In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
Playing at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, the Tennessee Oilers begin the season with a game against the Oakland Raiders. The Oilers who played in Houston for 37 years were given permission to move two years early after playing as a lame duck at the Astrodome in 1996. Eddie George earns legions of new fans rushing for 216 yards, as the Oilers win in overtime 24-21.
Founded by Bud Adams, the Houston Oilers were one of eight charter franchises in the American Football League in 1960. With veteran Quarterback George Blanda at the helm, the Oilers captured the AFL Championship in the league’s first two seasons, losing a chance for three straight titles in a double overtime thriller against the Dallas Texans in 1962. By the time of the merger, the Oilers were one of the AFC’s weakest teams, with back-to-back 1-13 seasons. With the drafting of Earl Campbell, the Oilers played in the AFC Championship Games two straight years, losing heartbreakers to the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a team known as “Luv Ya Blue”. Playoff heart breakers became a way of life for the Houston Oilers as they had some of the most agonizing losses in franchise history in the early 90’s with Warren Moon leading the way at quarterback. This included a Wild Card loss to the Buffalo Bills, in which the Oilers blew a 35-3 lead.
After the heartbreaking loss in Buffalo and a 1993 Divisional Round playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at home, the Oilers decided to break down and sell off all their top players in an effort to rebuild. Fans, as a result, revolted and the Oilers blamed the entire 1994 season in front of a half empty Astrodome, with a record of 2-14. At the same time, Owner Bud Adams was asking the city for a new stadium. Talks that seemed stalled when he could not rally public support. With the team’s lease with the Astrodome expiring in 1998, Adams made an agreement to move the Oilers to Nashville in 1999, playing the last three years in Houston. The Oilers showed improvement on the field, with an 8-8 record in 1996 with Eddie George winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. However, with attendance struggling, the Oilers got the city of Houston to let them out of the last two years of their lease early allowing them to move to Tennessee in 1997. Allowing the Oilers to leave two years early would pay off for the city of Houston, as they began working on a plan to bring the NFL back with a new stadium and were awarded the expansion Houston Texans in 2002.
The biggest stadium in the state was not in Nashville, but in Memphis at Liberty Bowl. However, fans did in Memphis did not take to the Oilers, as they wanted their own team and Nashville was 212 miles away making it difficult for the team’s new fan base to get to the game. The first game drew 30,171 fans, less than half 62,921 stadium capacity. Midway through the first quarter, the Oilers got the first break as a fumble by Napoleon Kaufman set them up deep in Raiders territory for the game’s first score a 30-yard Field Goal by Al Del Greco. As the first quarter came to an end, Steve McNair with a 48-yard connected with Chris Sanders on a 48-yard touchdown pass to give Tennessee a 10-0 lead. After a scoreless second quarter, the Oilers added to the lead as Eddie George dominated the run game, as a ten-minute drive ended with a 37-yard Del Greco Field Goal. Down 13-0, the Raiders needed just second to get back in the game as Jeff George hit Tim Brown on a 59-yard touchdown pass to put Oakland on the board. After the Oilers went three and out on their next possession, George and Brown connected again for a 27-yard score to give the Raiders a 14-13 lead, early in the fourth quarter. After each side had three and out drives, the Oilers looked to Eddie George to regain the lead. Carrying the load on 90-yard drive George scored from 29 yards and added a two-point conversion run to give Tennessee a 21-14 advantage with 2:09 left in the game. The Raiders would tie the game as Jeff George completed his third touchdown pass to Tim Brown on 4th-down and goal from 16 yards out with 22 seconds left in regulation. In overtime, the Raiders and Oilers each failed to score on their first possession. On the Oilers second possession, they drove the pass down to the Oakland 15, sparked by a 21-yard pass from Steve McNair to Frank Wycheck. Not wasting time, they sent Al Del Greco to win the game 24-21 with a 33-yard Field Goal. Steve McNair had a rough day in Memphis, completing 13 of 25 passes for 182 yards with a touchdown and an interception while getting sacked three times. Eddie George was the player of the game, as his 216 yards on 35 carries was the second biggest performance ever in Week 1. Only O.J. Simpson, with 250 yards in 1973 had a better Week 1 rushing performance at the time.
Following the season opener, attendance did not improve at the Liberty Bowl, as the Oilers posted a record of 8-8 for the second straight season. The Oilers played at Vanderbilt Stadium in 1998, a smaller stadium that brought them to their fans in Nashville. Once again they would finish 8-8 under Coach Jeff Fisher. The team’s new stadium would open in 1999, with the franchise getting new name and identity becoming the Tennessee Titans. In their first season at the Adelphia Coliseum, the Titans would go 13-3 and play in Super Bowl XXXIV, losing a heart breaker 23-16 to the St. Louis Rams as Kevin Dyson was tackled one yard away from tying the game as time expired.