The Redskins' dreams of pulling off a stunning season-opening upset vanished yesterday when Houston capitalized on four crucial fourth-quarter mistakes by Washington to rally to a 29-27 triumph at RFK Stadium.
Oiler fullback Earl Campbell, enjoying his second-best day as a pro by gaining 166 yards, scored the winning touchdown with 117 seconds left in the game to erase what had been a 27-13 Redskin lead earlier in the final quarter.
Campbell's touchdown, his second of the game, was set up when Washington fullback John Riggins fumbled on his 20 and the Oilers recovered at the 29 with 5:36 left.
Earlier in the period, the Redskins had two consecutive penalties on Mike Bragg punts that cost them 41 yards in field position and led to a 26-yard field goal by Toni Fritsch, his third of the day, that pulled the Oilers to within 27-22.
After the Oilers took the lead, the Redskins had one last chance, even after giving up the ball on a fourth-down Joe Theismann interception by Mike Reinfeldt, who returned to the Redskin 18.
The Redskins used their final two time-outs and the Oilers simply fell on the ball four times, allowing the Redskins to take over on their own 24 with 26 seconds left.
Theismann passed 28 yards to Ricky Thompson, who was tackled on the Houston 48 with 10 seconds left. Theismann then rolled out to the right and went out of bounds on the 37 with one second left. But tight end Jean Fugett was called for motion, nullifying Theismann's run which would have allowed a 55-yard field goal try by Mark Moseley. Instead, with one second left, Moseley tried a 70-yarder that was far short.
"It's a shame to let a game we had a chance to win get away from us like that," said Redskin Coach Jack Pardee. "But football is like this. Great athletes can make great plays to win games."
Those great Houston athletes, especially the relentless Campbell and the elusive Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, nullified what had been an opportunistic day by the Redskin offense.
Washington turned three interceptions of Dan Pastorini passes into 17 points. The Redskins wound up getting two TDs from Fugett, who was on the receiving end of eight- and 30-yard passes from Theismann, a one-yard score from Benny Malone and a pair of Moseley field goals of 27 and 39 yards.
On a day when the Washington defense surrendered 365 total yards, Pardee left himself wide open to second-guessers in the midst of Houston's last-period rally.
During the Oiler march to Fritsch's final field goal, the Redskins broke up a Pastorini third-down pass from the Washington 29. Houston was called for holding on the play and Pardee elected to take the penalty instead of letting Fritsch, who earlier was successful from the 46 and 41, likely get a call to try a 46-yard field goal.
So on a third and 20, Pastorini, frantically trying to avoid the Redskin rush, found Johnson over the middle on a dump pass. Johnson eluded three tacklers and turned a 10-yard gain into a 29-yard masterpiece to the Redskin 10.
"They wanted a field goal but we knew he was out of field goal range (by accepting the penalty)," Pardee explained. "If we held them, it might have been a big difference."
Just as crucial to the Redskin fate was that sequence of plays minutes before the penalty decision in what Pardee called "a punting fiasco."
Houston had just scored on a 14-yard pass to Johnson to cut the Redskin lead to 27-19. The Redskins could not move the ball and Bragg had to punt. He booted the ball 50 yards from the Washington 21 and Houston was stopped at its 30.
But the Redskins were called for having 12 men on the field, a mistake Pardee attributed to the intense heat and humidity on the field that had sent many of his players to the sidelines with leg cramps.
"We had made three or four changes in the punt-coverage team," he said. "Buddy Hardeman was out with cramps and we weren't aware he was back in. I'm not sure whose fault it was."
Pete Wysocki, who was benched, as expected, for rookie Rich Milot at right linebacker, tried unsuccessfully to get off the field before the punt.
"It was a mixup," he said. "I was replacing a guy who was replacing someone else who was replacing someone else. It broke down. It really hurt us."
Bragg booted a 36-yarder on his second try, but this time Dallas Hickman was caught holding. So on the third attempt, Bragg got off a 38-yarder that was returned to the Redskin 29. Seven plays later, Fritsch hit his 26-yarder.
On first down in the ensuing series, Riggins was hit straight on by Houston's Curley Culp and fumbled, the Oilers recovering on the Redskin 29.
"I just dropped the ball," said Riggins, who had staged a one-day walkout last week over a contract dispute. "There were a lot of people around and I don't know who hit me."
Houston, scenting victory, went with its bread and butter, Campbell. He picked up 14 yards on four carries to work the Oilers to the eight, where they faced a fourth and two. Campbell took the handoff, slipped, but righted himself and squirted five yards up the middle to the three. First down.
On the next play, the burst up the middle for the touchdown and Fritsch's conversion gave the Oilers a 29-17 lead.
"Darn it, but if he didn't slip and still make that first down," said Pardee. "But he can do things like that to hurt you."
Campbell wound up carrying the ball 32 times, a career high. His 166 yards was topped only by a 190-yard effort last year against Miami. And 110 of his yards yesterday came in the second half, when Houston needed it.
The Oilers, a notorious late-rallying team last season, dominated the fourth period. They had the ball 11 minutes and limited Washington to five plays during one 12-minute span in which Houston scored 16 points. For the half, Houston gained 276 yards.
"We didn't have the ball long enough to sit on our lead," said Theismann, who was seven of 14 passing for 123 yards and one interception. "I wish we could have. And when we finally did get the ball, we were in a two-minute drill."
Before the Houston comeback, Redskin fans were dreaming of last year's season opener, when Washington upset highly favored New England.
The Redskins scored 17 second-period points yesterday to take a 17-6 halftime lead. A new-wrinkle defense, which had safety Ken Houston playing an inside linebacker along with Don Hover -- "just a plain college defense," according to tackle Diron Talbert -- had shut off Campbell. And Pastorini's erratic throws had constantly frustrated the rest of Houston's offense.
Two Fritsch field goals, one set up when Hardeman raced 37 yards only to fumble his first punt return as a Redskin staked Houston to a 6-0 first quarter advantage.
But Hardeman, replacing the waived Tony Green, ripped off a 52-yard return, running right past three early Houston tacklers, to ignite the Redskins, who got on the board with a 37-yard Moseley field goal 2:46 into the second period.
Pastorini tossed his first interception on the next series while being blitzed by Ken Houston. Rookie Ray Waddy, who replaced the cut Gerard Williams in the Redskins' nickel defense, picked off the pass on the Houston 44.
Theismann made his first completion, a 13-yarder to Danny Buggs, and Benny Malone galloped around right end for 10 more. The Oilers were called for a face mask penalty on that play and Washington had a first down at the nine.
Two plays later, Fugett ran a post pattern and Theismann found him with a bullet from eight yards out to put Washington in front for the first time, 10-6, with 7:16 left in the half.
Pastorini, who said his right shoulder, separated last season, was healthy, although he threw as if it was ailing, was intercepted again when his pass was deflected by tight end Mike Barber into the hands of Lemar Parrish.
Washington then drove 36 yards, with a 14-yard dash by Malone the key play. Malone scored the touchdown on a one-yard high dive: 17-6 with 3:17 to go.
Early in the third quarter Campbell countered Malone's touchdown with a 13-yard run. Theismann got the points right back on the Redskins' most impressive offensive display of the game.
He engineered a 63-yard march that was kept alive on a scramble-and-17-yard comeback pass to Fugett. Then the Redskins caught Houston on a safety blitz and Theismann softly lofted a pass to Fugett, who caught the ball on his fingertips in the end zone for a 24-13 Redskin margin.
Until this juncture, Washington had been playing the kind of mistake-free football Pardee thought was necessary for his team to win this season. But the Redskins suddenly began making errors and Houston took control of the game.
And the coup de grace of blunders was the motion penalty on Fugett with one second left, nullifying Theismann's out-of-bounds scramble for 11 yards and moving Moseley's field-goal attempt from a merely long 55 yards to a merely impossible 70.
"I don't think I was in motion," Fugett said. "I was down and looking at Joe. But what can you say? The officials saw it differently. We know we should have won the game. It's just too bad we let it get away from us."