Quick now, name the most memorable season among modern-era wide receivers. Was it A) Randy Moss’ 23 touchdown catches in 2007; B) Michael Thomas’ 149 catches in 2019; C) Jerry Rice's 22 scores in 12 games in 1987; or D) Calvin Johnson’s 1,964 yards in 2012?
My answer: E) None of the above. I'm going with Wes Chandler in 1982.
That was the strike-truncated year when Chandler, then a star receiver for the San Diego Chargers, produced 49 catches for 1,032 yards and nine TDs. OK, so what’s so special about that? This: He did it in eight games of a nine-game season. Do the math, people. Over 16 games that translates to 98 receptions, 2,064 yards and 18 TDs.
And that was 1982.
Six times he had over 100 yards in receptions, including one game where he put up 260. He had 385 yards in catches, with five TDs, in back-to-back victories over defending Super Bowl-champion San Francisco and defending AFC-champion Cincinnati. And he averaged a whopping 129.0 yards receiving per contest, still an NFL record.
“They couldn’t cover the guy,” said San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa. “Nobody was going to have a better season. He was brilliant.”
When NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal earlier this month broke down the greatest seasons by NFL receivers (https://www.si.com/nfl/talkoffame/nfl/turney-wide-receivers-chart), Chandler ranked first with his record-setting year. The Lions’ Johnson, a first-ballot Hall of Famer this year, was three places behind.
"But the question," Turney said of Chandler's numbers, "is: Would he have sustained it?"
Ah, there's the rub. If critics have an issue with the magnitude of Chandler’s performance it’s with what makes it so extraordinary – namely, that it occurred over eight games. That’s a small sample size, they contend; maybe too small to consider it one of the best ever.
But those observers miss one important point: It happened during a season that was bifurcated, with two games up front … interrupted by a 57-day strike … then resumed for a seven-game run to the finish line.
“That’s what people forget,” said former Chargers’ special teams star Hank Bauer, a member of that ‘82 team. “Think how hard that is -- to stop a season, mentally if not physically, for seven weeks. Then pick it up seven weeks later and play the final seven games and playoffs.”
Understood. But it had no impact on Chandler. In fact, he was never better than when he returned from the two months off, producing 864 yards in his last six games … or 140.5 per…with eight TD receptions. San Diego won all but one of those contests.
“He reminded me of Paul Warfield,” said Canepa, “and you couldn’t cover Paul.”
The Chargers acquired Chandler in the middle of the 1981 season to replace star receiver John Jefferson, traded to Green Bay after a training-camp holdout. Jefferson was enormously popular, and his departure sent shock waves through the city, its fans and its football team.
Jefferson was coming off a season where he led the league in touchdowns (13) and yards receiving (1,340) and was a first-team All-Pro. Moreover, he was coming off three seasons – his first three with San Diego – where he totaled 3,430 yards and 36 TDs, was named to three Pro Bowls, two All-Pro teams and became the first NFL receiver to produce 1,000 or more yards in his first three years.
“Mona Lisa lost her smile,” Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Fouts said when Jefferson left.
Maybe. But she regained it the moment Chandler arrived. Canepa recalled that it took only one practice for Fouts to understand what the Chargers had in their new wide receiver. After the workout was over, receiver Charlie Joiner approached the quarterback and asked what he thought of Jefferson's replacement.
“He’s better,” he said then.
He wasn’t immediately. But remember: He was joining an offense with two Hall-of-Fame receivers in Kellen Winslow and Joiner and a premier running back in Chuck Muncie. In 12 games with the Chargers that season Chandler had 52 catches for 857 yards and five touchdowns, plus a memorable punt return in that season’s overtime defeat of Miami.
Then 1982 happened.
He led the league in yards. He led the league in receiving touchdowns. He led the league with 21.1 yards per catch. There was nobody better.
“I just marvel at how great he was,” said Fouts. “You talk about the Cincinnati game (where he had 10 catches for 260 yards), but how about the week before against San Francisco?”
He had three touchdowns.
“Yeah,” said Fouts, “and one called back. Plus, I missed him on another. When he first came to the Chargers, we knew he was highly rated, but we didn’t know a lot about him. Watching him in practice the first couple of days I thought he looked a lot like ‘J.J.’ (Jefferson), but he’s faster. And that was a problem.
“I was so used to ‘J.J.’s’ speed and Charlie’s speed I never had anyone who was that fast and that smooth. I was throwing the ball behind him on some routes and delayed on some others. And I was trying my hardest. So I finally said to him, ‘This is going to sound really, really stupid, but could you just slow down?’ And it worked.”
Rewind the video of that 41-37 defeat of the 49ers – one of the most unforgettable games in NFL history – and you’ll see what Fouts is talking about. I did. And what I saw was the Chargers break a scoreless game on a 31-yard, first-quarter Chandler TD catch.
Except this was no ordinary score. On a third-and-8, the Chargers had Chandler split alone to the left, while Joiner and Winslow lined up to Fouts’ right. Fouts took the snap, backpedaled, looked left, then lofted a soft pass toward the end zone where Chandler was locked in single coverage with Eric Wright.
As the ball descended, Chandler somehow ducked inside and underneath the 49ers’ defensive back to make a diving reception before he and the ball crashed to the turf. It was a sign of what was to come that afternoon and that season.
“On that first touchdown” Fouts said, “we flipped the formation so we would have one-on-one on that play. We had done that with 'J.J.' before where we put him at ‘X’ and Charlie at ‘Z,’ and we did the same thing with Wes this time. I knew I was going to throw it to him. So I threw it high and inside, and he had to curl his way around the defensive back. But I put it where he could go get it. That catch was unbelievable.”
So was that season. Maybe you don’t remember how marvelous Wes Chandler was, but I do. And I have 1982 to remind me.
“A statistical phenomenon,” said Turney. “It has to be one of the top two or three seasons, even taking into account the shortened season.”