The way-smarter-and-more-conscientious-than-me people who run the Sports Reference sites have sucked me into more than one wormhole of online sports geekery, but the one in which I found myself this week was of my own making.
The subject of my statistical spelunking was, of all things, the 1978-1980 Houston Oilers. In addition to having some of the sweetest uniforms in NFL history and arguably the game’s best player at the time in Earl Campbell, they also had the tobacco-spittingest, shit-kickingest coach that ever patrolled a sideline: Bum Phillips1.
In 1978, Phillips’ Oilers went 10-6, good for second in the AFC Central and a wild card playoff berth. In 1979, they improved to 11-5, again securing second in the division and earning a wild card. Campbell would lead the NFL in rushing both seasons and earn an avalanche of individual awards.
But in both seasons, Houston lost in the AFC Championship Game. In both seasons, Phillips’ “Luv Ya Blue” squad were denied a trip to the big game by their division rival, the team that finished a game ahead of them in the standings two years running, the team that would go on to win back-to-back Super Bowls: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After the second AFC Championship loss, in January 1980, Phillips told a capacity crowd at the Astrodome:
"Last year we knocked on the door. This year we beat on it. Next year we're going to kick the son of a bitch in."
And they tried, they really did. In 1980, they would again go 11-5 and make the post-season2, with Campbell leading the way, and coming away with yet more accolades.
To shore up Campbell’s supporting cast for 1980, the Oilers made an attempt to squeeze one more season out of some Oakland Raiders outcasts. The defense got better, giving up the second fewest points in the league, after adding a 32-year-old Jack Tatum for his final NFL season. Tatum recorded 7 interceptions, more than he’d had in any other season. On offense, they added 35-year-old Ken Stabler to play quarterback, though he wasn’t quite the player he was in Oakland, with 13 touchdowns to 28 interceptions. For the last 10 games in 1980, the Oilers acquired eventual Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper from Oakland. Casper made the Pro Bowl.
So: did Bum’s prediction pan out? With some proven veterans added to the mix, did they kick in that door? Another 11-5 season was great, but this year, it was ironically the Oakland Raiders themselves who dispatched the Oilers from the playoffs, this time in the first round, on their way to their own Super Bowl Championship. They may have tried to kick in the door, but their boots bounced pretty harmlessly off the doorknob.
And then they fell backwards onto their asses. The next season, Phillips was gone and the team went 7-9. They were 1-8 in 1982 before the season was called due to the labour dispute. Then, 2-14 in 1983, 3-13 in 1984… you get the picture. They didn’t have another winning season until 1987.
I’m going somewhere with this, I really am. I know that baseball and football are very different things, but those Oilers strike me as a team that fell into the mentality of seeing that they have a huge star on their hands and taking one big shot at a championship, consequences be damned. But it’s clear there are real risks to taking that approach to building a team, and those risks were realized in the subsequent years in Houston.
If your team doesn’t succeed in your one big kick at the door, it can be hard to marshal the resources to take another one. Sometimes you have to spend a few seasons just getting close enough to the door again for your foot to reach it.
Which brings me to baseball, and the Blue Jays. We’re about to enter an offseason where the discussion among many who follow the team is whether they can contend in 2012, or perhaps not until 2013. Me, I don’t want the people who run this team thinking about which year is the right one to take a mighty hoof to the door, because there is always going to be another team – maybe one year it’s the Yankees, maybe another year it’s the Red Sox or Rays – waiting on the other side. And those teams are likely to have made it to that side of the door not because they kicked it down, but because they continuously plan, use their resources wisely (whether their resources are vast or limited), and have cemented themselves as a perennial contender.
I don’t want the Toronto Blue Jays trying to kick in the door at all. I want them to be the team that’s always in the room on the other side of that door, waiting for some other team to take their one best shot. Sometimes, the team taking their one shot is going to be successful, sometimes they’ll fail and fade away. Regardless, I want the Jays to still be in the room when the next one-shot hopeful comes along.
1. Here’s an absolutely tremendous old article about Phillips. The sub-headline says it all: “Houston’s unflappable leader says the only things he understands are pickup trucks, beer, ribs, gumbo and chewing tobacco. But he knows enough football and psychology to make his Oilers contented contenders.”
2. Holy Crap! There were five teams in the three-division AFC in 1980 that finished 11-5. Have fun with those tiebreakers.