Warren Moon doesn’t so much recall the comeback game as much as he feels haunted by it.
“The thing that stands out most,” Moon said, “is that it won’t go away.”
Twenty years ago today, Moon watched a 32-point, third-quarter lead evaporate in what is known alternately as the greatest rally and worst collapse in NFL history.
A seemingly impossible sequence of plays, bounces and breaks helped the Buffalo Bills score 38 points after halftime to beat the Houston Oilers, 41-38, in overtime at Rich Stadium. The Bills advanced to the second round of the playoffs and eventually their third straight Super Bowl.
Moon, the Oilers’ Hall of Fame quarterback, sounded uneasy when he recently revisited the game with The News. He laughed about the absurdity of the circumstances, but his voice was drenched in misery.
“I remember at halftime we were up, 28-3,” Moon said, “and I’m walking through the locker room just before we go out for the third quarter, telling everybody, ‘We got 30 more minutes! Make sure we go out there and play hard for 30 more minutes!’ ”
Moon paused for a beat and took a deep breath. Then he chuckled.
“Guys were looking at me like I had three heads, like, ‘Are you kidding me? This game is over,’ ” Moon said. “Then we went out on the field and intercepted a pass on the first series and ran it back for a touchdown. Now we’re up, 35-3.
“So then I’m sure that thinking really crept into everybody’s heads. That’s when things started to change a little bit. That momentum shifted, and we could never get it back.”
Moon had a prolific afternoon, throwing 50 passes. Ernest Givins, Haywood Jeffires, Webster Slaughter and Curtis Duncan each had at least eight receptions.
Moon’s first half was sublime. He completed 19 of his 22 passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions.
Halftime was a speed bump for Moon and the Oilers’ offense.
Buffalo got the ball to start the second half. On the fourth play, Houston safety Bubba McDowell returned a Frank Reich interception 58 yards for a touchdown.
The Bills’ next possession – which ended on a Kenneth Davis touchdown run – lasted 10 plays, 50 yards and 4:27 of game clock. Then the Bills recovered an onside kick and kept the ball for another four plays and 56 seconds. Replays showed Bills receiver Don Beebe stepped out of bounds before catching his 38-yard touchdown pass.
“When Don Beebe went out of bounds and came back inbounds to make a touchdown catch,” Moon recalled, “I said, ‘Uh, oh. Things aren’t looking good.’ ”
The third quarter was half over. Moon hadn’t stepped on the field, and the Oilers’ lead had been cut nearly in half.
“It felt like an hour,” Moon said of his wait between snaps. “We lost some of our mojo offensively. We were on fire in the first half. We lost some of our rhythm, and we got conservative on our play calling.”
Conservative for the Oilers in those run-and-shoot days consisted of throwing. Rather than run the ball with an 18-point lead, Oilers offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride kept it airborne.
Moon threw 28 times over the game’s final 25:56. He completed 17 of his attempts, but the incompletions limited the Oilers’ time of possession to 16:27 in the second half and overtime compared to the Bills’ 16:39.
The Oilers didn’t play like they had a lead.
“We choked,” Oilers cornerback Cris Dishman said after the game. “It was the biggest choke in history. We were outplayed and outcoached in the second half.”
Choke is an offensive word in sports, but Houston became known as Choke City in part because of the comeback game.
Moon disagrees with the term being applied to what happened two decades ago in Orchard Park.
“People can say that’s what we did. A lot of people have,” Moon said. “I think we just got beat. We didn’t play 60 minutes of football.
“I view choking as having a chance to win it and letting it get away, overthrowing a receiver or missing a tackle. This happened over the period of an entire half. It wasn’t one or two plays in the ball game.
“The guys that played on that team will always be remembered by it because it was a very, very good football game. We happened to be on the short end of the stick.”