Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Can the Atlanta Falcons Recover From Their High Profile Collapses? The 1992-93 Houston Oilers Reminisce About Their Own Epic Collapse

Okay, it is August now. Amazing how the time flies, isn't it? This year still feels new to me, like it began not that long ago. Then, bam! You look up, and next thing you know, the calendar is telling you that it is August, and that most of this year is behind you. Truly amazing.

In any case, August in sports in North America means that preseason football starts, and it will be starting tomorrow, with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. The Dallas Cowboys will face the Arizona Cardinals, and both teams have very realistic playoff hopes for the coming season. However, the Cardinals just announced that they will be sitting out their starters for this game, so chances are that whatever happens, this game will likely not generate that much excitement for viewers. Indeed, the preseason often is seen in this same way, as basically the warm up to the main event. It offers glimpses of new players, and sometimes of new uniforms when teams change them, or perhaps even some indications of new schemes or styles of play that teams hope will bring them success. But in reality, everyone is preparing for the regular season. 

And so, predictions about the upcoming season are running rampant. Very soon, I will be adding my own predictions to the mix, predicting each division and, ultimately, making my picks for division winners, playoff teams, and who I feel will meet in Super Bowl LII and why, and who will win. 

However, there is one thing that still might just loom over this coming season, and that would be the amazing, still unbelievable end to last year's Super Bowl. In case you forgot, what made it so unbelievable was that the Atlanta Falcons, who had one of the most amazing offenses in league history last season, raced out to a 28-3 lead over the mighty New England Patriots, seeming to make short work of them. Atlanta could do no wrong in building such a lead, and they made it look all too easy. And indeed it was, because once the Pats woke up, it seemed that the Falcons became a different team, one that could do nothing right. Atlanta made mistake after mistake, accommodating New England's slims chances of a historical comeback as much as possible. In the end, the Falcons could not stop the Patriots, who won in overtime to secure their second Super Bowl championship in three seasons.

It was a stunning comeback win for the Patriots, but it was equally as stunning a collapse on the part of the Falcons. For New England, it was perhaps the most impressive victory for a team and a town that has seen many championships, and is defined by their enormous levels of success. But for Atlanta, the Falcons failure will likely define them for a very long time. The only chance that they might have to erase that from being their legacy is to win at least one memorable championship, or perhaps to win multiple championships. Short of that, everyone will remember that historical collapse last February, in the biggest game of the year, and now, one of the most famous and memorable Super Bowls of all time. 

For the Falcons and the city of Atlanta, however, it was memorable for all the wrong reasons. However, there is another NFL team that can relate, having suffered an even more epic collapse. That would be the 1992 Houston Oilers, who went to Buffalo and took an amazing 35-3 lead over the Bills in the Wildcard Game, only to see that lead evaporate. As improbable as it was, the Oilers blew a 32-point second half lead to lose that game, which ended their season.

If the Falcons want to look for hope following last February's embarrassment, though, they might not want to look at the example of the Houston Oilers, however, because the Oilers never really recovered. Their next season was a historically turbulent one, and featured yet another playoff collapse. After that, the owner of the Houston Oilers dismantled the team. Within a few years, they left town altogether, relocating to Tennessee. They kept the Oilers name and uniform for a few seasons, and then became the Tennessee Titans. 

Literally, that epic collapse in the playoffs defined the Oilers to such an extent, that they literally never recovered, moving to another city and then changing their names and logo, so that the Houston Oilers effectively ceased to exist. Younger fans might not even be aware that the Tennessee Titans once were the Houston Oilers. So, perhaps that it not the most promising recovery story for the Falcons to grasp onto, as they look to try and put the disappointment of the historic Super Bowl loss behind them for this season. 

However, members of those Houston Oilers are still around, and they watched that game, watched the Falcons collapse like they did the better part of a quarter of a century ago. And indeed, as you might guess, they had some thoughts on it. 

Mostly, it reminded them of their own horrific experiences for that one playoff collapse.

In a fascinating article by Tim Rohan of Sports Illustrated (see link below), the questions running through those old Oilers minds as they watched the game seemed perhaps all too familiar to them:

"Their defense has been on the field too long! They look gassed. Why aren’t they running the ball and milking the clock?"

Suddenly, the Oilers were reminded of a game that none of them really enjoy thinking about, even all these years later. They still do not like the fact that the epic collapse defined them, defined the now non-existent Houston Oilers franchise.

Indeed, the old members of the Oilers had reunited in their old city of Houston, where the Super Bowl between the Falcons and the Patriots was being played. And they grew anxious as they sat on their bar stools and watched the Falcons once huge, almost insurmountable lead evaporate. It served as yet one more reminder of that fateful day in January in Buffalo, back in 1993. The one that the Oilers will now forever be remembered for. Can you blame them? 

Right after that unbelievable game, the one that Houston lost to the Bills, they went to their locker rooms and closed the doors, not wanting to talk to anyone. However, more than two decades have passed since then, and they seem more willing to open up. Those Oilers spoke about that loss after Atlanta's shocking defeat in the Super Bowl, in that article by Tim Rohan (see link below). 

Warren Moon, the star quarterback for that Oilers team, said, “I never thought we were going to lose.” 

Rohan described the chaos that Houston players went through in what still remains as the greatest comeback in NFL history, shortly after the Oilers celebrated a little too much after taking what seemed like an insurmountable lead:

"Then after going up 35-3, Oilers kicker Al Del Greco miss-hit the ensuing kickoff, giving the Bills the ball at midfield, which led to a Buffalo touchdown … then the Bills recovered an onside kick and scored again. … then the Bills forced a three-and-out and scored again. The Oilers had the ball and another chance to stop the bleeding, when … the Bills picked off Moon and scored yet again."

Indeed, the game just spiraled out of control for them. 

Haywood Jeffires, the former wide receiver for Houston, said:

“We just couldn’t stop the madness. You wanted this to be over. It was almost like a dream.”

Bubba McDowell, a safety on that Houston squad, remembered:
“Absolutely nothing was going right. We just had mistake after mistake after mistake after mistake. It was just piling up. There was no end. I was like, how bad can we screw this up?”

Ernest Givins remembers that the loss brought out the worst in everyone:

“There was a lot of arguing among the players on the bus, on the plane home. Shaking our heads. Pointing fingers. Arguing with each other. Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve—that type of thing. We should’ve made some adjustments, this and that. Everyone was just jawing at each other. … [We had] messed up a golden opportunity. … We win that game, we win the Super Bowl—no question.”

Now, I am not sure about that. The Oilers, had they beaten the Bills, would next have needed to go to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers, and that would have been a division rival familiar with the Oilers. If they had gotten past them, they still would have needed to beat the Dolphins in Miami. And then let us not forget that the AFC was right in the thick of the losing streak in Super Bowls back then. It is true that the Buffalo Bills got very hot after that victory, which was indeed good enough to get them to the Super Bowl. However, they lost the big game, and lost badly, to the Dallas Cowboys, who were emerging as the dynasty of the decade. I hardly think that Givins is right in simply assuming that the Oilers would have won it all, no doubt, had they only won that game up in Buffalo. But then again, we will never know now, will we?

Of course, the Oilers tried to put the loss behind them. They tried to gear themselves up for the next season, to try and do something spectacular that might help wipe away the bitter memories of their unbelievable loss. Warren Moon recalled:

“We said, are we going to let last year destroy us? Everybody thinks that’s going to destroy us, so how are we going to handle that? The faster we can get that out of our mind—that happened last year, but this is a new football team. … We were trying to get everyone to buy in, that this isn’t the same team, this is a different team, the ’93 team. That was the ’92 team. We had a new defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan. It was a different atmosphere. We had to keep selling everyone on that.”

Indeed, the Houston Oilers were determined to try and put memories of that Wildcard loss up in Buffalo behind them, but the 1993 season was unbelievably tumultuous. They started off clearly still shaken, getting off to a sluggish 1-4 start. But then they got hot, pulling off 11 straight wins to earn the number 2 seed in the AFC.  However, despite how impressive they were towards the end of the regular season, those Oilers still lost when it counted the most. They lost at home to the visiting Kansas City Chiefs, who happened to have Joe Montana at the helm as quarterback. Once again, the Oilers lost a big lead in the second half, and wound up losing the game. 

Yet, the 1993-94 Houston Oilers will likely be remembered much more for what happened off the field then on it. Once again, Rohan sums it up rather well:

"Offensive lineman David Williams missed a game because his wife was in labor, and the team fined him, sparking a national outcry; the episode became known as “Babygate.” Reserve defensive lineman Jeff Alm committed suicide after his friend died in an automobile accident in which Alm was driving; Alm’s blood-alcohol content was above the legal limit. And when Buddy Ryan’s dissatisfaction with what he called the “Chuck-and-Duck” boiled over, he and offensive Kevin Gilbride got into a heated exchange, culminating in Ryan slugging Gilbride in the face. NFL Films later made a documentary based entirely on the Oilers’ dysfunctional 1993 season."

“It was a controversial, emotional year for us,” Moon says. “By the end, after everything we went through, we were running on empty. We didn’t have enough to win that playoff game. Then Joe Montana worked his magic.”

And so that was that. The owner of the Houston Oilers, Bud Adams, had promised to dismantle the team if they did not win it all, and he did exactly that. The team was indeed taken apart, and fell into irrelevance by the 1994 season, when they were the worst team in the league, with a 2-14 record overall. A few years later, Houston lost the Oilers, who relocated to Tennessee. A few years later, they changed their name and their image, becoming the Tennessee Titans, marking the end of an era when a team known as the Oilers still existed.

“It leaves a big hole in your heart, you know?” Jeffires says on the phone, a few weeks after watching the Falcons’ collapse. “They say things do pass. Like, when someone dies in your family? You think you’re never going to get over it. Then sooner or later, you do. Wounds heal. But you never forget. That game will be a dagger in our hearts for as long as we live.”

So, can we then expect that the Atlanta Falcons will similarly collapse and become irrelevant, known mostly for that epic Super Bowl collapse? Perhaps, although it seems doubtful that history would repeat exactly like that. The Falcons are not the Oilers, although their loss was basically as memorable. Both were playoff games, but for the Falcons, that loss came in the Super Bowl, which everyone, including people who only watch one NFL game per year, happened to be watching. Arguably, this might define them more than that loss the Oilers suffered defined that team nearly 25 years ago now.

The real question right now will be how strongly the Falcons can recover from such a crushing disappointment. Historically, many Super Bowl losers have struggled the following season, especially after a particularly emotional Super Bowl loss. Remember the Panthers last season? They came in as favorites, because of the way they seemed to run over everybody during the 2015-16 season. But that loss to Denver in the big game clearly shook them. And before that, remember how dominant the Seahawks seemed to be, like an emerging dynasty? They never recovered from that 2nd and 1 decision that led to the loss, although their story might not yet be over, as they are still a very good and talented team. 

It all remains to be seen just how the Atlanta Falcons will respond. Clearly, it brought out the worst for the Houston Oilers, as that franchise literally never recovered from that loss. Like Houston back then, the city of Atlanta has not exactly piled up the sports championships, which probably means that this loss stings more than it would if it happened to another city's team. After all, even though it was in a different sport, everyone remembers that the Yankees blew a 3 games to none lead to the Red Sox in 2004, but the Yanks are still remembered far more for their dozens of championships, and they still remain very relevant today. The Falcons do not have that kind of history to fall back on, so it is a different situation.

One way or the other, it will be fascinating to see how they respond. 

On Epic NFL Collapses, the Oilers Can Tell the Falcons a Thing or Two by Tim Rohan, March 22nd, 2017:

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