Book Review: Oiler Blues
John Pirkle’s Oiler Blues is subtitled “The Story of Pro Football’s Most Frustrating Team.” As, like Pirkle, a fan of the Oilers/Titans, I am inclined to agree. The team starting promisingly enough, winning the first two AFL championships and losing the third in double overtime, though of course they over .500 twice in the next 14 years, including a three year span where they won only 6 games. Then, of course, after three straight playoff seasons, the owner fires the coach and the team finishes under .500 the next six seasons, including ANOTHER three year span where they won only 6 games. Success is finally at hand, at the team makes the playoffs for the next 7 seasons, but, of course, without advancing to a single conference championship game let alone a Super Bowl. A disaster season follows, and the team starts looking to, and eventually does, move shortly thereafter. Fittingly, Pirkle’s book ends after the 1998 season, missing the newly-rechristened Titans’ trip to the Super Bowl the next season.
The book is structured in very straight chronological order, addressing sequentially the various stages of the offseason, including the draft, free agency/roster moves, and training camp, then the regular season, the playoffs where applicable, and then the almost-inevitable coaching and/or front office changes. I may be underselling the structure a little bit-he will step back briefly where appropriate, such as career retrospectives when a notable coach such as Bum Phillips or Glanville gets the boot (blah, blah, Glanville left on his own, whatever)-but the format is fairly standard and works reasonably well.
What becomes clear from Oiler Blues is just how seriously dysfunctional the team was, and consistently so. Thrice in their first 27 years of existence the Oilers had a span where they had 5 different head coaches in 6 years. Front office personnel turned over nearly as frequently, and only for very brief stretches was there consistency in both places at once. The consistency of the Jeff Fisher era, and the Reese/Fisher era, is incredibly remarkable for Bud Adams’ franchise. Heck, the Mike Reinfeldt/Jeff Fisher era is already in the running for the second-longest GM/coach pairing in franchise history. That sort of organizational instability, as Pirkle makes clear, came straight from the top. Bud Adams vacillated between treating the Oilers as a profit-oriented venture that should be making as much money as possible and building a winning football team, with concomitant expenditures. When the team was doing well, he wanted to make sure that he individually got the credit, and wasn’t afraid to reach out to a sympathetic media member to make his voice heard.
At least, when he could find a sympathetic media member, though there was normally at least one. Pro Football Chronicle has a list of player-media dustups, and the list of half made up of Oilers players and front office personnel and Houston media. The tone was set early in the team’s existence, as the scribes for both the now-defunct Post and the still-extant Chronicle were seemingly disappointed Houston got a franchise in the fledgling AFL rather than the mighty National Football League and decided to hold it against the team, its owner, its management, and some of its players, particularly the starting quarterback du jour. Oddly enough, the one starting quarterback the media seems to have appreciated was Dan Pastorini, who for much of his career posted average or below statistics on a run-oriented team.
More importantly, with the constant coaching and front office changes, the vocal media took on an outsize role in how the team was perceived by the public at large and seemingly how it was managed at times. See, for instance, this comment on the 1993 DVOA Ratings thread at FO, detailing John Henry Mills’ place in Oilers history as the tight end who would save everything. As commenter Stravinsky says, “I am not making this up,” which could easily be the theme of the Oilers’ history in Houston.
One thing I hadn’t realized before reading Pirkle’s book was just how badly the Oilers had been treated by the City of Houston and particularly the HSA, which ran the Astrodome. From its creation, HSA was continually controlled by the Astros’ ownership, from Roy Hofheinz at the start down to John McMullen and then Drayton McLane. The baseball owners, being baseball owners, treated the Oilers like second-class tenant, with terrible lease terms and a stadium horribly-suited for football, with 60% of the seats of the end zone variety. Back when the Astrodome was being built and he was frozen out of the construction process, Bud Adams actually discussed moving the Oilers to Atlanta. I wondered while reading that if Bud now wishes he’d gone ahead with that threat. (I’m guessing he’s happy he didn’t move to Jacksonville in the late 1980’s.)
The book is copy-edited like one of my blogposts, so it’s replete with minor errors and typos. Names are seemingly at random spelled properly most of the time, then spelled wrongly for a stretch before being again spelled properly, except that poor Abner Haynes’ last name shows up consistently as “Hayes.” I don’t think it detracts much from his core narrative, and doesn’t invalidate that Pirkle clearly spent a lot of effort digging up articles and pulling fun quotes, but those kinds of errors are annoying. Pirkle also engages in the tendentious game of creating ideal drafts, which is tiresome even at its best and incredibly annoying when done repeatedly over the course of a book. Most 4th rounders are average starters at best, so it’s neither an act of good faith nor particularly interesting to pick out the one or two guys who were ended up being particularly good.
I could rant on a little more, like about Pirkle’s use of misleading conventional statistics (a kick I was on before FO ever existed, thank you very much), the fans’ love affair with Bum Phillips and how he destroyed the team, or about how I was too kind to Ed Fowler in my review of Loser Takes All, but I’ll stop here. If you can stand bad copy-editing, recommended for Oilers fans and for Titans fans who want to know more about the team’s ridiculously dysfunctional history. Fans of other teams probably won’t appreciate it nearly as much, and fans of teams that actually get books written about them like the Packers probably won’t appreciate a book that doesn’t come from a professional writer (Pirkle at least was an attorney), but hey, feel free to give it a read if it sounds like the kind of book you’re interested in.