The San Diego chargers are now 8-1, and the pro football world is filled with disbelief. A 16-14 victory over the Los Angeles Raiders on Sunday night in San Diego gave them, in this strange, strike-interrupted season, a two-game lead on the rest of the AFC. These Chargers are largely the same people who were 4-12 last season, aren't they? The same ones who have not finished higher than fourth in their division, the AFC West, in four years?
O.K., they're the same people plus Pro Bowl linebacker Chip Banks. But he hasn't been a sacking terror, just another good, solid veteran. How are they doing what they're doing? Let's look at this story in its logical order:
THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS
After Sunday's game, Dan Fouts wobbled down the corridor leading from the locker room, his right leg tightly taped from ankle to knee. He turned to one of the guys he was giving a lift home. "The question is, Who is going to start the car?" said Fouts.
November 23, 1987
Charger coach Al Saunders, who at 40 is four years older than his quarterback, watched him leave and then pointed to a picture, on the locker room wall, of the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "That's exactly where that guy should be," said Saunders.
A muscle in Fouts's calf had popped early in the pregame warmups. He had dragged himself into the locker room. "I saw that," said offensive tackle Jim Lachey, "and I turned to Mark Herrmann and said, 'Herrmie, warm up. You're it tonight.' "
"Sure, I thought Danny was out," said center Don Macek. "I mean, you're warming up with a different quarterback, what are you supposed to think? But just when we're ready to go out for the coin toss, here comes Dan, trotting out onto the field."
"Massage," Fouts said after the game. "They gave it a good long massage." "Massage" was Fouts's euphemism for a needle filled with painkiller, a remedy with which he has become well acquainted during his 15 NFL seasons.
"Tough, I'll tell you, the man is tough," Macek continued. "I remember a game against Cleveland a couple of years ago. He got his knee blown out. In the huddle his face was bright red, and I knew something was really wrong with him, but he finished the series. When we watched the films we could see that when he dropped back to pass his knee was moving from side to side. How he ever stayed in there.... Then there was the Raiders game last year when Sean Jones broke his nose."
"Pickel, it was Bill Pickel that did it," Lachey said.
"No, that was a different time," Macek said. "Anyway he didn't miss a play. He had cotton stuffed up his nose and tape across his face to keep the cotton in. The tape kept coming loose and flapping, and the blood was running out of his nose and mouth. Over the years I've seen him take some punishment. That's one tough sucker."
A tough sucker who has been the Chargers' quarterback for as long as...as long as...well, can you remember the last San Diego quarterback? O.K., it was John Unitas, who handed the reins over to the rookie Fouts in 1973. Seven NFL career passing records belong to Fouts, and there he was, beating that nasty Raider defense on a numb leg that gave him nothing to push off from. His long passes looked like high pop-ups. He completed just 15 of 32 throws for 149 yards and one touchdown and was intercepted once. But somehow he got the job done.
Oh, they love him in San Diego, but last summer things weren't so rosy. He was 36, and his back was bothering him. Over the last four years Fouts had missed 76 quarters of football. He wanted the last two years of his contract, 1987 and 1988, to be fully guaranteed. The $750,000 salary he was pulling down sounded like a lot of money, until you considered that 18 quarterbacks in the league were making more. He had taken a gamble. The six-year deal he signed in 1983 included $250,000 in yearly incentives, which were keyed to the Chargers' qualifying for the playoffs, something they had done the four previous seasons. Fouts never collected. He had gambled and lost. Now he was 36 and underpaid by NFL standards, and time was running out.
Steve Ortmayer, San Diego's new director of operations, who was imported from the Raiders, was willing to give Fouts more money, but the two-year guarantee? Let's hold off on that. Then the season began and the players went out on strike. Fouts, who isn't a member of the players union, reportedly wanted to cross the picket line and play with the replacement players. Saunders said no, organize workouts for the striking players instead, so they will be prepared to play when the strike is over. Fouts agreed, but said he wanted to be paid. The team reportedly said that couldn't be done unless he crossed the line—which, of course, is what he had been asked not to do. Nonetheless, Fouts held the veterans together, running drills—7 on 7's, 11 on 11's—and preparing them for future opponents with weekly game plans provided by the club.
But even after that display of loyalty and leadership—as well as a 293-yard passing performance in a 42-21 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the first poststrike game—Fouts and the San Diego management remained at odds. "Where do you stand now?" someone asked him before the Chargers' overtime win over Cleveland the next week.
"Five-and-one," he said, "and I'm the Prince of Darkness."
Against the Browns he brought the Chargers back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter. Two days later everyone sat down, and Fouts's contract was worked out. Now Fouts says, "The deal is all right. I'm happy with everything."
It used to be a bend-but-not-break operation: Lay back and play coverages and let the other team inch its way down the field, hoping it would make a mistake. Then the offense would come in and get things done in a minute or two—i.e., either score or punt—which meant that the poor devils on defense would have to buckle up their chin straps and go back out to face more slow torture. Last year Ron Lynn was named defensive coordinator. He came from the USFL's Oakland Invaders, whose head coach, Charlie Sumner, was, and now is once again, defensive coach of the Raiders. Sumner has always liked to attack the pocket relentlessly. So Lynn put in a fierce blitzing scheme that produced a club-record 62 sacks last season, one less than the Raiders, the '86 NFL leader. With 37 sacks this season, the Chargers are on the same pace as last year.
"In 25 games we haven't rushed the passer with fewer than four people on any play, and sometimes we'll bring five or six or seven," says Lynn. "Sure, you'll occasionally give up big plays, especially if your cornerbacks aren't sound, but at least the issue is decided in a hurry. You're not leaving your guys out there forever. Plus, it's infectious. It steps up the tempo all over the field."
Billy Ray Smith—"the best-kept secret in the NFL," according to Lynn—was moved from inside linebacker to his natural position on the outside. On Sunday his diving interception on the Raiders' 22-yard line set up the Chargers' only TD. Banks came from Cleveland in a trade. Elvis Patterson, who was cut by the New York Giants this season after having started at cornerback for them in the Super Bowl, was a strike replacement player who stuck. The front line has gotten tougher, more physical.
The Raiders' patchwork offensive line was overmatched by the San Diego defense, and that was perhaps the biggest single factor in the game. The Raiders had a team-record 186 yards in penalties, including seven offensive holding calls. Los Angeles didn't score until the fourth quarter, getting its final touchdown with 16 seconds to play. To be sure, the Chargers' defense can improve. It still has a few gaps, and it's vulnerable to the run. But, goodness, compared with what it used to be....
"Al Saunders is the wild card in this deal," said Fouts when he was in the middle of his hassles with management. "He's making sure things get worked out." Saunders says he doesn't get involved in contract disputes between players and management, which is what coaches traditionally say. In fact, he sat in on two major meetings between the Chargers and Fouts and his agent, Howard Slusher.
"In the chemistry of trying to build a winning team, Dan is extremely important, and it's extra important that he feels himself a part of it," says Saunders. "Hey, he's a Hall of Famer. During the strike I asked him to provide the leadership and take charge of the offense with the guys who were out. He did that in exemplary fashion."
Saunders inherited a 1-7 team when Don Coryell quit last year, and the club won three of its last eight games. He had made his reputation as a bright, young receivers coach with the Chargers, but nobody knew just how tough the man was. He has also gained the respect of his players with his honesty. "So far," says Slusher, who isn't always easy to please, "he's been totally honest with us. And that's all you can ask."
THE D OF O
The first thing Ortmayer, who was Al Davis's righthand man while with the Raiders, did after taking over as director of operations was to give the coaching staff more input into the draft. "It was a pleasure to watch the way the draft was run," says San Diego owner Al Spanos. "Defensive coaches, offensive coaches, everyone had access to the big board. In the past the draft was run by only one or two guys."
Ortmayer swung the Banks deal. He rounded up a replacement team that went 3-0, without one active veteran crossing the line. That's where his experience as a college recruiter paid off. Ortmayer, pro personnel director Rudy Feldman and player personnel director Chet Franklin were all at Colorado together in the late '60s when the Buffaloes had nationally rated teams thanks largely to a heavy load of out-of-state talent. When the NFL strike threatened, the trio went to work recruiting.
One example: the theft of Wimpy Wheeler. An offensive lineman, Wheeler had played several games with the Raiders, who cut him in preseason. When the strike hit, L.A. wanted him back. The Chargers wanted him, too. Wheeler was staying in a San Diego hotel. The Raiders were phoning him every five minutes, as were the Chargers. Ortmayer got the hotel operator to block the Raider calls, but she went off duty at 12:30 a.m. So Franklin was dispatched to sneak Wheeler out of the hotel, but Wheeler remained registered. As the Chargers moved in for the kill, the Raiders were calling an empty hotel room. Wheeler eventually became a three-game starter for San Diego but was not one of the nine who made it with the team, seven of whom were in uniform on Sunday, including three defensive starters. Now that's recruiting.
Fouts to wide receiver Wes Chandler or Gary Anderson (sometimes he's a running back, sometimes a wideout) or Little Train James (ditto) or tight end Kellen Winslow, who shows more and more of his pre-knee operation prowess every week. (He has had 26 catches in the six nonstrike games.) Sometimes the Chargers work from a three-tight-end set, using No. 1 draft pick Rod Bernstine, who has been a force on special teams, or run the ball with Tim Spencer or Curtis Adams. Saunders likes to do that, too. "More offensive talent than I've seen since we were in the playoffs in '82," Fouts says.
We'll see. Right now, though, San Diego is 8-1. You can't argue with that.
"In 25 games we haven't rushed the passer with fewer than four people on any play."