There was “baby gate”, the punch and a suicide. There was Buddy Ryan, Warren Moon and even Joe Montana.
All in the span of six months.
“I defy anyone to try to come up with more crazy things that happened in an NFL season than the 1993 Oilers.”
That sentence is uttered by longtime scribe John McClain at the beginning of “Houston 93”, an NFL Network documentary on the 1993 Houston Oilers. The hour long production took an in depth look at one of the league’s most dysfunctional squads, a living timeline of a season that most football fans in the Space city will never forget.
Having just moved to Houston five months ago, I had no connection to that team, nor was I even aware of their tumultuous year. Watching it transpire during the 60 minutes of the show was an eye opening experience, and gives me an even better understanding of what fans in this town experienced 20 years ago.
The film begins some 20 feet from where the Houston Texans call home today, with the camera opening on the modern day Astrodome. Despite being called “the eighth wonder of the world”, its function now is far from its place of prominence in 1993.
The uncertainty around the Astrodome’s future seem like a perfect metaphor for that infamous Oilers season, a once great monument turning into a long suffering reminder of what could have been.
In 2013, the Texans are now Houston’s team, but the remnants of the Oilers, and in turn the Astrodome that was their home, are still visible, eyed by every fan that heads into Reliant Stadium on Sundays.
The main characters in this tragic play are Ryan, the Oilers defensive coordinator, owner Bud Adams and the city of Houston. Ryan, whose sons Rex and Rob are NFL coaches today and perhaps better known than their father, plays the villain, the brash mastermind who clashed with the organization seemingly from the moment he joined the team.
From the movie’s perspective, Ryan came off as larger than life, and not always in a good way.
The stories of infighting among the coaching staff along with Ryan’s comments about the offense made the situation toxic from the very beginning.
“We were Buddy Ryan guys, and that’s the mentality we had,” said former defensive back Bubba McDowell.
That us against them philosophy within the team was at the heart of the Oilers issues, and lingered over the whole season. Ryan’s role was instigator, and he reveled in that divisive persona. While head coach Jack Pardee and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride (now with the New York Giants) tried to downplay the drama, Ryan relished it, to the point where he threw the famous punch in NFL history.
Prior to watching this program, if you’d asked me what I knew about Buddy Ryan, the punch is the first thing I’d say. The historic nature of that punch, along with its absurdity if you step back and think about it, remain a footnote in not only the history of the Oilers organization, but in the legacy of the two men involved.
Search Kevin Gilbride on Google, and the first thing the search engine brings up is “Kevin Gilbride Buddy Ryan”. The video of the punch is the first image that appears. They are forever linked.
The Oilers drama never ended, up until the point where the Kansas City Chiefs ended their season in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. During that same year David Williams choice of family over football became a national debate, with Al Gore even weighing in.
The team also had to cope with the tragic death of Jeff Alm, who committed suicide after losing control and crashing his car. That crash took the life of his friend, a passenger in the vehicle. It is rare to see teams deal with one issue this large during a football season, yet the 1993 Oilers had it all happen at once.
The end of the year pretty much signaled the end of an era, with the team unprepared to compete with a looming salary cap in 1994. A systematic dismantling of the squad took place after the 1993 season, and the fans of Houston showed their frustration by not coming back to the Astrodome.
The final chapter was written by Adams two years later, when his failed plan to get a new stadium in Houston resulted in his decision move the team to Nashville, Tennessee. For the players and media interviewed in the documentary, they all look at 1993 as the season that could have changed everything.
“Had they won that game (in the 1993 playoffs), the Oilers would have never left Houston,” McClain says at the end of the film.
However, that didn’t happen, and the paths of three franchises were forever changed because of it. The Texans and Tennessee Titans exist today in part because of that 1993 team, a link to promises unfulfilled for those that cared deeply about their Oilers.
In that way, the 1993 Oilers are much like their former home that remains empty in the shadow of Reliant Stadium to this day.
No one thought it’d end like this.