-14 win.

The Chargers won the statistical battle, outgaining Houston (380 yards to 259) and accumulating more first downs (25 to 15). However, they also turned the ball over five times (all by interceptions) to just one suffered by the Oilers.

Vernon Perry was the star, intercepting four passes, a NFL playoff-record. He also had the blocked field goal and return that was one of the contest’s most significant plays. Perry had gone undrafted out of Jackson State and played two years with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes before joining the Oilers in ’79. He had intercepted just three passes during the regular season.

“We knew when we signed him as a free agent out of Canada that the kid was a player,” Coach Bum Phillips said of Perry. “If the Canadian League never does anything else for the NFL, they did something for us.”

“We played the pass all the time,” said Perry. “I was surprised he (Fouts) kept coming at me, but I'm glad that he did because I got four of them (interceptions).”

Offensively for the Oilers, second-year QB Gifford Nielsen (pictured at left) performed ably in place of Pastorini, completing 10 of 19 passes for 111 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Campbell-less Oilers still gained 148 yards on the ground, with Rob Carpenter leading the way with 67 yards on 18 carries. Carpenter also caught four passes for 23 yards, while Mike Renfro, with his one long 47-yard TD catch, was the team’s receiving yardage leader.

As for San Diego, Dan Fouts threw for 333 yards as he completed 25 of 47 passes, but he had no touchdown passes and gave up the five interceptions. Bob Klein caught 5 passes for 41 yards while Charlie Joiner had 81 yards on four receptions and John Jefferson was right behind with 70 yards on four catches as well. The Chargers gained only 63 yards on 19 rushing attempts, with Lydell Mitchell gaining 33 yards on 8 carries with a TD and Clarence Williams accumulating 30 yards on 11 rushes, also with a score.

“I've been around football 31 years, and I've never seen a team with more character,” summed up Bum Phillips regarding the Oilers.

“We just made too many mistakes, that's all,” Dan Fouts said from the San Diego perspective. “We didn't play very well and they did.”

The Oilers lost the following week in the AFC Championship game to the division-rival Pittsburgh Steelers, despite a 75-yard Vernon Perry interception return for a touchdown. San Diego went to the postseason in each of the next three seasons, making it as far as the conference championship game in the next two, but never made it to the Super Bowl during the Coryell era.