Back during his coaching days, C.M. Newton used to say that he was aware of nothing more meaningless than the first half of a basketball game. Our research department is furiously checking to find out whether C.M. ever witnessed an NFL exhibition football game.
Oops, better make that “preseason” game. That’s the term officially applied by the National Football League, since the word “exhibition” suggests that viewers will be treated to at least a reasonable approximation of the genuine, eye-gouging, hogs-in-the-muck event, instead of the decaffeinated brand of football on which we must rely for our first fixes each August.
The surest refutation of Newton’s law is to roll tape on the second half of a preseason game, when passes are thrown and tackles applied mostly by fellows whose names will soon be as obscure as those of 19th-century vice presidents.
Every once in a while, though, somebody forgets to dilute the dope and loads up a pure, king-hell speedball. The boys in the lab are still checking this out too, but it appears that your Tennessee Oilers executed just such a switch last Friday in their exhib..., er, preseason opener.
In steamrolling the Atlanta Falcons, 31-16, the Oilers executed a fake punt. They ran a hurry-up offense. They lined up in a no-back formation, with Eddie George as a wide receiver. In the fourth quarter, they called for da bomb on a first-down playand scored.
All of which seems subversive to the league’s established order for summertime footballand leaves us naturally wondering whether such offensive imaginitiveness could become habitual.
In fact, based on Friday night’s variety show, you might fairly wonder if the Oilers aren’t attempting to scare up some excitement among the potential ticket-buying homefolks in Nashville.
Of course, all the usual caveats remain operative. Friday’s game was still a preseason contest, and preseason contests still count for about as much as Wild Bill’s vows of marital fidelity.
Not only that. This was a preseason contest against the Falcons, a team that needs to show significant improvement before it can aspire to be described as “hapless.” Without the excuse of playing before surrogate hosts, the Falcons have even more of a home-field disadvantage than the Oilers endured last year. Compared to the tomb-like silence of the Georgia Dome, Memphians received the Oilers as if they were the Allies entering Paris in 1944.
It would be prudent, then, to maintain that a little trickstering by the Oilers here, and a little sandlotting there, is really neither here nor therepart of no discernible trendwere it not for another, far more startling Oilers’ turnaround.
Some Nashvillians may have come to believe they’d be commuting to colonies on Mars before Bud Adams consented to change the team’s name. But thenshazzang!it happened.
Training camp at TSU had barely opened when Bud showed up in his good white shoesand with Mayor Build-us-one and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, no less, as the amen cornerto declare that his long night of the soul was over. Before season’s end, the Oilers will retire their decades-old moniker and adopt a new nom de guerre: the Tuxedos or the Tornados or the Trappers or whatevers. (We’re still holding out for Tennessee Studsa name that offers an irresistible blending of local heritage and macho gridiron posturing.)
During their joint press conference, Bredesen and Tagliabue (who began his tour of NFL training camps with a stop here) emphasized Adams’ sentimental attachment to the team name he had originated for the franchise he originated in the old league he helped originate. But Bud, who’s such a maverick that he apparently can’t even stick to his own organization’s orchestrated spin, emphasized that the “clincher” was the league’s unprecedented agreement to retire the Oiler name forever.
Adams, no doubt, was sincere when he said he wanted to accommodate the wishes of Tennessee fans for a locally correct team name. But he also was determined to avoid the fate of Art Modell’s Cleveland Browns, who forfeited all their storied history when they moved away.
Reincarnated as the Baltimore Ravens, Modell’s franchise is treated by the NFL as an expansion team. Like the beneficiary of a witness relocation program, the Ravens have no traceable past. Meanwhile, the name “Browns”along with Jim Brown’s rushing records and Paul Brown’s coaching record and the old brown-and-white uniformswill become the sole property of Cleveland’s new team in 1999.
Houston’s civic leaders aren’t exactly on Bud’s invite list for backyard barbecues. The prospect of some upstart, whippersnapping new franchise in that city making off with the Oiler name and its association with legends like George Blanda and Earl Campbell and “White Shoes” Johnson presented what your Washington-insider types call a non-starter. But when the NFL conveniently offered to allow Adams to keep both his new city and his old name, it was as if the Red Sea partedmiraculously, just in time for the Oilers to make a final push toward selling out Dudley Field.
Now to a lot of folks who are just tingly over landing any pro sports franchise, the name of the team is about as meaningless as your typical preseason football game. Angelenos didn’t clamor for the Lakers to renounce their old Minneapolis name, even though it was ridiculously inappropriate for the desert. Nor did the shiite Mormon patriarchs of Utah, where Coltrane gets played about as often as the old Soviet national anthem, insist that the Jazz leave their sin-soaked name in New Orleans when they migrated west.
In Nashville, though, names are a big deal, and hastily made promises still matter. Not even Bill Boner would have been forgiven for weaseling on such a vow (and thank Jesus the choice of team nicknames wasn’t left up to him).
Last year, the Oilers arrived in Tennessee with a still developing team and an imperial bearing. This year, they’ve hit camp with a strengthened, more mature lineup. Just as important, the organization seems to have punted the you’re-lucky-to-have-us attitude.
Of course, Nashville (a smallish place by NFL standards) is lucky finally to have professional football closer than Knoxville. And it’s not unreasonable for the Oilers to expect sellout crowds at Vandy, just as Nashvillians should expect the team to improve enough to reach the playoffs.
Given the flubbed first steps in last season’s courtship dance, it’s also not unreasonable to perceive something bigger in the Oilers’ decisions to change their name and to play fast-and-loose in one piddly preseason contest.
Call me a rank, hopeless optimist, but it sure looks like the boys in powder blue are sending a signal that they want to be likedeven if it’s only for our money. It’s taken a year, but the Oilers may have grasped something every Middle Tennessee farmer knows: Before you can haul in a harvest, you have to cultivate the ground.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy (baseball record edition)
Mark McGwire: Suddenly, the homers are hard to come by. Still, he needs only 16 to break Roger Maris’ record. Chances: 60-40.
Ken Griffey: On a Johnsonless, demoralized team, it’s hard even for Junior to stay up. Chances: 40-60.
Sammy Sosa: Sammy’s the streakiest long-baller of the three, and the ghost of Harry Caray seems to be aiding the Cubs. Chances: 50-50.
Juan Gonzales: Hack Wilson’s mind-boggling mark190 RBIsis safe for at least one more year. Chances: 10-90.