Under a bright September sun in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium three weeks ago the Chargers, on their opening drive, moved the ball smartly down to the Houston 25. Now it was third-and-10, and the crowd of 52,466 grew quiet. It didn't know what to expect from this young Houston team. Moreover, the Chargers were coming off a 31-17 loss to Seattle the week before.
Third-and-10. In San Diego it's known as Charlie Joiner's down. He has made a career of catching 13-yard passes on third-and-10. Joiner lined up in the slot on the right side, inside Wes Chandler, the other wideout, and checked the coverage. Sixteen years of reading NFL defenses was at work now. It told him all he needed to know.
Steve Brown, the Oilers' second-year cornerback, was locked on Chandler. Keith Bostic, the strong safety, another second-year man, was on Joiner, and Bostic was playing him a few yards off the line. Two second-year men, two babies. The pick play was there, San Diego's bread and butter. Chandler comes inside, Joiner crosses to the outside underneath him. A little-breathing room was all Joiner was looking for. Bostic gave it to him, and it was over before anyone realized what had happened. Three yards past the first-down stake, Joiner caught Dan Fouts' sideline pass, and as he pitty-patted out of bounds and flipped the ball back to the official, a gathering roar came out of the stands.
It could happen sometime in December—maybe in the home final, against Kansas City, or the last road game, against Denver. Joiner will keep another drive going with a third-down catch. They'll stop the game at that point and hand him the ball and make a little speech, because he'll have broken Charley Taylor's record for most passes caught in a career. Joiner came into the 1984 season with 596 receptions. The record is 649. A 54-catch season shouldn't be a big deal for Joiner. In the Air Coryell system there are plenty of catches to go around.
Joiner will turn 37 on Oct. 14, and he caught 65 passes last season. The Chargers' p.r. staff figured out that 70% of those catches gave the team a first down. They've started keeping stats like that because of Joiner. They mention that in 1982, after the strike, each of Joiner's first 17 receptions produced a first down.
"My security blanket," Fouts calls Joiner.
His numbers won't get the attention of, say, Walter Payton's as he closes in on Jim Brown's alltime rushing record. The countdown has already begun for that one. So far no one is counting down for Joiner, which is fine with him.
"I don't want numbers just for the sake of numbers," he says. "Catches aren't all that important unless they mean something in a game situation."
"Charlie will get his catches," Fouts says, "unless all of a sudden they decide to do away with third downs."
When Joiner passes Taylor, it will be a record set in shadow, reflecting Joiner's whole career. He has always been outshone by the glamour receivers, the high flyers. At Houston (1969-72) he played in the shadow of Jerry LeVias and then Ken Burrough. At Cincinnati (1972-75) it was Isaac Curtis. At San Diego, first it was J.J. Jefferson, now it's Chandler and Kellen Winslow. Pluck one out of the sky, come down in the end zone, do a somersault, slap a high five...gee-whiz receivers have always surrounded Joiner. He doesn't slap any high fives and he's never danced after a touchdown catch, of which there have been 51. But gradually, as Joiner inched his way into the No. 4 receiving spot on the alltime list, it began to dawn on people that maybe one of the reasons big play receivers always seem to be on Joiner's team is that he helps get them where they are.
Set a pick, clear out an area, throw a block on a screen pass; it's kind of menial labor, but that's Joiner's game. If the defenses double the other receivers, if they zone him or give him a little breathing room, fine, he'll get his catches. If he doesn't, that's O.K., too.
In the first 10 games last year, Joiner caught no fewer than three passes and no more than five in each. The defenses began to take him for granted. So he caught six passes in the Chargers' one-point upset of Dallas, six more against St. Louis, seven against Denver. Uh-oh, time to clamp on Charlie again.
That's what the Oilers did in that game a few weeks ago after Joiner caught the 13-yarder that set up the Chargers' first TD. They played him tight, they bumped him, they gave him their full attention. So he set his picks and cleared areas, and he was so effective that the Chargers scored a touchdown on each of their next three possessions, too, and the game was over before halftime. Final score: San Diego 31, Houston 14. Afterward, Winslow, the 250-pound "motion" tight end, who had caught 10 passes, was asked "How come you were getting so open?" Winslow pointed his finger at Joiner, sitting all by himself in a far corner of the locker room. "Ask him," he said.
In Houston, Tom Williams, the former Oiler scout who had sold the team on Joiner when Charlie was catching passes for Grambling, had watched the game on TV. Williams, who now operates a Houston bakery specializing in Czechoslovakian pastries, has stayed close to Joiner and football. Joiner is an investor in the bakery, and it was Williams who set up Joiner's off-season workout program. No one knows Charlie Joiner better as an athlete than Williams, and he wasn't worried about the one-catch afternoon.
"He knows and the coaches know that he's the key to the Chargers' passing game," Williams said. "Against a team like the Oilers, Fouts will throw to the guys who are wide open, but when he comes up against the better defenses, he knows he's going to have to go to Charlie. He'll get the record. I'm not worried."
Some day football historians will look back and wonder, who was he? Who was this little 5'11" 185-pounder who didn't start putting together 70-catch seasons until he'd passed his 30th birthday, Social Security age for most wideouts? That was the 1979 season, his fourth in San Diego. The two seasons before hadn't been much for Joiner. In 1976, when he'd come to San Diego after a trade with Cincinnati, he'd caught 50 passes and averaged 21.1 yards per reception and gone to the Pro Bowl. But in '77 everyone was clamping on him. Johnny Rodgers—J.R. Superstar, the players called him—who'd come back from Canada and was going to take the deep pressure off Joiner, was hurt. Joe Washington, who'd been the No. 1 draft pick the year before, was coming off knee problems. Joiner got a steady dose of double coverage, and his output dropped to 35 catches, still tops among the Charger wideouts—the next-best wide receiver had only 13—but way off the pace for him.
Joiner had been playing in pain, constant pain from a deteriorating left knee. In February 1978, Joiner underwent surgery—had the knee "scraped," as they say. Decaying tissue was cleared out. In training camp that year he could practice only once a day. He spent the rest of the time riding a bicycle, and he became a familiar sight, endlessly pedaling around the perimeter of the field, a lonely figure in a checkered cap.
He thought about his career during those long summer days. He'd be playing for his third offensive coordinator in three years. Bill Walsh, who had coached him during his four-year stint in Cincinnati, also had been with him in '76, his big year in San Diego. Then Walsh left the Chargers and Max Coley took over in '77. In '78 Ray Perkins was the new guy, and it was clear that he intended to make 29-year-old halfback Lydell Mitchell, who came over from Baltimore in a trade, the possession receiver. The long-ball man was also no mystery. The Chargers had drafted Jefferson in the first round that year. Joiner, who would be 31 in October, was odd man out. One day after practice he went to see the head coach, Tommy Prothro, and told him he'd had it. He was quitting.
"He saved my career," Joiner says. "We had a long talk. He told me to stick with it. He told me I still had some productive years left. So I hung in."
Don Coryell replaced Prothro in September 1978, and for the next season he hired yet another offensive coordinator, Joe Gibbs, who'd been with Coryell at St. Louis. In the off-season, as Coryell and Gibbs watched the films. Joiner jumped out at them. Under Perkins he'd practically been phased out of the offense, with 33 catches and one touchdown. But they saw that he kept getting open. He seemed to have a feel for the whole pass pattern, the big picture. Coryell and Gibbs realized what a rare jewel they had in Joiner, and as they laid the groundwork for the most productive passing game in history, they knew Joiner would be the key to it.
The astounding numbers began to roll in. In the 1979 season—Joiner was now 32—he caught 72 passes. Only two receivers in history, Don Maynard and Ahmad Rashad, had caught 70 or more balls after turning 30, and each was 30 on the nose when he did it. In 1980 Joiner made 71 receptions, in '81 he had 70, 36 in strike-shortened '82 and 65 last season.
Walsh has called Joiner "the most intelligent receiver the game has ever known, the smartest, the most calculating. He could come off the field and tell me what had happened on the other side of the field. He could get on the phone and talk about coverages on the far side. I don't know how he did it, a kind of extra sense, I guess."
Williams says he scouted Joiner when he was a senior at W.O. Boston High in Lake Charles, La., and one move told him all he needed to know. "A double-out," he recalls. "A move a lot of pros can't make. He ran a 10-yard sideline route, turned upfield and ran another one, all in one motion. The defensive back was on the ground at the end of it. He got turned and burned."
"Genius. Charlie was a genius at the pass receiving game," Grambling coach Eddie Robinson says. "He brought it with him. Willie Brown, who was with the Raiders at the time, used to come back to Grambling to work with our defensive backs. But he'd also keep Charlie out after practice and work on covering him, one-on-one. One day Willie told me, 'Coach, I'm getting as much out of this as the kids are. If I can cover Charlie, I can cover anybody in the NFL.' "
Joiner went to Houston as a fourth-round draft choice. He could run a 4.5 40 in those days. He could burn deep. The Oilers, who'd planned to make him a cornerback, didn't quite understand what they had. "I was their quarterback when he came to Houston in '69," says Pete Beathard. "Right away we knew he was the best receiver on the squad. No defensive back could cover him man to man. But our receivers coach, Fran Polsfoot, tried to change him. He took away all his fluid moves and coached him to stop and square off his cuts. He nullified all his speed. You see it happen to some receivers in a certain system."
In 1972 the Oilers traded Joiner to Cincinnati. They'd gotten somebody bigger and faster, the 6'4" Burrough. With Joiner and Curtis as his wideouts, Walsh produced a passing attack that got Cincinnati into the playoffs in 73 and '75. Then Paul Brown stepped down as head coach and Tiger Johnson, not Walsh, was named to succeed him. Johnson traded Joiner to the Chargers for a pass-rusher. Coy Bacon, a trade Walsh would have fought bitterly—but he was gone, too. He was with Joiner in San Diego.
"Coach Walsh taught me to work within a disciplined system," Joiner says. "I wasn't used to that kind of a system. Everything was very precise under him. A Bill Walsh quarterback, for instance, is always going to complete 60 percent of his passes. It's just made for it."
Throughout his Houston, Cincinnati and early San Diego years. Joiner was considered a long-ball receiver. In his first seven seasons as a regular he averaged 18.9 yards per catch, putting him right up there with the high fliers. But in the Air Coryell system he became a possession man, a third-down guy. His receptions went up. his yards per catch went down. In the psyches of wideouts you've got the flyers and the workers, but very seldom does one turn into the other.
"It's kind of an unheard-of transition, isn't it?" Fouts says. "The only other guy I can recall that happening to is Rashad. Having Charlie is like having a fail-safe button. In our offense it's up to me to decide who I'm going to go to, based on the coverages. When I'm back there in the pocket, it's an intangible type of thing. There's no way to describe it. I can tell when Charlie's going to be open, and at the last minute I'll look to a spot and there he'll be and he'll catch the ball. He has the perfect speed for my passes."
Joiner doesn't see any great mystery in his conversion from flyer to possession receiver. To him football has always come down to one essential fact—this is what has to be done, so you do it.
"If I can credit that transition to one thing," he says, "it's that I kept up with the defenses. In the old days you had to beat bump-and-run coverages. If you couldn't get away from them you weren't going to last very long. But now I'll probably see 25 different varieties of zone coverages within a few weeks. If you want to stay in the game, especially at my age, you'd better keep up with it."
Joiner has kept abreast of changing conditions ever since he was growing up in Lake Charles. La., the only child of Effie and Charlie Joiner Sr., a driver for the Roy Hay Trucking Company. Lake Charles was Grambling territory. Joiner's coach at W.O. Boston High, Wiley Stewart, had played for Eddie Robinson and taught his system. There was no doubt about where Joiner would go to college.
"We liked our receivers a bit bigger," Robinson says. "But Wiley said, 'Believe me. Coach, this kid can play for you,' and that was all I needed to hear. Charlie was quiet, just like he is now, very serious about football, a very serious student. He got his degree in accounting. He could have played defensive back for us, too. He wasn't afraid to give a good lick."
"Football was serious stuff at Grambling," Joiner says. "What you see in the NFL in the last few years, the high fives, the dancing in the end zone—well, I don't think you'll see a Grambling guy doing it. It just isn't Grambling's style. You catch a pass for a touchdown, toss it back to the official and get ready to line up again. Maybe that's why I've always gotten along with defensive backs. You don't want to get those guys hating you. I work out with a lot of them in the off-season back in Houston, Lester Hayes, Darrell Green, different ones every day. We run The Hill together."
During the off-season, Joiner and Dianne, his wife of 11 years, along with his daughters Jynaya, 9, and Kori, 7, live in Houston, and for 13 years he worked in a Gulf Oil accounting department. Dianne knows all about The Hill. "Actually, it's a steep 15-yard incline on the side of a bayou," she says. "People who go out with Charlie to run that thing for the first time don't know what they're getting" into."
"Tom Williams devised the drill," Joiner says. "You go up forward, then backward, then forward again. You do it 10 times. That's one set. Tom might call for three sets of 10's. You don't want to schedule any racquetball or anything like that after you've done The Hill."
Earl Campbell occasionally runs The Hill but he's not one of its real fans. "That's for guys like Charlie, not people who are built like me."
Joiner's build might seem delicate in comparison to Campbell's, but he certainly can match the 238-pound running back for ruggedness. Coryell says Joiner didn't miss a practice last year. "Actually I don't recall him ever missing a practice at all since I've been in San Diego," Coryell says. "Last year he cracked a rib and didn't take one day off. He said, 'I'll work through it.' "
In 1981 Joiner dislocated a shoulder in the next-to-last game against Tampa Bay, a game the Chargers needed to win to stay alive for the AFC West title. He came back in and made a clutch catch to set up the victory.
"It popped out and they popped it back in on the sideline," he said.
"Did it hurt?"
"Hell, yes, it hurt," he said.
Next week he caught six balls against the Raiders as the Chargers clinched the title. His teammates voted him Most Inspirational Player that year, an award he duplicated last season.
In fact, Joiner hasn't missed a game in 11 years, including the final one of 1979, a Monday-nighter against Denver that earned San Diego a division title. In the second quarter of that contest, Bronco linebacker Tommy Jackson knocked Joiner cold with a shot that mashed the receiver's helmet down over his right eye and opened a cut that required 12 stitches to close.
"He hit me on a crossing route over the middle," Joiner says. "It was the only time I'd ever been knocked out. I remember the second quarter, then I remember the fourth quarter." Included in that blank stretch was the game-winning pass Joiner caught—a 32-yarder in the third quarter.
It's something Joiner must have thought of last July after his two-year contract had run out and he was marking time in the Hanalei Motel in San Diego while the Chargers were practicing. Joiner, who acts as his own agent, was asking for a new contract with a bigger number than the $215,000 he had earned last year, with a two-year guarantee. The Chargers were offering only one year. According to Tank Younger, the Charger assistant general manager who was negotiating with Joiner, it had been decided two years ago that all future Joiner contracts would be on a one-year, no-option basis. The Chargers were playing hardball. They were letting Joiner stew, and it was tough on him. "He honest to God believes that if you miss one practice you'll lose something," says assistant coach Ernie Zampese.
Another bitter pill was that Younger was a Grambling guy, the first of the great Grambling superstars in the NFL. A picture of Joiner hangs in Younger's office. The inscription reads, "Just keep treating me like a son and we'll be all right."
"Last July he stopped." says Dianne Joiner.
Joiner signed his contract at the end of July—one year, with no option, for an estimated $375,000, and incentives that could raise the total over $400,000. It will probably be worth it in publicity alone when he starts closing in on Taylor's record. A couple of weeks ago Fouts was asked if he'd feed Charlie a few gimmes, a few little out-passes at the end of a game that was in the bag, something to help his numbers along.
"Hey, we don't work that way," Fouts said. "It wouldn't be kosher. Besides, Charlie wouldn't go for it. All I'm trying to do out there is look for a port in the storm. He's the port."
HE'S SUPERSTITIOUS AS WELL AS SUPER
In his 16 years in the superstitious precincts of the NFL, Charlie Joiner has picked up his share of quirks and oddities. For instance:
•He has to leave for a game four hours before kickoff, no earlier, no later. If it's a road game, he'll go in a taxi and he'll always ride with Sid Brooks, the Chargers' equipment manager.
•Nothing can ever be out of place in his locker, which looks as if it could pass a military inspection. He was. in fact, in the Army reserve from 1969 to '74.
•He'll never wear anything new in a game—socks, jerseys, anything. "One time, by mistake, I cleaned his helmet and polished it," Brooks says. "When he saw it, Charlie asked me to go outside and knock it against the wall and take the shine off." And he won't wear the modern "air" helmet. He still has his old suspension model, with its outmoded face mask. "I told him once that they'd quit making that style and someday he'd have to change," Brooks says, "and he almost had a fit. He said. 'What if I break it? You've got to find me a backup.' So I found an old one somewhere, and he started wearing it, just to break it in for emergency use."
•He has to be the first player in the locker room on game days. He likes to be the last one to leave the locker room for team meetings—as long as he's not late. In his 16 seasons he has never been fined.
•If he drops a ball, or if a defender knocks away a pass headed for him, he'll go through the following ritual: He'll sit down, pull his socks up, clap his hands once, place his hands under his butt and push himself upright, keeping his feet in place. Watch for it. It's a rare sight.