Computer ready? Let's play war games. Punch in the San Diego Chargers as the U.S. Department of Defense and Coach Don Coryell as the Commander in Chief. Next, program the computer Situation Red and Clock Running. Now execute. The screen erupts as: 1) Coryell hits the enemy with the greatest array of weaponry this side of Darth Vader's Death Star; 2) the enemy prepares to surrender; 3) Coryell launches another bank of missiles for good measure; 4) a band of pygmies walks into the War Room and subdues the Chargers with blowguns.
Coryell, as everyone knows, is the man without a defense. In his own little war game, which he has been playing since he arrived in San Diego in 1978, Coryell has been trying to bomb the NFL into submission without covering his flanks, or anywhere else. The result has been one of the oddest pairings in sports—an offense that can't be stopped and a defense that can't stop anything.
Last season San Diego led the NFL in offense for the third consecutive year. Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, Wes Chandler, Charlie Joiner, Chuck Muncie, James Brooks et al. rained down on opponents for 449.8 yards a game, the third-best offensive average in NFL history. The Chargers passed for a league-record 325.2 yards per game. They also led the NFL in first downs, average gain per play, total points and end-zone theatrics. By contrast, the defense finished 25th in yards given up per game (361.4), 24th in points allowed (24.6) and 28th, dead last, in pass defense, yielding on average 254.7 yards. This performance followed a 1981 season in which the defense was last against the pass and 27th in total defense.
One result of this bizarre union is that the Chargers have become the quintessential TV team. How can a viewer leave his chair when he knows the lead may change hands three times before he can reach the refrigerator door? Consider that San Diego soared ahead of the L.A. Raiders 24-0 last year only to lose 28-24. And that in the AFC divisional playoffs two seasons ago the Chargers led Miami 24-0, fell behind 38-31 and then finally won 41-38 in overtime. And that last year against San Francisco, in a game that had two ties and four lead changes as well as an NFL-record 65 pass completions and 1,009 total yards, the Chargers barely escaped 41-37. "TV people love that sort of thing," says Coryell with a characteristic grimace.
August 21, 1983
Such theatrics are tough on a coach's heart, however. Though Coryell claims he's California-mellow these days—"I saw a young cardiologist a while ago, and he said he'd trade blood vessels with me"—he's ready to make concessions. To get to the Super Bowl (the Chargers have won the AFC West three of the last four years but haven't advanced beyond the conference championship game) Coryell is even willing to build a defense. "We can't win without one," he says almost sadly.
So the Chargers have made their move. From 1976 through 1982 San Diego didn't take a defensive player in the first two rounds of the draft, but this year it selected two in the first round and seven altogether. Last week during practice, six of those rookies lined up with the first defensive unit. Holdouts and injuries partly accounted for the quick advancement of a few of these newcomers, but, says Coryell, "I wouldn't be surprised to see five of those rookies starting sometime during the season." In the order they were picked, the five are:
•Inside Linebacker Billy Ray Smith: 6'3", 239 pounds, Arkansas, first round. The namesake son of a former NFL defensive tackle, Smith is crafty, agile and polite, but he raised Charger eyebrows when he signed for $2.4 million for four years. He played defensive tackle and end for the Razorbacks.
•Left Cornerback Gill Byrd: 5'11", 191 pounds, San Jose State, first round. Byrd signed for $1,075,000 for four years. The Chargers' only worry is that-his right knee, on which he had surgery in college, holds up.
•Right Cornerback Danny Walters: 6'1", 187 pounds, Arkansas, fourth round. Walters runs the 40 in 4.4 and can jump to the moon. Because he switched from running back/wide receiver to defense as a junior, he was relatively unheralded in college, and San Diego thinks it made a steal.
•Nose Tackle Bill Elko: 6'5", 277 pounds, Louisiana State, seventh round. Raised amid the slag heaps of Pennsylvania's coal country, Elko is a press agent's dream. Mountain-man strong and fond of good hunting knives, he allegedly wrestled alligators while at LSU. He'll probably start if Louie Kelcher's knee doesn't improve.
•Inside Linebacker Mike Green: 6 feet, 226 pounds, Oklahoma State, ninth round. First-team All-Big Eight as a senior, Green nevertheless was considered a gamble in the pros because he seldom had to drop back in pass coverage. Quick, aggressive and vocal, he has taken injured veteran Cliff Thrift's spot.
The man in charge of the rookies is second-year Defensive Coordinator Tom Bass, a gigantic, bearded, shaved-headed published poet known to his players as Boss Hog. A startlingly gentle man, Bass looks like a cross between Oddjob and a sinister Burl Ives but talks like a supporter of the arts, which he is. Though excited by their potential, Bass has mixed feelings about his young charges. "I'm fairly optimistic," he says, "but I'm not naive enough to think we'll change everything in one year. We're playing a 3-4 defense now, which requires a lot of adjusting during the game, and our young people are going to make mistakes. But I don't think we have any choice—we're just going to put 'em in there and let 'em play."
Bass is most concerned about his defenders' mental progress. "When I came here one of my first impressions was that the defensive guys felt as if they were second-class citizens, that all the victories went to the offense while all the defeats went to the defense," he says. "I felt sorry for the defensive players. It's become important for me that they build pride and gain the respect of the other players on the team."
In San Diego's first preseason game, a 34-20 loss to the Rams, the Chargers' defense yielded 401 yards and looked unworthy of anyone's respect. But things improved last Saturday in a game against Philadelphia. Although the Eagles won 21-20, in the second half San Diego held them to just 86 yards and no points. "I can't speak for the whole defense," said grinning Linebacker Coach Chuck Weber afterward, "but I think we've got something going."
But how did the defense get into such a mess in the first place? As recently as 1980 San Diego had a vicious defense that led the NFL in sacks with 60. Thrift, the fifth-year linebacker who was the team's leading tackier last season, stands on the practice field sideline nursing a pulled hamstring and listens as a reporter offers him a list of possible answers. Can the demise of the defense be traced to the loss in 1981 of premier pass rusher Fred Dean in a contract squabble? Has the defense been allowed to grow old without being replenished with young blood? Have three different defensive coordinators in the last four years been the problem? Does fault lie with the offense, which keeps the defense on the field for long stretches by scoring so quickly? Does nobody care about the infantry while the air force is flying?
"All of the above," says Thrift.
In truth, the defense has suffered most of all from neglect. Losing Dean, who went to San Francisco and promptly was named the 1981 NFC Defensive Player of the Year, hurt terribly. Losing defensive ends Gary (Big Hands) Johnson and Leroy Jones—both players have left this year because of money disputes—will hamper the team in '83. The Chargers' sin has been not replacing the good defenders once they've departed. Coryell would never let that happen on offense. When All-Pro Wide Receiver John Jefferson went to Green Bay, for instance, he was replaced almost immediately by Chandler, also an All-Pro, and the great airplane scarcely tipped a wing.
Naturally, there has been friction between the offensive and defensive units. Most of it is good-natured stuff, but the offense can always cut deep when it wants. "No, I don't hate the defense," says Winslow. "It's just frustrating to watch a bunch of good, dedicated ballplayers struggle. When we kid them, that's all we're doing. But if you don't have a thick hide around here, you're in the wrong business."
The defense agrees. "On the plane home from the San Francisco game last year, we started calling ourselves the 'Tex Cobb Defense,' " says Thrift. "You know, "You can beat us up, but you can't knock us out.' What else can you do? You have to laugh."
What the defense is looking for in its rookie crop, according to Assistant General Manager Tank Younger, is just one horse, "one man who makes everybody around him play better—somebody like Dick Butkus, or Jack Lambert when the Steel Curtain was in its heyday." Though Younger says the player can be at any position, it seems the logical candidate for such distinction is Smith. He's in the middle; he calls the plays; he's a gamer. But Smith has never played linebacker, and he has been taking some lumps learning the position. "The first week in camp one offensive tackle was just tackling Billy Ray," says Thrift. "Billy came up to [Linebacker] Linden King and me and said, 'I can't believe it. I feel like I've just been raped.' We said, 'Get used to it.' "
Although admittedly "depressed" after a poor performance against the Rams, Smith played well in the Philadelphia game, making eight solo tackles and assisting on another in less than a half of play. If he doesn't turn out to be a Butkus—and very few prospects do—Smith should at least provide the Chargers with stability in the middle for a decade or so.
Likewise, Byrd and Walters should give a big boost to the secondary, a particularly vulnerable area now that San Diego lacks even a rudimentary pass rush. Walters, it seems, can get by on his athletic ability. Byrd, though, is more the tactician; he has a degree in business administration and finance and is a budding real estate salesman. "I'm not your flashy-type player," he says. "I like to blend in with a unit, to do something well for a long time. What I'd like is at the end of a game for the crowd to say, 'Did Gill Byrd even play?' In other words, nobody caught a pass on me, but I was so subtle nobody noticed."
The man with the biggest chance to leave his mark is probably Elko. Playing nose tackle in the 3-4 is a grim, thankless task. But playing it well is critical to the success of the formation, and it's a burden Elko wouldn't mind carrying for a while. It's better, he figures, than going back to Mine No. 40 in Windber, Pa., where he's from, and digging coal. "All those mine towns are the same," says Elko. "Row houses and the company store and black slag mountains everywhere." Elko is no stranger to hardship. His parents died when he was young, and an uncle raised him. Another uncle grew up in Mine No. 35, which was just down the road a piece. That uncle's name was Frank Kush, and Elko went to Arizona State for a year to play for him. Just to show that he didn't have favorites, Kush took Elko five miles into the desert one day and made him run back to camp. Elko transferred to LSU when Uncle Frank got fired.
The outdoors soothes Elko, and if he sticks with the Chargers he'd like to head back into the desert, "just take some food and a compass and go for days." He used to do that in Arizona, wandering alone, catching rattlesnakes in a burlap bag. Elko is one of those hard workers that everybody roots for. He's aware of the lucky situation he has run into in San Diego—no proven nose tackle in camp, a desperate defense—and he wants to take advantage of it. "Everybody's being real patient with me, giving me a lot of chances," he says. "This could be a gold mine for me." He smiles at that. "From the coal mine to the gold mine."
The Chargers' defense is still a long way from what Coryell calls "respectability," which is all the team needs to win a Super Bowl. Part of the problem is the offense itself. Coryell has perfected a lot of gimmicks that have spread into the league and that no one knows how to stop. Indeed, the main reason the Chargers have switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 is that Air Coryell clones have made the 4-3 all but obsolete. Even practicing against the San Diego offense isn't fulfilling. "It's so complicated and so many people are in motion that it looks like Canadian football," says Walters.
In short, the Chargers have met the enemy and it's them. Bass, normally a man of reserve, vented some feelings toward all offense by taking on its symbol in a section of his poem Welcome to the Pit:
for all at once
you'll see him standing there
that overpaid highly publicized
son of a bitch
that's called the quarterback
hit him quick
don't slow to scream or yell
more than any other man
he's the one
that makes us look like hell.
Sic 'em, rookies.