Warren Moon shut his eyes to the screaming ring of faces, the crowd of more than 45,000 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that amused itself by creating an ocean wave of false chatter. The noise circled the darkening arena, moving from one section to the next in orchestrated chaos. And Moon, the quarterback for the Houston Oilers, saw it all.
Moon would not win this day; he would lose, 42-10, would be embarrassed, humiliated, hurt. Four losses in as many games.
And last Sunday, there would be more of the same. The Oilers lost their fifth straight and Moon did not play in the second half. He was sidelined by a stomach virus, his coach, Hugh Campbell said, and Oliver Luck took over at quarterback in the 27-10 defeat by the New Orleans Saints. Campbell did say Moon would start this Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Up in Canada, in the league he owned with his great passing arm and speed and savvy, Moon had led the Edmonton Eskimos to five Grey Cup championships and acquired a reputation as the great one the National Football League overlooked.
So impressive was the former University of Washington star that a bidding war among NFL teams made him the highest-paid quarterback in the game. He chose Houston's offer of $6 million for five years over Seattle's proposed $5 million for five. But last week, on a grim day in Georgia, there would be no good song sung in the name of Warren Moon.
"I'm bruised," Moon said when the game with the Falcons was over, sitting alone at his locker. "I'm a little hurt. But I'm okay, I'll come back. We'll talk about it. Give me a shower."
He put a squirt of shampoo in his hair and walked away, through a crowd of reporters begging explanations from running back Earl Campbell, who gained only 49 yards on 17 carries and appeared sullen and hangdog most of the afternoon, unwilling to pay what somebody was calling "the price."
The price was trying to survive behind offensive linemen such as Dean Steinkuhler, Harvey Salem and Mike Munchak, behemoths playing with pain but no gain, and running into terrible walls of human bodies that refused to give.
No one paid as much as Moon. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 208 yards, most of it coming after falling down, 21-0, in the first quarter, and all of it under immense pressure. "It's kinda scary," he said later. "I talked to the offensive line about it. The defense knew we had to pass the ball, and they got down in track stances, angling in. You know what they're going to do. They're going to come after you. They're out to kill you. It's tough knowing that, but you have to stand up and take it."
He took it, all right. In simply choosing to play for the Oilers, Moon took on a challenge he figured "would be tough, real tough, but I had been through some tough times before. There were other teams I could have gone to, but I was determined that this is what I wanted."
Campbell wanted and estimated he could gain 4,000, maybe even 5,000 yards before retiring, but coming off knee surgery in the offseason and playing on a team that lost its first 10 games last season and finished 2-14, such a feat seems dubious at best.
Against the Falcons, he played as if mocking his former glory, and hung his head in a posture of defeat, walking off the field after changes of possession in what looks like a somnambulistic trance. Such an absence of will only increased the pressure on Moon, who assumed the leadership role Campbell abdicated.
Moon said, "I think I did more talking today than I have since I've been here. This team, I knew when I came to it, was in need of leadership. But I had no idea it was in as much need of leadership as it is.
"I think I'm going to have to step up a ittle bit more and be more vocal. I'm not really a vocal player. I try and lead by example, you know -- how I play on the field. But I think this team is so young they're looking for somebody to rally around. "I guess Earl was that guy before. Hopefully, he can still be in that situation, but it's hard for him when we're behind and he's no longer a factor in the ball game and sitting on the bench."
Even under adverse conditions, Moon tried to remain upbeat. He apologized for a weak defensive effort by examining his own performance, which included a number of fumbled handoffs to Campbell, and said, "We can't make a lot of mistakes on offense, especially when they're having problems. The defense has been giving up some points, it's true, but this is a team thing.
"If there's any way we can help them -- say, like keeping the ball a little longer -- we'll help by keeping them off the field. We can't win with them out there all the time."
Hugh Campbell, who coached Moon in Canada, has said his quarterback's biggest adjustment would be getting accustomed to NFL defenses and reading keys, "and knowing what they're doing.
"There's so much to being experienced at quarterback," Campbell said. "He's got some very valuable experience, which you can't just throw out the window, but he doesn't have the experience of the NFL. It's going to take him some time."
Moon finds himself without much time to deploy the offensive weapons that made him one of the best Canadian Football League players ever. He knew all along it would be tough, he said time and again, but he was "certainly tough enough to withstand it all.
"There's pressure, but I really don't feel as though the world's on my shoulders. I was hoping it wouldn't get to that. I was hoping I'd be able to make my adjustment as the season went on and maybe by the halfway point feel very comfortable and be able to take control.
"But it seems those things will have to come a little earlier from me . . . We'll get experience, sooner or later. And things'll turn around."