To Oilers, loss was kick in pants, sure, but big step on road to respect

Ken Rosenthal

November 04, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

WASHINGTON -- The difference was the kicker. The Houston Oilers might consider that troubling as they replay yesterday's 16-13 overtime loss to Washington. But in a broader sense, they should find it comforting.

True to form, the Oilers didn't win on the road, and they didn't win on grass. Yet, they would have triumphed on both fronts if Ian Howfield hadn't blown a 33-yard field goal with four seconds left in regulation.

What is it about AFC place-kickers?

First Scott Norwood, now this.

Howfield missed wide left, and the Redskins won on Chip Lohmiller's 41-yard field goal with 4:01 gone in overtime. Both teams should now be 8-1. Instead, the Redskins are 9-0, the Oilers 7-2.

In that sense -- and that sense only -- this defeat could eventually haunt the Oilers, who fell one game behind Buffalo in the battle to secure home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.

The home field is no small matter when the choice is bitter-cold Rich Stadium or the climate-controlled Astrodome, but with seven weeks left, it's a little early to be worried about such things.

The Oilers' mission yesterday was to prove they could operate their run-and-shoot offense on a grass field, in an outdoor stadium, against one of the top-rated defenses in the NFL.

They didn't dominate.

But they damn near won. "Any doubts about the kind of team we have -- whether we can play on the road or play on grass --

ought to be dispelled," said coach Jack Pardee, who returned to RFK Stadium for the first time since getting fired by the Redskins in 1981.

Yes, the Redskins' final two scores resulted from Houston turnovers inside the 35 -- Lorenzo White's fumble to start the fourth quarter, Warren Moon's interception in overtime. But for the most part, the Oilers showed surprising resiliency on a day they could have crumbled.

This, after all, is a team that went 6-2 at home last season and 3-5 on the road. A team that got crushed 41-14 in its wild-card game at Cincinnati. A team that even this season couldn't win at New England.

Surely, no one expected Houston to take a 6-3 halftime lead yesterday, not with its offense failing to record a first down until the second quarter, not with its defense enduring a scoring drive of 10:36, the Redskins' longest possession of the season.

But that's exactly what happened.

The Oilers had even more compelling reasons to fold as the game progressed, yet never did. They controlled the ball for only 1:50 in the third quarter. They trailed 13-6 midway through the fourth. Yet there they were, giving the Redskins fits to the end.

They wound up with only 267 yards total offense, a good 120 below their average. But Moon (25-for-44, 250 yards, two interceptions) marched them from their own 21 with 5:04 remaining. White scored on a 1-yard run with 1:42 left, and the extra point tied the score.

Moments later, Rick Graf forced Brian Mitchell to fumble on the kick return, Mike Dumas recovered on the Washington 23 and the Oilers thought they had the game won.

Enter Norwood.

Er, Howfield.

He's the son of Bobby Howfield, former place-kicker for the New York Jets. He's been cut by three teams. And he was watching TV in an Oklahoma City bar when he saw Teddy Garcia blow two extra points in the Oilers' first preseason game.

His agent arranged a tryout with Houston, and somehow he beat out Garcia and Raul Allegre. The Oilers should have kept last year's kicker, Tony Zendejas. He hasn't missed a field goal or extra point since joining the Los Angeles Rams.

Howfield, on the other hand, botched two extra points last weekend, and a third never left the ground. Yesterday he connected on field goals of 24 and 23 yards in the first half, but nearly missed the game-tying extra point. Then he blew the 33-yarder.

Afterward, he expected no sympathy -- not even from his father. "He's going to be upset," Howfield said. "He expects me to make those. I expect to make them too. It's just a sickening feeling. I know everyone now will be aiming for my job."

He's right about that, but Pardee backed him afterward, and Moon did too. "Ian's part of our football team," Moon said. "Everyone makes mistakes. We're not going to dwell on the kick. We had another chance to win. We didn't."

The Oilers treated this game as if it was Super Bowl XXV 1/2 , so their disappointment was understandable. Still, the Bills are probably their only serious obstacle in the AFC, and right now there's no way the Buffalo defense can stop Moon.

After yesterday's game, Redskins coach Joe Gibbs told Pardee, "It would be great for us to play again, but I don't know if it will ever happen."

Gibbs might want to reconsider.

The Super Bowl is in the Metrodome.

And Warren Moon could be Kirby Puckett.

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