Classic MNF: Duke of Earl
By Will Weiss
ABC Sports Online

Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell played eight seasons in the NFL, the first seven with the Houston Oilers before finishing his career with the New Orleans Saints. He retired after the 1985 season as one of the most decorated backs in the history of the game, with 9,407 rushing yards and 74 touchdowns. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991.

The Houston Oilers certainly knew what they were doing when they traded three draft picks and tight end Jimmie Giles to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the first overall pick in the 1978 draft, Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell.
Earl Campbell
Earl Campbell won three straight league MVP titles from 1978-80.

As expected, Campbell made an immediate impact, turning his team into a contender and becoming a nightmare for opposing defenses. All he did in his rookie year was rush for a NFL-best 1,450 yards, 13 touchdowns, lead the Oilers to the AFC Championship game and garner Pro Bowl, All-Pro, All-Rookie, Rookie of the Year, AFC Player of the Year, NFL Offensive Player of the Year and NFL Most Valuable Player honors.

Monday Night Football wisely scheduled the Oilers twice that season.

Viewers got an indication of the type of player Earl Campbell was in the Oilers' Oct. 23 MNF matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, when he almost single-handedly led the Oilers to a 24-17 upset of the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium by rushing for 89 yards and scoring three times.

But Campbell's real breakthrough came four weeks later when the Miami Dolphins visited the Astrodome.

It was a back-and-forth offensive showcase between Campbell and Dolphins' veteran quarterback Bob Griese. In the end, it would be a record-setting night for Campbell, who would have the last laugh.

The teams exchanged scores in the first half, heading into the locker room tied at 14 apiece. The Oilers' first touchdown came on a patented Earl Campbell 1-yard power run that knotted the game at 7-7.

The former University of Texas standout would be even more of a factor in the second half, though. His 6-yard scoring run gave Houston a 21-14 lead in the third, but Miami came back quickly, scoring a touchdown and sacking quarterback Dan Pastorini for a safety to go up 23-21.

That's how the score would stay until late in the fourth quarter when Campbell got the hat trick to give the Oilers a five-point advantage. With Miami driving en route to what appeared to be the winning score, inside linebacker Steve Kiner picked off Griese at the 19, setting the stage for a run that would become part of Monday Night lore.

It was a simple sweep around right end, and Campbell broke it. By midfield it had become a footrace, and for the final 20 yards, Campbell utilized the stiff-arm, warding off a couple of Dolphin defenders who feebly tried to bring him down but could not. Campbell's fourth TD, an 81-yard gem, clinched the 35-30 victory for the Oilers, their third straight win and second straight win on MNF.

Earl Campbell on MNF -- 1978
Games Car Yds Avg TD
2 49 288 5.9 7

Campbell etched his name into the Monday Night record books in that victory over Miami: His 199 yards rushing was then a record, which has since been eclipsed twice (Bo Jackson's 221 yards against Seattle in 1987 is first all-time, followed by Thurman Thomas' 214-yard effort against the Jets in 1990). The 81-yard scamper was then the longest run in MNF history (it now stands fourth), and his four rushing TDs is tied for first on the MNF list with current sideline reporter Eric Dickerson (Oct. 31, 1988) and Emmitt Smith (Sept. 4, 1995).

The two teams would meet later that year in the AFC Wild Card game in Miami, and the Oilers eliminated the Dolphins in a familiar manner. Campbell rushed for 84 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

During Campbell's seven-year stay in Houston, the Oilers appeared on MNF eight times, going 6-2 in that span. Many runners have tried to copy his style, but no one has come close.

Will Weiss is the editor of ABC's Monday Night Football site.

 
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