There were six Johnsons playing in the Astrodome today, but only one wore white shoes. And for most of the 46,212 fans, Houston's Billy (White Shoes) Johnson was the only one who mattered, as he collected 263 yards in 14 touches of the football to carry the Oilers to a 21-16 decision that knocked the Cincinnati Bengals out of the NFL playoffs.
It was a wry twist of a familiar story for the Bengals. A year ago, the AFC Central title came down to the final game here, and Pittsburgh defeated Houston, 21-0, to send the Bengals home for Christmas. Today, the Bengals seemingly controlled their own destiny, but instead they lost and once again Pittsburg entered the round of eight.
The Steelers received the good news as they played the first guarter of a meaningless game in San Diego. The game here appeared meaningless to the Oilers, their playoff hopes long gone, but from the opening series it was apparent that the outcome meant a great deal to the home team.
Linebacker Robert Brazile sacked Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson on the third play from scrimmage, rose and waved his arms in glee to the screaming faithful. It set the tempo for what was to follow, as Anderson went down four more times and finally needed to be helpful from the field with 1-46 remaining.
"Pride - that's what it was all about," Brazile said. "We knew we couldn't get to the playoffs and we could have laid down. But when you put on the helment and shoulder pads you've got to have pride in yourself and in your team."
"That's one of the better games I've ever been in," said Houston coach Bum Phillips. "We proved today we were the better team. We proved as deserved the win we didn't get up there. We beat 'em twice but got one for it."
On Oct. 30 in Cincinnati, an official's error took away what would have been the winning touchdown for a 17-10 Houston victory and the Bengals eventually won, 13-10 in overtime. With its success today, Houston closed at 8-6, but had the other result been different the Oilers might have been playoff bound for the firsttime since merger.
"You can't forget," Brazile said. "It's there. We'll never get it back."
But if they couldn't reverse that one, the Oilers could get some revenge and that they did accomplish. Much of it was the work of the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Johnson, who caught six passes for 138 yeards, ran once for 31, returned five kickoffs for 81 and returned two punts for 13.
"I just wanted to play hard," Johnson said. "I wanted to win. In the last game of the season, you give till it hurts. We wanted to prove to people in our conference that we can play, that we are playoff contenders. And we wanted to show up Cincinnati, indirectly, because of that blown call."
The Bengals took a 6-0 lead on two field goals, then Johnson went to work. On third and six at the Cincinnati 36, quarterback Dan Pastorini hit Johnson at the 20. The little guy spun away from cornerback Jerry Anderson and raced to the two. Ronnie Coleman went the last foot on third down, Tom Dempsey converted and Houston was ahead to stay.
On the Bengals' next possession, punter Pat McInally took a low snap, ran left to escape the Oilers' rush and tried to punt. Mike Voight blocked it and Houston was 20 yards from the goal line.
On second down, Pastorini fired a 17-yard scoring pass to Johnson, Dempsey missed, leaving it 13-6 at halftime.
The score became 15-6 when Anderson was sacked in his end zone by rookie tackle James Young. Cincinnati's Lenvil Elliott was in rather obvious motion on the play, a fact that seemed to confuse Anderson.
The veteran quarterback got untracked long enough to guide the Bengals 43 yards following a poor Houston punt. He hit McInally on a 17-yarder to the 24, then flipped an Alley Oop-type aerial to the 6-6 Harvard graduate for an 11-yard touchdown.
Houston drove back for a 27-yard Dempsey field goal. On third and 15 from his 49, Pastorini hit Johnson with a short toss over the middle. Nine yards short of a first down, Johnson slipped out of linebacker Art Stringer's grasp and raced to the Cincinnati 22.
Anderson, from his 34, fired a 32-yard pass to tight end Bob Trumpy on the Bengals' next play, but as Trumpy was being hauled down by Bill Currier and Mike Reinfeldt, Gregg Bingham leaped over the top to knock the ball loose.
Greg Stemsick of the Oilers picked it up and ran 36 yards to the Cincinnati 30, setting up a Dempsey 26-yarder and a 21-13 lead.
After Anderson was forced out, sub John Reaves drove the Bengals from their 11 to the Houston two in three straight pass completions, plus a personal foul. But after three incomplete passes and an incredible delay-of-game penalty, Chris Bahr kicked a 24-yard field goal with 44 seconds remaining.
The ensuing on-sick kick was covered by the Oilers' Jimmy Giles and the Bengals were dead. The scoreboard displayed "Oilers Spoilers" for about the 20th time during the afternoon and the players and spectators waved at each other.
"One thing we've got to be proud of," Phillips said. "Our football players haven't deserted us and our fans haven't deserted us."
He might have added, "Wait till next year." For both these teams, that's all that was left.