The San Diego Chargers, an unlikely mixture of alleged misfits and malcontents, are tied for first place in the AFC West. That is gilding the lily a little, since .500 is the first-place record now, but first place under any circumstances is as strange to the Chargers as many of their players.
The classic way to build a first-place team is to consult a computer and draft cleverly for many years. Instead, Harland Svare, the young San Diego coach, has welcomed with open arms the disgruntled but capable veterans of other clubs, and then oozed them into a state of euphoria. Building for the future this way took a week. In the Chargers' opener against San Francisco, Svare's Dirty Dozen veteran newcomers had not yet meshed. At home against Denver last Sunday, they had.
In the course of destroying the Broncos 37-14 the rebuilt defensive line sacked Denver quarterbacks five times and the trade winds blew so strongly in the face of the Denver passing attack that the Chargers intercepted six times.
Svare, an unflappable Norwegian who even can accept philosophically his nickname of Swede, came to the Chargers as general manager last year after 16 seasons as a player and coach in the NFL. When perennial Charger Majordomo Sid Gillman resigned as coach after the 10th game with the club 4-6 and headed inexorably for its sixth straight third-place finish, Svare took over the coaching portfolio, too. In the four games under Svare, the Chargers managed to break even, but one of the victories was a 30-14 beating of Minnesota.
"When Gene Klein [the Charger owner] and I were screening candidates for head coach," Svare said last week, "we were looking for someone to put into effect the major changes I thought we had to make. We couldn't get out of that third-place rut with small adjustments. We had to make major shifts, especially on defense. I didn't say anything to Gene, but I knew that no one would be able to execute my ideas as well as I could. When he finally did suggest I stay on as head coach, I was ready. I didn't like being general manager. You're too far from the action."
Coach Svare promptly initiated the biggest trading splurge in pro football history, topping even the legendary George Allen of Washington. He made 21 deals before the trading deadline ended, and he has continued to turn over his team; John Mackey, the disaffected tight end of the Baltimore Colts, constitutes his most recent acquisition. "I didn't set out to compete with George," Svare says. "I don't have the same trading philosophy he has, anyway. Most of the players I got are younger than the ones he traded for, and the only draft choices I don't have for 1973 are two, four and eight, and I think I've got a couple of threes to compensate for that."
The defensive line of the Chargers represents, as much as any segment of the team, the kind of players Svare wants. Only one of the four starters from 1971—Tackle Ron East—has retained his position, while three veterans, each of whom had found his previous pro coach too collegiate for his taste, have joined him. The redoubtable Deacon Jones came over from the Rams to play one end, Lionel Aldridge was acquired from the Packers to play the other and Dave Costa, a refugee from Denver, works the tackle spot next to Aldridge.
Since all three came to the Chargers with the reputation of being troublemakers, Jones promptly dubbed the Chargers' defensive line "Harland's Hoodlums," a tag they all savor. "That's a good name," says Costa, who was raised in New York. "When I was a kid, though, my crowd was actually pretty conservative. We only stole things beginning with 'a.' You know, a radio, a bicycle, a hubcap."
A square, balding, cheerful man, Costa had asked the new Denver coach, John Ralston, to trade him. "I've played pro football for 10 years," he says. "I think I know my job pretty well. And the first thing Ralston did was tell me to change my stance. I did pretty well with the old stance, and here is this college coach telling me how to play tackle."
Costa managed to down opposing quarterbacks six times and make 41 tackles in 1971 plus harassing the quarterback—rushing him into throwing the ball prematurely—39 times. He was Denver's defensive captain in each of the five years he played for the Broncos, and was also the team's player representative, which makes him one of five ex-representatives now with the Chargers.
"A lot of people have had something to say about the guys we've picked up," Svare says, "but I'll tell you: they're winners and they're leaders."
This did not help much in the season's opener, when San Francisco clobbered San Diego 34-3, but the Chargers shook the loss off quickly. "We get better every week," Aldridge says. "It takes a while to learn how to play next to somebody new. Dave's a fine tackle, one of the best, but it was only in the 49er game that we began to know each other's moves without thinking about it. Dave knows now that I play it tough to the inside, so he can move over a little to his left, and when I see him cheat to the left I move to the inside instinctively."
Jones, an enormously powerful man with sleepy eyes, grinned and nodded. "We're getting to know each other," he says. "That's the big thing. I got a lot of confidence in myself, and in Los Angeles [Coach Tommy] Prothro was taking it away from me by not letting me do things my way. I'm in my prime now. I talked with Svare when I was traded, and he told me he wants to win now. I think we got a good chance. This man has done his homework."
"Svare gives you more freedom, and I like that," Costa adds. "I've always had to play read and go—read the keys and go to where it's happening. The philosophy here is to play go and read. I made a tackle in the backfield against the 49ers, and that's the first time I've done that on a running play in 10 years."
No defense has yet been devised that can read the keys to the most controversial and most elusive new Charger, Duane Thomas. Obtained from Dallas for two very good players—Running Back Mike Montgomery and Wide Receiver Billy Parks—Thomas made only three fleeting visits to the Chargers before he materialized for the fourth time last Tuesday at practice. He wore an unnumbered helmet, a blue Charger warm-up jacket and gray sweat pants over old-fashioned hightop football shoes. "I didn't even know he was there," said Mike Garrett, a running back who is probably as good as Thomas thinks Thomas is. "I was catching punts and looked up and there he was. I threw him the ball and ran back to the huddle."
Thomas stood by himself, tossing the ball in the air and catching it. Then he lined up and went down under a few punts, not talking to anyone. When the practice ended, he stayed late and ran through plays with John Hadl, the quarterback, and Ron Waller, coach of the special teams. Then he listened carefully as Hadl and Waller explained the Charger terminology. He spoke rarely, and his face, as always, was passive.
When they quit after 45 minutes, Thomas walked toward a small bus that would take him back to the Charger dressing rooms in the stadium. Someone asked him if he had come to play.
"Are you in condition?"
"I'm always in condition."
"Why did you want 30 days to report?"
"What do you think?"
He refused to answer any more questions and boarded the bus, sitting quietly and not speaking to the other players. The next morning he failed to appear at a team meeting. Later, however, he hitchhiked to the Charger offices and had a brief interview with Svare, at which he tried to discuss his contract, although a couple of weeks before he had failed to keep two appointments with Owner Klein to go over exactly that issue. "That's not my job," Svare told Thomas Wednesday. "I don't talk contract with anyone."
"Maybe I better go back to Dallas," Thomas said.
"Go ahead," said Svare.
Svare was uncharacteristically perturbed when he went to practice. "I've got a club to worry about," he said. "Thomas can do what he wants. I've had it. I thought he wanted to play." Thomas had given that impression in a rare interview that he granted to Jerry Gross, sports director of KFMB, Tuesday afternoon.
When Gross asked what goals Thomas had as a player for the Chargers, he answered: "The ultimate. Super Bowl."
"What kind of club do you think the Chargers have?"
"Well, now they have the best in the world."
"With Duane Thomas?"
"That's another way of saying it."
"No regrets about coming in late?"
"Well, regrets are the beginning of something new."
Whatever regrets may be, Thomas apparently had some more. On Wednesday, though it was supposed that he had returned to Dallas, he actually spent the day holed up in Room 252 of the Master Hosts Inn, adjacent to the golf course where the Chargers work out. On Thursday he went to the airport and stayed there six hours. Then he left the airport and went to Palm Springs, where he talked for four hours with Klein. The meeting was amicable enough, but Thomas promptly disappeared again until he was finally located back home in Dallas. "I needed a change of clothes and a shower," he explained.
Maybe the Chargers do not need him that much. Garrett ran well against Denver, picking up 104 yards in 21 carries, one a marvelous 41-yard dash on a trap play for a touchdown.
At the end of Thomas' brief TV interview, Gross had asked him if he had anything to say to the Charger fans. Thomas mulled that over for a while, then said softly, "Hello."
The Chargers—and the Dirty Dozen—look like they will survive if he says, "Goodby."