There's somethin' goin' round Down in Houston town . . . Contagious as can be There's no immunity Reachin' a fever pitch It's called The Super Bowl Itch. Ken Burrough and the B team singing "The Super Bowel Itch
Earl Campbell, who carries a tune almost as well as he carries a football, emerged from the Houston Oiler dressing room singing his team's praises. "There's somethin' goin' round . . .
Down in Houston town, people believe that the Oilers, who play the Redskins Sunday at RFK Stadium, are ready to scratch their way to the top. Every season has its 'Cinderella" team and last year Houston was it, plowing through the 1978 regular season (10-6 record) and into the playoffs. It was Houston's first postseason appearance since 1961.
The Oilers beat Miami and New England -- both on the road -- to advance to the American Football Conference championship game against the Steelers. But they arrived in Pittsburgh only to find that glass slippers could not cut it on the icy field. They lost, 34-5.
Now the Oilers want people to know that last season was no fluke. In fact, Coach O. A. (Bum) Phillips says the Cinderella tag is a bad rap. "A Cinderella team is the ugly duckling that turns pretty. It implies that you don't have the ability, but win anyway.We expected to win. We thought we were pretty."
Of course, Phillips expects to do well this season. A coach of a professional football team "can't answer but one thing," he says, when asked to prophesy about a coming season. "I've got to say we're going to do good."
But Phillips, who says his itch is concerned with beating Washington this weekend in the season opener, also is concerned about the rash of injuries that has plagued the Oilers since training camp opened.
The Oilers would like nothing better than to "throw out the doctors, and throw out the pills," as Kenny Burrough's disco hit would have it. But so far that has not been possible. "We're going to make it illegal for anyone else to get hurt," said Phillips.
"Mike Renfro and Rich Caster, two flankers who played last year, have not been able to play because of knee injuries," Phillips said. Both are expected to play some on Sunday.
"We lost our left guard, our left tackle and then the replacement at left guard," Phillips continued.
George Reihner, the starting left guard in 1978, and John Schumacher, his replacement, were placed on the injured reserve list yesterday. Greg Sampson, last year's starting left tackle, had a brain clot removed last month and will not play this season. There is some question whether he ever will play again.
Houston's offensive line, which led the league in fewest sacks of quarterbacks (17 last season), will be "all right," said Phillips. "But what happens if someone else gets hurt, I don't know."
Leon Gray, the two-time All-Pro tackle for New England, rescued a team in distress when he was traded to Houston by the Patriots last month.
The timing was felicitous for Houston but not for Gray. He was in the delivery room helping his wife through the birth of their first child, Leon Jr., the morning of the trade. "I went to call the team to tell them I was a father," he recalled, "and they said, 'We've got news for you, too. You've been traded.'"
Gray has not yet had time to get settled in Houston but he has got the bug. "I've had the Super Bowl itch now, for three or four years."
But as Burrough's song says, "There's just one remedy, an Oiler victory, Dante will call the plays, Campbell will run the maze."
Quarterback Dan Pastorini, who has been calling the plays for the Oilers since his rookie season in 1971, says he is "still being held together with tape and wire and gum." Pastorini, who made the flak jacket famous last season, now is also wearing a special brace designed to protect the rib he broke during a preseason game against the New York Jets.
A pulled muscle in his shoulder did not make throwing any easier. Pastorini was sent to a kinesthesiast in Atlanta who "loosened up the shoulder" with acupuncture treatments. "My arm's full strength," he said. "I can throw as far as ever. But I hope I don't have to."
The reason Pastorini no longer has to throw as far as he can is, of course, Campbell, the first rookie to lead the league in rushing since Jim Brown in 1957.
"Earl did a lot better than anybody thought a rookie could do," said Andy Bourgeois, the Oiler backfield coach. "He added a new dimension to our offense. He made Pastorini a premier quarterback. In the past, he had to throw the bomb. Now with the rushing threat, he can be a real clever devil."
Campbell's history of pulled hamstrings has prompted some people to question whether he is being over-used. Phillips said, "Most of the people who are concerned about us using him too much are our opponents."
Houston's defense, which ranked 24th in the league against the pass, will be faster this year. But the changes in the Oilers are more subtle than the ones that show up on rosters and depth charts. Some teams have what coaches like to call "a winning attitude." The Oilers never heard that cliche.
This, after all, was a team that finished 1-13 two years in a row.
The Oilers, who gushed the most about the new attitude are the ones who remember when. Burrough, who "plays a little better than he sings," said, "I was 1-13 at New Orleans before I came here in 1971.I was experienced.
"It was not pleasant. You got negative feelings from the service stations to the grocery stores all over Texas."
Elvin Bethea, a perennial standout at defensive end among the misfits, also remembers: "The one game we won we celebrated like it was the Super Bowl. We had champagne. Cheap champagne."
In the old days, Bethea continued, the Oiler defense was on the field so much, "we didn't even have time to take a drink of water. One game, we were in for 82 plays. I remember coming to the sidelines, tired as hell, I grabbed a glass of water and someone yelled, 'defense back on the field.' I just threw it over my head and went back."
Last year when the Oilers' time of possession was, according to Pat Peppler, the assistant general manager, "proportional," Bethea felt "left out. It was like they wouldn't let me play with them anymore. It felt funny being on the sidelines."
Things have changed so much, he says, "they even want us on Monday Night Football."
Still Bethea knows that "some people think we were just a fluke." But he believes that the Oilers "will live happily ever after. We are going to make them eat their words, their pencils and their paper."
Pastorini, who took enough flak during the lean years to make you wonder why he was not wearing a flak jacket then, agrees. This Cinderella team, he says "is going to the ball. And we're going to dance our butts off."