To our city’s official Oilers’ scrapbook we can now add a whole slew of firsts. First regular-season home game in Nashville: Sunday, Sept. 13. First regular-season home loss: Sunday, Sept. 13. First country music overdog to sing the National Anthem at a regular season Oilers game here: Lee Greenwood, who thrilled the fans by hitting the right notes and by not subjecting them to “God Bless the USA.”
First crowd-wowing special effect: A pregame flyover by four fighter jets, which swooped in low over the north end zone.
First play from scrimmage: Steve McNair faked to Eddie George, rolled right, and completed an 11-yard pass to Frank Wycheck.
First organized cheer: “Oi-lers! Oi-lers! Oi-lers!” orchestrated early in the first quarter by the team’s ubiquitous, drum-beating gnome, Krazy George.
First touchdown: McNair to Wycheck for 15 yards, late in the second period.
First penalty (of many): holding against Oilers’ tackle Jon Runyan, negating a 15-yard completion.
First boos aimed at referees: See immediately above.
First boos aimed at Oilers: On the first play of the fourth quarter, after George (Eddie, not Krazy) was stuffed on third and two.
It was a remarkable day all the way around for Nashville, and for pro football. It’s not every afternoon, for instance, that your NFL commissioner shows up. (There was even a rare Bud sighting, up in the pressbox at halftime.)
Nor is it every day that your studhoss running back, Eddie George, is limited to fewer yards than rushing attempts. “We can fix that,” seethed coach Jeff Fisher during a post-game press conference; then he rose and abruptly left the interview room, as if he intended to fix things that very minute.
Not every day can joes in the stands view a player like the Chargers’ Ryan Leafthe rookie quarterback who surely would have been chosen first in the NFL draft had it not been for you-know-who up the road. Leaf not only picked apart the Oilers’ defense with his poised passing; he set up the winning touchdown with a 20-yard run.
One of Leaf’s only missteps on Sunday (not counting the carping he provoked by keeping the assembled media herd waiting while he showered and dressed) came when he was asked whether playing in a college venue might have hurt the Oilers. “If we had played ’em in a pro stadium, from what I heard it wouldn’t have been filled anyway,” the cocksure QB opined, eliciting a few guffaws.
Leaf, of course, never saw the Oilers play in Memphis. Last year, when he was still in college, he played before a Rose Bowl crowd four times the size of the Oilers’ average audience in the Liberty Bowl.
And in spite of Leaf’s pronouncement, it was the crowd that defined the most remarkable difference that a year has mademarking how far both the Houston/Memphis/Nashville Oilers/TBAs and our own city have traveled.
Bud and the guys, for their part, must have thought they had reached the mountaintop and looked over into the promised land on Sunday.
During their wilderness wanderings over the past two yearstheir final season in the Astrodome and last year in Memphisthe Oilers performed in front of small groups of unenthusiastic witnesses that only Bill Clinton would have been audacious enough to define (legally speaking) as a home crowd. How exotic it must have seemed for McNair and George and the team’s other young players to hear roars of approval when they took the fieldand to have seen a stadium, even one with just 41,000 seats, filled for one of their home games.
The whole scenario must have seemed stranger still for many Nashvillians who happened to blunder into the vicinity of Vanderbilt’s Dudley Field. They would have witnessed something that only the hoariest old-timers had seen here before: a real, live, game-day football atmosphere and a capacity crowd whose loyalties were undivided.
OK, so tailgating outside Lambeau Field it ain’t. Still, compared to the wakes that usually attend football events at Vanderbilt, the ambience around the stadium and Centennial Park was like St. Charles Avenue on Fat Tuesday.
Throughout the park, and on the Blakemore Avenue side of the stadium, you could find people grilling out and stoking uppeople who looked like a cross section of Nashville. The game, like last year’s Rolling Stones concert, appeared to transform itself into a community event.
Some fans donned face paint or other amiably hideous team-colored get-ups. A majority, in contrast to crowds at last year’s preseason games, seemed to be outfitted with Oilers shirts or caps.
Last year, the prevailing mood here toward the Memphis Oilers was indifference (if not irritation at the team’s off-the-field community relations gaffes). On Sunday, the Nashville Oilers crowd not only owned team merchandise, they behaved as if their community actually owned an NFL team.
The most telling sign was not the raucous cheering. It was the aforementioned booing.
Last season, the mini-multitudes might have groaned, had they betrayed any emotion at all, when the team failed to convert in two short third-down situations in the second half. On Sunday, they booednot long, but lustily, just enough to make their point.
To the Oilers management, those two brief negative choruses should have resounded with promiseit’s a positive sign when the fans care enough to boo.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
Florida 34, Tennessee 20
We know that, someday, Tennessee will beat Florida again. We also can predict with confidence that the glaciers will return, an asteroid will someday strike the earth, and our state Legislature will gain a reputation for intelligence and integrity. It’s just that we don’t see any of those developments on the horizon yet.
Yes, Florida must come to Knoxville this year. Yes, the Vols have had two weeks to prepare and a boost in confidence after a tight win at Syracuse. And, yes, once again none of those positives will make any differencenot against Florida’s withering defense. One more time, the Gators will leave Knoxville looking like their mascotwith wide, leering, Vol-baiting grins.
Mississippi 23, Vanderbilt 13
That Commodore coaches found reasons for encouragement, even after a 32-7 drubbing by Alabama, is a measure of the widening gap between Vanderbilt and the rest of the SEC.
Quarterback David Wallace, who played against mere high schoolers last fall, showed promise in a hostile environment where few freshmen can succeed. (Unlike any other Vandy signal-caller from the past decade, the tall, strong-armed Wallace at least looks like a quarterback.)
Woody Widenhofer’s young defense, routinely asked to shoulder herculean burdens, should develop into a strong unit. And, in contrast to their season-opening debacle at Mississippi State, the ’Dores didn’t explode on take-off against Alabama.
Unless their improvement is remarkable, though, Vandy is unlikely to beat even a single conference opponent. Ole Miss should provide one of their best opportunitiesnot for a physical victory, but perhaps for a moral one. Afterward, maybe there’ll be a new slogan for Woodyball II: “Have hopes; expect to get better.”
Georgia 31, Wyoming 14
Arkansas 28, SMU 17
LSU 17, Auburn 14
Kentucky 42, Indiana 20
Mississippi State 19, Oklahoma State 10
South Carolina 27, Marshall 20
Ohio State 27, Missouri 17