Only mad dogs stay out in the million-degree heat of a Houston noon hour. The Snake, Kenny Stabler, is in the shade.
"Snake, I got the drop, right?" says Leon Gray, a tackle.
"On 5-27, 5-28, same drop," Snake says.
Stabler has long gray hair, like a hippie who grew old without noticing the world had turned. After an hour's football work in the sun, his hair is dark and wet and matted into mad dog strings. He sits on a rickety grandstand next to the Oilers' practice field. He blinks a lot to squeeze the sweat out of his eyes.
The Snake looks good. Not apple-cheeked, not after 20 years of goin' nowhere fast. Looks like a pirate who loves his work. The spotty beard is undecided between gray and brown and black. Sea-blue eyes squint through you. Looks real good. The flesh is holding up, he's tan, he's at the right weight, and if the crinkle-folds at his eyes say he has seen too much of too many nights, you can't tell it when he throws the football.
Kenny Stabler, rednecked and glad of it. The pride of Gulf Shores, Ala., the Redneck Riviera, home of the L.A. Pub and Grub, a saloon selling T-shirts that say the place "Installs and Services Hangovers." Stabler blasts over land in a four-wheel-drive monster (diamondbacks painted on the door) and skips across the Gulf in his 80-horse speedboat, name of Boogie. He's attempted marriage twice, and both fell incomplete.
He's been in more scrapes than Bear Bryant, his old college coach, has won games. The Bear once said of the Snake, "He looked like a good 'un but he always left his football game in some parked car the night before we played. Ah remember that Auburn game in . . ."
Anyway, now in this million-degree heat, Stabler is talking drops with an all-pro lineman. Gray has been in camp two months, and he is asking the Snake how deep to make his pass-blocking drop.
This is Kenny Stabler, who retired but couldn't stay away. This is the Snake, who thinks the firing of Bum Phillips may be the best thing that's happened to him in Houston, the Snake hwo wants to stick a football in Al Davis' ear just for the unholy fun of it.
Stabler has been in camp only two weeks, half the time wondering if his first wife would try to get him arrested for allegedly not paying child support. But he knows the answer to the all-pro's question.
"On the 61 comeback, the drop is five yards," Snake says.
Gray says uh-huh.
"61-B, same thing," Snake says.
Gray notices a photographer off to the left 10 yards. The guy has a lens the size of a mortar sleeve, the better to see the Snake, the cynosure of all eyes these days.
"Smile for the camera, Snake," Gray says.
"You smile," Snake says. "Get you some pub, the way I've been."
Gray says nope.
"Ain't that great pub I'm gettin'?" Snake says."Guilt by association."
The New York Times used a big chunk of last Sunday's front page to describe Stabler's association with a convicted felon, Nicholas Dudich of Perth Amboy, N.J.
Nick the Stick is what the Raiders called this old guy who hung around lobbies shaking their hands. That's all that went on, Stabler is said to have told the NFL. Stabler's bosses told The Washington Post this week that the quarterback denied ever betting or passing along information.
The NFL is expected to do no more than tell Stabler to cut out the chit-chat with Nick the Stick. Two FBI investigations turned up no conclusive evidence of impropriety, the league said, and the NFL looked into this one only routinely, checking out a news story.
Still, NBC-TV has run film clips of the Oilers-Jets game at Shea Stadium last season. That's a game mentioned by the Times as being played on a day when Stabler was seen with Dudich. The Jets, the betting underdog, won it, 31-28, in overtime. Stabler threw four interceptions.
He also threw four touchdown passes in a frenetic fourth quarter in which Houston came back from a 21-0 deficit.
"I'm familiar with it," Stabler said, referring to the NBC report.
On this million-degree day, the Snake was very cold now.
"I don't have nothing to say about it. I wish I could tell you, but I have no comment on it."
Ladd Herzeg, the Oilers' general manager, says the terrible thing is that every time Stabler throws an interception, there will be suspicion.
Herzeg himself looked up the play-by-play report of the Jets' game.
"Kenny threw for 388 yards, his best of the year," Herzeg began. "He threw for four TDs and hit 33 of 51.
"We were behind, 21-0, and Kenny brought us back in the fourth quarter to tie it, 21-all.
"Then Kenny brought us back to tie it, 28-28, on a long pass to Rich Caster . . . If any one play lost that game, it was a defensive mistake when one of our linebackers overshot a screen pass and it went for 40,50 yards. w
"It was not anything Kenny Stabler did or didn't do."
On Dudich, Stabler only will say the newspaper story came from Al Davis, the managing general partner of the Raiders who traded away Stabler two seasons ago. Davis kicked the Snake on the way out, too, saying he wanted his offense to go "vertically, not horizontally." Davis though Stabler couldn't get the long score any more, moving the ball only with short sideline passes.
Davis likely didn't cause the newspaper story. Stabler's immediate inclination to lash out at Davis, however, is a signal that no matter how laid-back this country redneck wants us to think he is, he is as cutthroat as -- as who? As Billy Kilmer?
"Hoo boy, Billy is my kind of guy," Stabler said. "Did more with less than anybody. Tough. Kilmer was tough. Ol' Whiskey. I love Whiskey."
Kilmer once said that producing a winning touchdown in the last two minutes is better than spending time with a woman.
"Oooh, I dunno 'bout that," Stabler said.
His pirate eyes danced and he tipped his Budweiser light cap back in consideration.
"It's close," he said, laughing. "Real close."
Kilmer and Bobby Layne, the tough ones -- they are Stabler's beacons, defiant lone wolves howling against the night forces.
Ask him, just for proof, if his arm is as strong at 35 at it was at 25. Here he is in the noonday sun, sitting atop a bench outside the Oilers' locker room. Two out-of-town writers have the first minipress conference with him since the Dudich story. Stabler is nervous, even shy, tapping a foot constantly, fidgeting with his hair and cap.
Nervous until that question about his age.
"My arm at 35 doesn't feel any weaker throwing the ball than 25," he said, his voice rising. "All you have to do is go ask the people who should know, go ask the receivers, go ask the players who play against us. Go ask them if there's any difference in the velocity or trajectory of the ball. I'll bet they don't see any difference."
What about Al Davis saying he can't throw long any more?
"Geez," Stabler shouted. "You can go get a drunk off the corner to tell you something you can write in the paper. You just have to consider the source. I never paid a whole helluva lot of attention to heresay and rumors. All that matters is Ws and Ls. Wins and losses. Who scores the most. That's all that count's. If you want to know about my arm, who's better to evaluate it than a wide receiver? Ask Ken Burrough."
Ken Burrough, Houston's veteran wide receiver: "Kenny is a jewel who does not crack under the most cracking pressure on the field or off the field. Unlike last season, we have deep routes in our patterns now and we don't have the smallest worry that Kenny will get the ball there. It's whether we get there or not. The ball will be there, I assure you. By Super Bowel time, all 27 other teams will wish Kenny the Snake had stayed in his cowboy boots flying his boat in the Gulf."
As good as some of Stabler's statistics were last year, others were miserable. He completed a club-record 293 of 454 passes, a league-leading 64.1 percent, for 3,202 yards (second best in his 11-year career). But he threw only 13 touchdown passes (his lowest since '73) and was intercepted 28 times (second only to 30 in '78). His touchdown-per-attempt ratio ranked only 24th in the league, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio was his worst ever.
These statistical pardoxes are explained here by trashing Bum Phillips' offense, saying that without the injured Burrough most of the year the Oilers' two tight-end offense became predicatable.Give the ball to Earl Campbell twice, then throw a little pass. It produced yards at midfield -- horizontally -- but didn't score much.
K. S. (Bud) Adams, the Oilers' owner 20 years, fired Phillips.
"If Stabler had been allowed to do the things he'd done at Oakland, we could've got to the Super Bowl," Adams said.
"Every owner has a strong, strong desire to get into the Super Bowl," Adams said. "Our offense was predictable, no imagination at all. So I made a very drastic move, firing the coach."
Small surprise that the new coach, Ed Biles, designed an offense especially for Stabler.
"It's made for an intelligent quarterback, not a Mad Bomber," Biles said. "It stretches the defense out so we can take advantage of the best runner in football, Earl Campbell and to give Kenny the opportunities he had at Oakland."
Until two weeks ago, no one knew Stabler wanted to play. He retired in mid-July.
"There was not a lot going on in my mind about it," he said. "After playing as long as I have, I was content with what I'd done (three times a Pro Bowler, twice conference Player of the year, once the league's MVP, the league's all-time leading percentage passer). And I wasn't sure I wanted to go through another coach and learning another system."
So he sat around the Riviera, soaking up beer.
When he couldn't watch football, he started changing mind.
"I tried to rtire, but I couldn't watch it. I don't know why, I just made a decision not to watch. I didn't feel comfortable watching it."
He felt comfortable playing, so he did.
No deep think on the Redneck Riviera.
Gimme my $400,000, Mr. Adams, and let's grab at the brass ring again.
First, though, they disposed of the matter of the Snake's first wife threatening to have him arrested if he set foot in California for allegedly not paying child support. The Oilers open in L.A. today. Then, too, the league is looking at one of Snake's buddies who, just out of prison, reportedly was caught carrying guns.
Next thing you know, Bear Bryant's going to be finding Snake in a parked car again and not let him suit up for Auburn.
Meanwhile, Ken Stabler is Bud Adams' man, no matter what anybody says about him.
"The Landrys, the Nolls, the Shulas, they all were disciplined coaches," Adams said, knocking Phillips more. "You certainly can't have players out to 4:30 at the Playboy Club in New York and play the Jets and expect to beat them. The coaches knew about it, too, and did nothing. Even with Stabler throwing four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, we lost."
Taking a wild stab, a reporter asked, "Was Stabler one of the guys out to 4:30?"
"Er . . .," Adams said. "I better not name names. But on every football team, at least 10 percent of them will be renegades, reprobates. If you don't discipline them, they'll take advantage of you."
Ladd Herzeg, the general manager, on the question of Stabler's presence at the Playboy Club: "I am supportive of our quarterback."
Ken Burrough, on the same subject: "If Kenny can party to 4:30 and throw four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, I'll escort him to the party."
When somebody asked Kenny Stabler if he'd been to the Playboy Club until 4:30 the morning of the Jets' game, the Snake stared into the fellow's eyes and said one word only.
"No," he said.
Maybe he left at 4:28.