TACK to the FUTURE: Alternate and Possible Universes in the NFL 

Stefan Collins, Contributing Writer

My name is Stefan Collins and I play football for Buena Vista University, where I am a sophomore business major. I will be turning 21 in just under one month and my home is Manchester, United Kingdom. I dedicate the majority of my time and energy to all things business, academics, and sports. I am an avid fan of the NFL and all its history, which inspired me to start this (typically) bi-weekly blog. I am also a huge Dallas Cowboys fan, so dont be surprised if that bias comes out.

Tack to the Future will focus on three periods of time: The past, present, and future. Each period of time will be linked to an event that has happened, is happening, or is yet to happen in the NFL from a philosophical perspective. The posts focusing on the past will be considerably longer articles due to their backstories, therefore will be released separately to their present and future counterparts. This week, lets go back in time!  

What if the Houston Oilers won the 1979 AFC Championship game? 

Time circuits on, flux capacitor fluxing, engine running. Alright! Lets go back to January 6th, 1980 (Thats a Back to the Future reference for those it was lost on).  

Were at the old Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Of course, its the home of the most dominant team of the 1970s, and arguably the greatest dynasty in NFL history. The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70s (Im counting this game as part of the 70s since it happened in the 79 season), led by Hall of Fame head coach Chuck Noll, were everything that a championship football team should be. The Steelers had a brutal, hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners mentality defense featuring the likes of Mean” Joe Greene, Jack Lambert (fittingly enough for a middle linebacker missing his front teeth), Jack Hamm, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and many more.  

On the other side of the ball theres not one, but two Hall of Fame wide receivers in Lynn Swann and Johnny Stallworth. The duo spoiled their quarterback, and fellow member of the gold jacket club, Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw also had the privilege of handing the ball off to Rocky Blier and Franco Harris, who both ran behind a rock-solid offensive line.  

The Houston Oilers, on the other hand, were coached by Bum Phillips, father of Wade Phillips. Wade Phillips is also the defensive coordinator who was the architect of the 2018 Rams defense which took them to the most disappointing Super Bowl of all-time. 

The Oilers put together a respectable 11-5 record and a second-place finish in the (then) AFC Central. Their talent level was certainly not on par with the heavily favored Steelers, who had crushed the Oilers in the 78 championship game, 34-5. The Oilers’ best player, Earl Campbell, was the winner of the 1979 NFL rushing title. However, Campbell was held to 15 yards on 17 carries. So, in what universe would the Oilers be able to pull off the upset? Well, if it werent for one of the most controversial calls in the history of the NFL ,they might have been able to. 

Late in the 3rd Quarter of the game, the Steelers lead 17-10. With no luck from their usually powerful ground game, the Oilers looked to the air to move the ball. Oilers Quarterback Dan Pastorini had lead his team to the Steelers’ 6-yard line. On third-and-goal, Pastorini threw a perfect over-the-shoulder fade to receiver Mike Renfro, who caught the ball in the back-right corner of the endzone, with two feet down in bounds. An automatic PAT away 17-17 game, right?  

Looking at it in real time and at full speed, it was unclear whether or not Renfro maintained possession, or even got both feet down. This was a time when officials did not have access to instant replay; although the commentary booth and the fans watching on television back home could clearly see that Renfro secured the catch and landed his second foot in, it was a tough call for the officials. After some discussion, the referees declared that the pass was incomplete. The Oilers’ momentum was lost and the Steelers took full advantage, scoring 10 unanswered points to win the game. Two weeks later, the Steelers claimed their fourth Lombardi trophy of the decade, a record at the time. 

There is no guarantee that the Oilers would have won the game if Renfros catch was ruled correctly, but for the sake of it, lets say that the momentum inspired the Oilers defense to keep the Steelers off the board in the 4th Quarter. Subsequently, the Oilers score and win a close game. Houston would have appeared in their first Super Bowl ever and faced the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams were hot at the time, coming off a 9-0 win over the Buccaneers in the NFC Championship game (thrilling, I know).  

This game could have gone either way, but lets say Vince Ferragamos Rams come up short as they always did in the post-season in their pre-St. Louis days.  

Earl Campbell and the Oilers win the game with their old school, smash mouth, power football. That, plus a few deep bombs in the second half to the game, allow Mike Renfro to also snatch the MVP. The win would have attracted a huge following in the Houston area, which was made up mostly of Cowboys fans. The Cowboys were crowned as Americas Team” one year earlier, rightfully so.  

How is this relevant to the NFL today? As Im sure most of you are aware, the Oilers no longer exist. In 1998 they moved to Tennessee and changed their name to the Titans you now know today. Despite the excitement the Oilers provided the NFL in the late 80s and early 90s with Warren Moons fast paced run-and-shoot offense, they always choked in big games. Always.  

Some of the greatest games of all time featured the Oilers, all of which involved them losing a last second-game after a big collapse, which wasnt enough to save the Oilers from bankruptcy. Would that have mattered if they attracted a loyal fan base and inspired a generation of kids by winning the Super Bowl in January of 1980? You decide.  

If that were the case, the Titans never would have existed. Neither would the Texans, because lets be honest, Texas isnt big enough for a third team. In todays NFL, would we see Deshaun Watson leading the Oilers while JJ Watt dominates the defensive-end position in classic light blue and white? Would we have seen a rematch of the Rams vs Oilers Super Bowl in 1999? Would the Rams get their revenge, stopping the final play of the game on the one-yard line to deny an Oiler touchdown? Well never know. 

Whether youre a fellow fanatic, a casual fan of the game, or have no knowledge of NFL History whatsoever, I hope you enjoyed my first blog post. My next post will be released next week and will look at the present Quarter Back situation of the Denver Broncos and John Elways long-term plan. We will also look to the future of the Dallas Cowboys, regarding their major contracts that need to be attended to in the 2019 offseason.