November 20, 2011

1978: Campbell Leads Oilers Past Dolphins in Monday Night Thriller

The Houston Oilers were a team on the rise as they hosted the Miami Dolphins at the Astrodome on November 20, 1978. Under Head Coach Bum Phillips, the Oilers were 7-4 and coming off a dramatic come-from-behind win at New England the previous week. The key to their resurgence was rookie RB Earl Campbell (pictured above), the 1977 Heisman Trophy-winner out of Texas, whose power running fueled the ball-control offense.

The visiting Dolphins, under Head Coach Don Shula, had missed the postseason the past three years but were 8-3 and winners of their previous three contests. QB Bob Griese had missed the first five games with a knee injury, but was back in action. The proficient running attack was led by offseason-addition RB Delvin Williams, who was leading the league in rushing coming into the game at Houston.

There were 50,290 fans on hand as well as a national television audience for the Monday night contest. In the first quarter, Miami drove to the first score of the game with the help of Griese’s passing (he hit on four of five attempts), including one of 27 yards down the middle to WR Nat Moore that, in turn, set up a ten-yard touchdown throw to Moore

The Oilers responded with Pastorini completing passes to TE Mike Barber for gains of 29 and 12 yards, the latter to the Miami four yard line, setting up Campbell’s first TD from a yard out with 3:32 to play in the opening period.

Moving into the second quarter, DE Elvin Bethea sacked Griese on a third down play that forced the Dolphins to punt. Houston drove 87 yards in seven plays, helped along by a 38-yard pass interference call. WR Mike Renfro gained nine yards on an end-around run and then caught a pass from Pastorini for eight more. A completion to WR Ken Burrough gained 13 yards to the Miami 18 and on a third-down play, Pastorini avoided the blitz and connected on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Barber.

Down 14-7, Griese completed five of six passes on a drive that ended with a one-yard scoring plunge by Williams with 21 seconds remaining in the second quarter. The score was tied at 14-14 at the half. After thirty minutes of play, the Dolphins defense had held Campbell to 44 yards on the ground, but it would be a different matter in the second half.

The Oilers went back in front at 21-14 in the third quarter when Campbell ran for a six-yard TD, but the Dolphins drove 89 yards and FB Leroy Harris scored from a yard out to again knot the score at 21-21.

The evenly-matched teams had scored a touchdown apiece for the first three quarters. The tie was broken once again early in the fourth quarter, this time as the result of a safety as Miami DE A.J. Duhe sacked Pastorini in the end zone for two points. The Dolphins then got the ball back on the free kick with excellent field position at the Houston 45 and seemed poised to put the game away. But in a key series, the Oilers defense held and Miami was forced to punt.

Houston got the ball back and put together an 80-yard drive in which Pastorini connected with WR Ken Burrough on a 24-yard pass play and Campbell twice converted third downs with runs of six and eight yards, respectively. With less than five minutes to go, Campbell capped the possession as he ran around right end for a 12-yard touchdown that put the Oilers back in front at 28-23

The Dolphins responded by driving into Houston territory, with WR Duriel Harris gaining 31 yards on a pass reception along the way, but FS Mike Reinfeldt deflected a Griese pass intended for TE Andre Tillman at the eleven yard line and LB Steve Kiner intercepted. The turnover proved to be decisive. After running the ball three times to gain another first down, Campbell took off on a sweep to the right, got a key block from OT Greg Sampson, made a move on SS Tim Foley, and charged down the sideline for an electrifying 81-yard touchdown run, his fourth of the game. While Griese threw to WR Jimmy Cefalo for an 11-yard score at the end, it only narrowed Houston’s winning margin of 35-30.

Miami outgained the Oilers (454 yards to 406) and had more first downs (27 to 23). However, the Dolphins turned the ball over twice, including the big interception that set up the decisive touchdown run, while Houston turned the ball over once.

Earl Campbell was the game’s biggest star as he ran for 199 yards on 28 carries with four touchdowns. Dan Pastorini made good use of slip screen passes (passes to a wide receiver who has stepped back behind the line of scrimmage), going to the air 15 times and completing 10 for 156 yards with a TD and an interception. Mike Barber led the Oilers in pass receiving with 3 catches for 56 yards, including a score.

For Miami, Bob Griese (pictured below) was in top form as he completed 23 of 33 passes for 349 yards with two touchdowns and one intercepted. Delvin Williams was well-contained as he rushed for 73 yards on 18 attempts that included one TD. Nat Moore caught 3 passes for 84 yards and a score while Duriel Harris had 4 pass receptions for 79 yards and Leroy Harris grabbed 5 passes out of the backfield for 25 yards (he also rushed 12 times for 51 yards and a TD).

“I just try and do my best, that's all,” said the soft-spoken Earl Campbell afterward, who passed Williams as the NFL’s leading rusher. “Sometimes my best looks like my worst, but it's not important how it looks. What matters is how we do, whether we win.”

“After the safety we got the ball in good position and didn’t do anything,” said Bob Griese. “That was the key series. They have a good defense and you’re not going to score every time you get the ball.”

“Give credit to Don Shula for making my night a track meet,” said veteran CB Willie Alexander. “He's one of the greatest of all time. His game plan was magnificent. We didn't know where they were coming from next.”

“It was two great offenses on the field tonight and they really carried it to each other,” summed up Steve Kiner.

Houston ended up second in the AFC Central with a 10-6 record and qualified for a wild card slot, as did 11-5 Miami in the AFC East. The two clubs met again in the Wild Card playoff round and the Oilers again came away winners, this time by a score of 17-9. Houston won again at the Divisional level over New England but lost decisively to the division-rival Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game.

Earl Campbell led the NFL with a then-rookie record 1450 yards on 302 carries with 13 touchdowns. The player nicknamed “The Tyler Rose” (he was from Tyler, Texas) was a consensus first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection, and received league MVP honors from the Pro Football Writers Association and Newspaper Enterprise Association, as well as being named Offensive Player of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press. It was the beginning of a relatively brief but brilliant pro career in which Campbell led the league in rushing in each of his first three seasons, and the AFC in his first four.