Oilers' run-and-shoot still draws critics' fire

August 18, 1991|By Tim Cowlishaw | Tim Cowlishaw,Dallas Morning News

SAN ANTONIO DDHC VPB — SAN ANTONIO -- This time last year, Warren Moon was, in his words, faking it. He was in charge of the Houston Oilers' new run-and-shoot offense. And after it failed to produce more than 10 points in preseason losses to the Detroit Lions and the New York Giants, he didn't think it would work.

"A little apprehensive? I was a lot apprehensive," he said. "I didn't know a whole lot about the offense, and it was hard for me to be a believer.

"I wasn't the only skeptic. But because of the position I had to play, I had to more or less act like a believer. I faked it a little, gave it a chance, and it ended up working out."

That would be Moon's understated way of saying the four-wide receiver, no-tight end approach allowed the Oilers to develop into the NFL's best offense. The proof: first in offensive yards, second in scoring, first in first downs, first in pass completion percentage, first in third-down conversions.

What seemed like a controversial approach to offense last summer has become the strength of the Oilers, who play host to the Dallas Cowboys at the Astrodome today.

Holdouts and injuries have made this preseason another struggle for the Oilers, but the offensive potential could put all that in the past by the regular-season opener Sept. 1.

"Not only did this team lead the league in total offense, but they did the things that critics said they couldn't do," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "People said, 'Yeah, you'll score a lot of points, but you'll leave your defense on the field too much.' "

The Oilers' defense was on the field 890 plays last season, fewer than any other NFL defense. That statistic -- and the immense offensive numbers -- didn't cause offensive coordinators around the league to overhaul their playbooks. In fact, Detroit, the only other "pure" run-and-shoot team last season, has added tight ends and decided to mix it up.

That leaves the Oilers to carry the run-and-shoot banner, and Gilbride and Moon agree critics will persist until the Oilers achieve playoff success.

"You're human, so you listen [to the criticism]," Gilbride said. "But I'm not trying to convert anybody. It's just that some of the criticisms are not valid; they don't hold up. The thing that will solve it is if we go to the Super Bowl. And we'll probably have to win that, too. . . . Buffalo went with the no-huddle last year and lost, so everyone said the Giants' [conservative style] is the way to go."

Said Moon: "If we can win our division and advance farther in the playoffs, that will silence more critics."

A first step would be winning the AFC Central. The Oilers, in the playoffs the past four seasons, have unwillingly claimed the title of America's wild-card team. Since the NFL and AFL merged in 1970 and formed the six-division alignment, 25 teams have won division titles; only the Oilers, New Orleans Saints and New York Jets haven't. At the same time, Houston has made seven wild-card playoff trips, more than any other club. No other AFC team has taken the wild-card path more than three times.

In recent years, the Oilers have settled into the unlikely but not completely unenviable position of being a team that would surprise no one by making the playoffs and yet would surprise everyone by reaching the Super Bowl.

"And they'd be surprised because it's a Run-and-Shoot team, too," Moon said. "But people who said this offense as a whole wouldn't work in the NFL can't say that any more."

Before last season, Moon had been to the Pro Bowl twice and was regarded as a fine NFL quarterback. The run-and-shoot helped him find the next level. He led the league in completions, touchdowns and yards. He tied Dan Marino's record of nine 300-yard passing games in a season. Moon passed for an amazing 527 yards against Kansas City, an outstanding defensive team. If not for a dislocated thumb suffered in the 15th game, he would have had to only maintain his season average to become the NFL's second 5,000-yard passer. Marino did it in 1984.

Moon nevertheless was named Offensive Player of the Year by The Associated Press, and Gilbride attributes Moon's success to two factors.

"The first is that he can make all the throws," Gilbride said. "He can throw the deep balls, the finesse stuff, the 18-yard outs, the dropoffs. The offense by design would like to force you do defend the whole field, and he does that.

"The second is that he has phenomenal accuracy."

Moon says the run-and-shoot has enabled him to prove his statistically remarkable six seasons in the Canadian Football League should not be written off. For that reason, he said, he would liked to have reached 5,000 yards last season.

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