Oilers getting good before getting out Nashville-bound club bears Houston turmoil

September 12, 1996|By Melanie Hauser | Melanie Hauser,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HOUSTON -- It never fails. Watch the highlights of the latest Houston Oilers home game and see a shot of empty seats. Or a few frames of a rowdy group supporting the opponents, juxtaposed, of course, with a yawning/sleeping/ambivalent Oilers fan. The voice-over always tells you how many fans showed up before it gives the score.

Newspapers talk more about the team's impending -- well, someday -- move to Nashville, Tenn., than the way the team is beginning to jell or how Eddie George is settling into his home in the Oilers backfield.

The theme even continues in post-game news conferences. Take two weeks ago, when someone asked quarterback Chris Chandler if a big and rather noisy contingent of Kansas City Chiefs fans had disrupted his offense in the half-filled Astrodome.

Chandler shook his head, planted his tongue in his cheek and played along. "I had to keep the calls down in the huddle so [the Chiefs defense] wouldn't hear them," Chandler said. "I almost had to whisper."

Like everyone else within the Oilers organization, Chandler has learned to take this lame-duck thing in stride. After all, the organization has had 18 months of practice.

Yes, the crowds are small. High school playoff games here have drawn more. And the team that used to take center stage in the city's mind from August through January now is playing second -- or third -- fiddle to the Astros' run at the National League Central title and the arrival of Charles Barkley and the possibility of a third NBA title for the Rockets.

The Oilers aren't out of sight quite yet, but they're definitely fading from the city's mind.

A few years ago, stories on the team led local newscasts and topped the front page of sports sections every day. Now, they've often become an afterthought -- something to fill the void between the daily Emmitt Smith injury report and a high school football feature. Last week, the Houston Chronicle went two days without an Oilers story.

Season-ticket sales? They're bad. Attendance? The season opener drew 27,725.

"My personal take on it is you can't control it," said offensive lineman Kevin Donnalley. "We'd all like to play in front of 60,000 fans, but there's a higher power involved here. We can't control it."

The lack of support has little to do with the team itself. Young and talented, if things fall right, the Oilers should contend for the AFC Central title. The problem, as Houston's often front-running fans see it, is owner Bud Adams.

Unlike Art Modell, who simply turned his Cleveland Browns into the Baltimore Ravens almost overnight, Adams has stretched things out. By the time he had announced his exclusive negotiating rights with Nashville last year, the damage had been done. The mayor and city council tried to fight the move, but could do nothing legally. They even tried Congress, which still is debating the subject.

The fans were left with a lame-duck team and an owner who had given them one more reason -- as if firing Bum Phillips, trading Warren Moon, dangling the team in front of Jacksonville, Fla., in 1987 and assorted other things weren't enough -- to resent him. And hurt him at the gate.

The Oilers got caught in the cross-fire.

"We're the kids caught in the middle of a divorce," linebacker Micheal Barrow said. "Bud's doing what he feels is best for the team, and, in a way, he's right. But the fans are our mother -- the ones who nurture us. Now, we're looking at Nashville as a stepmother."

"I think the NFL is loaded with adversity," said Oilers general manager Floyd Reese. "You have to learn to live with whatever your team is facing. As long as you know what it is and you're willing to recognize it and deal with it, that's what's important."

The Oilers have done just that.

"Our GM and coach have done a great job of keeping us focused on what we can control," Donnalley said. "We have a job to do out there, and we're going to concentrate on doing it."

To emphasize the point, Donnalley brings up the Browns, who went into a tailspin after Modell announced the move last season and turned a playoff season into a 5-11 skid. The Oilers, on the other hand, improved from 1994's 2-14 to a 7-9 season.

"I think because we were so up front with them from the beginning, it's been easier for them to deal with," Reese said.

Reese said the constant questions about the crowds and the move -- which might not be until after the 1997 season if Mayor Bob Lanier does not let Adams out of his long-term contract with the Astrodome -- can get old.

"If we go out and continue to improve the way we have and start winning, things will take care of themselves," Reese said.

But for the time being, the team is lost in the swirl. All the Oilers can do is concentrate on playing the game.

"Whoever shows up, shows up, I can't worry about it," kicker Al Del Greco said. "I just know I'm there to play."

Sunday's game

Ravens (1-1) vs. Oilers (1-1)

Site: Astrodome, Houston

Time: 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WLIF (101.9 FM), WJFK (1300 AM)

Line: Oilers by 3 1/2

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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