In the interests of conserving energy, the following information is provided gratis to the coaches of those NFL teams scheduled to play the San Diego Chargers this season. When the Chargers have the ball, men, don't bother to rig any elaborate defenses to stop the run. Don Coryell, the San Diego coach, doesn't buy the shibboleth that you've got to establish the running game before you can do anything else. No, sir. Coryell's master game plan consists of just one word: pass. Or as Dan Fouts, the Chargers' bearded quarterback, puts it, "We're going to throw the ball and we don't care who knows it."
The Minnesota Vikings and a crowd of 49,037 learned that firsthand Saturday night in San Diego Stadium as Fouts and his backups, James Harris and Cliff dander, completed a total of 18 passes to 11—count 'em, 11—different receivers in the Chargers' 19-0 preseason victory. With one ultimate weapon, in the person of the estimable John Jefferson, already conspicuous among his horde of receivers, Coryell unveiled in the Minnesota game a player who may well be what he needs to complete his aerial circus—rookie Tight End Kellen Winslow.
Desperate for a tight end in the Dave Casper-Russ Francis mold—one who could make life easier for Jefferson, who last year as a rookie made life miserable for defensive backs by catching 56 passes for 1,001 yards and led all NFL receivers with 13 touchdowns—Coryell did some furious last-second maneuvering during the draft in May and came away with the 6'5", 250-pound Winslow as the Chargers' No. 1 pick.
Jefferson's eyes almost pop out of his plastic goggles—he wears them to keep the prying fingers of defensive backs out of his eyes—when he considers how he expects Winslow to augment the Chargers' already potent passing attack. "I've been telling the other guys that we got the best football player in the draft," Jefferson says. "I played against him in college and I know what he can do."
August 19, 1979
As Jefferson no doubt sees it, Winslow can do only good things for Jefferson—and, of course, for all the other Chargers. Winslow is so fast—he does 4.6 in the 40, and Coryell believes he could be utilized as a wide receiver if necessary—that on certain plays his mere presence as a deep threat will prohibit defensive backs from double covering Jefferson.
Not that Jefferson, who went to Arizona State and was also a first-round draft choice, needs much help from Winslow or anyone else. He has run the 100 in 9.6 and his hands are like suction cups. He flat-out dropped only one pass last year, but on the same play he suffered a slight shoulder separation. He turned the first pass Fouts threw to him into a 29-yard touchdown play, and converted Fouts' last pass of the season into a 37-yard scoring play. The folks in San Diego have not seen anything like Jefferson since the glory days of Lance (Bambi) Alworth. But when Charger publicists started to call him "The Jefferson Airplane," he told them to forget the nicknames: his initials, JJ, would suffice for now.
As for Jefferson's pass-catching style, Charger Wide Receiver Charlie Joiner, a 10-year veteran, says JJ does not merely catch the ball, he "attacks" it. Last season Jefferson became the first NFL rookie to "attack" more than 1,000 yards worth of passes since Bobby Hayes did it for Dallas in 1965.
For his part, Winslow is naturally delighted that Coryell made the draft-day deal with the Cleveland Browns that assured him of a place in the San Diego sun. "If I'd gone to Buffalo or Cincinnati," he says, "I'd have had to buy a four-wheel-drive Cadillac."
Winslow was driving a new Datsun when he showed up in San Diego in mid-June to begin familiarizing himself with the Chargers' playbook and the bombs-away offensive philosophy that Coryell had imparted to the Chargers last season after replacing Tommy Prothro four games into the schedule. The Chargers were 1-3 and typically boring under Prothro, but they were 8-4—with seven wins in their last eight games—and wildly exciting under Coryell. San Diego scored an average of 41 points in its final three games.
Fouts gives all the credit for San Diego's resurgence to Coryell; not coincidentally, St. Louis was a high-scoring offensive machine, featuring Jim Hart's passes to Mel Gray and Terry Metcalf's triple-threat explosiveness, when Coryell was the Cardinals' coach and had present Charger assistants Jim Hanifan and Joe Gibbs as aides. Says Fouts, "The three of them are like one huge efficient mind, always thinking of ways to win football games."
And not by means of a safety blitz or a nickel pass coverage. Coryell is an old paratrooper who has not forgotten the toy soldiers of his youth. He lives and loves the offensive, attacking side of the game, and revels in its military aspects. He did not bother to change the Chargers' defensive coaches when he replaced Prothro, and to receive even the slightest approval from Coryell at practice a defensive player must do something astounding. "He hates to compliment the defense," says Fouts.
On the other hand, Coryell ladles out praise for his offensive players. He maintains that Jefferson stands in a "class by himself," and insists that "We've got a great one in Winslow. There's no question he'll be a great one for many years."
Winslow did not play football until his senior year of high school in East St. Louis, Ill.; in fact, the first time he tried out for the team, he put his pants on backwards—although one leg at a time. He won a football scholarship to the University of Missouri, and once on campus he showed so many fluid moves on the football field that the school's basketball coach, Norm Stewart, tried to persuade him to play two sports.
As the Chargers' training camp opened in suburban La Jolla, Winslow's competition for the starting tight end assignment consisted of veteran holdovers Bob Klein and Pat Curran and journeyman reserve Gregg McCrary. What Winslow needed in camp was a fast start, but on the first day of practice he slipped on some wet turf, pulled a hamstring and was out of action for 2½ weeks.
Few rookies win a job in the trainer's room, but Coryell was not of a mind to rush Winslow back onto the field. In his five years of football, he has missed only a game and half because of injury; he was asked to model swimwear at a recent fashion show because he was the only Charger on hand who did not have unsightly scars crisscrossing his knees. "I know what it is to play with pain and to play with injury," Winslow says. "There's a big distinction."
Still, there was grumbling among a few of the Chargers that Coryell was coddling Winslow, that the rookie—however talented he was supposed to be—should have been participating in at least some of the Chargers' workouts. Mike Thomas, the running back whom San Diego acquired from Washington in May, took to calling Winslow "Super Rook." Winslow quickly sensed what he called the "negative vibes" and suspected that teammates felt he was malingering.
"I'm starting to think that some people here are doubting my ability," Winslow said. "The pressure is from the veterans. I guess my biggest fear is that people are going to be jealous. But it's a lot easier to go from a nobody to a somebody than to start as a somebody, because then there is nowhere else to go. You have to fight to stay up there."
Per plan, Coryell had Winslow suit up for the Chargers' first exhibition game against the 49ers two weeks ago in San Francisco, but, also per plan, he kept Winslow on the sidelines playing spectator as San Diego lost a sloppy game 13-10. Coryell had several plans in operation that night. He also wanted Fouts to play for only as long as it took him to throw a touchdown pass. Not wishing to wear himself out too early in the year, Fouts hooked up with Jefferson on a 17-yard scoring pass the first time the Chargers had the ball—and then they both took the rest of the night off.
Winslow finally resumed full-scale training last week as the Chargers prepared for Saturday's game against the Vikings.
Coryell started Klein at tight end, then put in McCrary, who early in the second quarter caught a 34-yard touchdown pass from Fouts. Jefferson was used mainly as a decoy, catching only one pass for a mere nine yards. Winslow finally was inserted into the lineup late in the second quarter, and played part of the third quarter and all of the fourth. Two passes were thrown to him. One flew past his outstretched hands, but he snagged the other for a 13-yard gain.
And on the sidelines John Jefferson was even more goggle-eyed than usual.