You’re Jerry Glanville, coach of the Houston Oilers. Most of your players are in the playoffs for the first time. You’re playing against the team with the best record in the American Football Conference, the Denver Broncos, in Mile High Stadium, where all but a few brave souls among the 76,188 are screaming for you to lose.
Your players were jittery before the game. Overconfidence isn’t going to be one of your problems today. To make matters worse, your offense has the ball for the first time on its own five-yard line, at the enclosed end of the stadium, which is filled with orange-clad Broncomaniacs. It is about as quiet as the Persian Gulf.
What play do you call?
Remember that you have two hard-running backs, Mike Rozier and Alonzo Highsmith, and an offensive line that has only one man under 275 pounds. Seven days before, in a wild-card game against Seattle, the fullback, Highsmith, averaged 6.2 yards a carry.
What did Glanville call?
He sent his quarterback, Warren Moon, onto the field with two plays to be run without a huddle in between, thinking he could catch the Broncos off guard.
On first down, Highsmith tried to run up the middle and lost one yard. Facing second down and 11 from the four, the Oilers lined up hurriedly in a spread formation that looked like something out of the United States Football League. Both tackles, Bruce Davis and Dean Steinkuhler, and tight end Jamie Williams lined up about 15 yards to the left of the ball, in front of Rozier, who was behind the line of scrimmage.
While the Broncos scurried around, trying to decide whether they should laugh or call time out, Moon threw the ball to Rozier, who had stepped two yards back into his own end zone.
The play is called Stagger Lee, named for an old country blues song about gamblers.
Before we proceed, perhaps we should explain about Stagger Lee. He lost his money and his Cadillac to somebody named Billy in a card game, then went home to get his .44. When he returned, Billy pleaded for Stagger Lee not to shoot. Billy said he had a wife and two kids. “You’ll see them in heaven,” Stagger Lee said.
In Sunday’s game against the Broncos, Stagger Lee fired the pistol and shot himself in the foot.
Moon’s pass, which actually was a lateral because he threw it back to Rozier, bounced off Rozier’s shoulder pads and fell to the ground at the Houston one-yard line. Officially a fumble, and Denver cornerback Steve Wilson recovered.
Two plays later, the Broncos scored the game’s first touchdown on their way to a 34-10 victory that sends them into next Sunday’s American Football Conference championship game here against Cleveland.
“It does seem stupid to throw a lateral pass in that situation,” Denver nose tackle Greg Kragen said. “But that’s Glanville for you.”
Glanville, a respected defensive coordinator before he became a head coach, does not have a reputation as a gifted play caller. In fact, his reputation is the opposite.
But he defended the lateral.
So his did players, loyal to the bitter end.
If the result had been different, they might have had a case. The Broncos’ defensive coordinator, Joe Collier, said he was tipped off early last week about the play by someone he wouldn’t identify. Speculation is that the unnamed intelligence agent is Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll, who is hardly a Glanville fan. Before Sunday, the Oilers ran the play only three times this season, all against the Steelers. On each occasion, it worked for a significant gain.
So the Broncos said they were ready for the play.
When they look at the films today, they will see that they were not. In trying to find their proper positions, they looked like the Keystone Kops. The films will show them that Rozier had three blockers and only two defensive players in front of him.
Moon did his job.
“I thought I hit him in the chest,” he said. “I don’t know, where did I hit him?”
In the chest.
“That’s a pass that Mike Rozier catches 10 out of 10 times,” guard Bruce Matthews said.
Try 9 out of 10.
“I looked in front of me and there was a lot of room,” Rozier said. “But I didn’t look up too early. I just jammed my finger trying to catch the ball. It would have worked.”
If it had, Glanville said, the Oilers would have gained 15 or 20 yards, gotten them out of a hole and shortened the field.
Instead, it shortened the field for the Broncos.
“You have to execute whatever play you call whether you like the play or not,” Moon said. “If he had caught the ball and run 20 yards down the sidelines, everybody would be saying what a great call it is.”
But now everybody is saying that perhaps Glanville shouldn’t have taken such a big risk in that situation, while the Oilers were still trying to get grounded. If he wanted to use the play, everybody is saying that he should have had Rozier take two steps forward instead of backward. That way, if he dropped the ball, it would be just another incomplete pass and not a fumble.
Now everybody is saying Glanville should learn from another country song about a gambler and cards. It says something about knowing when to hold them and went to fold them.