They have no winning tradition. Not one of them knows what it's like to step into the NFL playoffs wearing the blue and gold of the San Diego Chargers. Some of them weren't even born when John Hadl and Lance Alworth were sending lightning bolts across the skies of the AFL. They were in high school during the heyday of Air Coryell. Only a half dozen have experienced a winning season in San Diego—8-7 in 1987—and it was tainted by six straight losses at the end.
Nobody's darlings, nebbishes, perennial losers. But now, after Sunday's 27-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Chargers are 9-5, tied for the AFC West lead with the Kansas City Chiefs and one win away from a playoff berth. So who are these guys, and how did they get where they are?
Primarily with their defense. It has been the constant, the rock to lean on when times were grim, which they were a month into the season. The record was 0-4. After the third game, a 23-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, rookie San Diego coach Bobby Ross issued a public apology to "our ownership, our management and our fans." Then the Houston Oilers blew out the Chargers 27-0. "We were 0-4, and it was 'Here we go again,' " says cornerback Gill Byrd.
Ross was the Chargers' fourth coach in seven years. Bobby Beathard, the miracle worker from the Washington Redskins, the guy who would turn everything around, was their third general manager in the same span. In 1990 and '91, Beathard's first two years in San Diego, the Chargers had gone 6-10 and 4-12, and this season looked as if it would be worse than either of those. The Beathard magic was wearing off.
Quarterback John Friesz was lost for the year in the preseason to knee surgery. Beathard's import from Washington, overweight, underachieving Stan Humphries, was in a one-touchdown, eight-interception funk, and the fans were booing him. Wideout Anthony Miller, a long-ball threat who was coming off a disappointing 1991 season and was vowing that this would be his turnaround year, was averaging three catches and 39 yards a game.
Only the defense was hanging tough, a a unit fortified by four years of top draft choices and run by 65-year-old Bill Arnsparger, who had been out of the NFL for eight years. Even though the Chargers were winless, their defense ranked second in the AFC and fourth overall. And as they proceeded to win nine of their next 10 games, as Humphries slipped into a comfort zone with his receivers, as Miller started making the kinds of long TD catches that had gotten him into two Pro Bowls, and as the power running game that had been the San Diego trademark gathered momentum, the defense remained at a consistently high level. Today it ranks third in the conference and fifth in the league. It's young (six starters are 25 or under), it's on the rise, and the cast of characters is unusual.
The Flywheel. At times Junior Seau looks to be out of control, like a flywheel spinning loose. Seau doesn't take on blockers; he bounces off them, darts around them, flies to the ball—sometimes flies right by the ball. At 6'3", 250 pounds, with 4.5 speed and phenomenal athletic ability, he plays the game with joyous abandon. Listed as an inside linebacker, Seau usually lines up on the weak side, but that's only the launch position. He flies off on uncharted trajectories. "We're never quite sure what he's going to do," says defensive end Burt Grossman, and neither is the opposing offense, which means many, many big plays for Seau—and some broken ones.
"At Southern Cal all I did was rush the passer or chase the ball," he says. " 'There's the ball on the other side of the line. Go get it, Junior.' Now, for the first time, I've got an awareness of the scheme, so I can attack with more intensity. But I like to take a chance, too, and be where they don't think I'm going to be. I'm cheating the scheme, let's put it that way."
"Scheme, what scheme?" says former NFL linebacker Matt Millen, who's now a CBS commentator. "He looks like he's playing his own scheme out there."
"Junior's like the guy in an old Clint Eastwood movie," says Grossman. "He can help us more on a horse than on the ground. So let him ride his horse."
The Old Man. That's what his players call him—not to his face, of course. Only one or two of them had heard of Arnsparger, who coached the Miami Dolphin No-Names and Killer Bees in four Super Bowls, whose 11 years with Don Shula produced nine seasons in which the Dolphins allowed the fewest or second-fewest points in the NFL. In those eight years before he joined the Chargers, Arnsparger was the coach at LSU and the athletic director at Florida. But he got the itch for another shot at the pros.
In his search for a defensive coordinator, Ross was leaning toward Rod Rust, with whom he had worked at Kansas City. However, Beathard, who was Miami's player personnel director in the Dolphins' glory years, suggested that Ross sit down with Arnsparger. One session did it. "We didn't even talk football," Ross says. "I was just so impressed with the man, with his sense of organization."
Under Arnsparger's predecessor, Ron Lynn, San Diego played an attack style that emphasized blitzing, and the Charger defense had some good years doing it—sixth in the NFL in 1989, fifth in '90—but last season fell to 19th. "I was a nervous wreck," Byrd says. "I was in man coverage all the time. I mean, you're constantly sending five or six people after the quarterback, and if they don't get there in time, well, then...."
Players were switched up and down the defensive line. Right end Leslie O'Neal, who had been a featured outside rusher his entire career, in 1991 spent time inside, in the meat grinder, so that Seau could rush from the outside. Says O'Neal, "I wondered if we were trying to win as much as trying to get certain people into the Pro Bowl."
At the other end of the line, Grossman sometimes made the same switch—even though he weighed only 245 pounds. "I didn't get abused too badly by the guards and centers," he says, "but I was a nonfactor. People said my productivity fell off, but nobody said, 'Well, he's playing out of position.' Sometimes I'd have to peel off and cover a receiver downfield. If you switch John Friesz from quarterback to cornerback, he's not going to do much either. The defense we play now might not be as exciting, but it's more disciplined. The big thing is that we always line up in our regular spots. Frankly, I prefer it."
Simplicity is the key to Arnsparger's system, a basic 4-3 with heavy zone coverage. Everyone is on the same page. "If you can't play his defense," says Nick Buoniconti, who was Arnsparger's middle linebacker in Miami, "you ought to be playing semipro."
The King of Sack. O'Neal always knew how to rush the passer. San Diego drafted him out of Oklahoma State in the first round in 1986 and turned him loose. He was a rookie phenom, with 12½ sacks in 13 games, but then he tore up a knee. He was out for a year and a half, but he made the Pro Bowl after the '89 and '90 seasons. Last year his sacks were down, his comments about Lynn's defensive scheme and about life in general were critical, and the media coverage he received was not flattering. So for much of this season he slopped talking to the press. "What kind of publicity other than bad publicity are you going to get on a 4-12 team," says O'Neal. "I was tired of being a scapegoat just because I was outspoken."
Now he's talking again—and sacking. Despite being double-teamed most of the time, he has a career-high 15 sacks after having gotten 1½ against Cincinnati and four against the Phoenix Cardinals the week before. He does most of his sacking late in the game. The offense tires, he comes on. "When you're on top and the other team's playing catch-up, that's when the sacks come," says O'Neal. "But I've been on the other side so many times. You're behind, and the other team's running the ball down your throat. Believe me, this way's much better."
The Video Man. Depression and redemption—it's a recurring theme with these players. Free safety Stanley Richard was just another pretty face as a first-round draft pick in 1991, a guy who was constantly asking Byrd, "What do we do on this one?" Then Richard got busy with the films and committed himself to learning his trade, and now he's one of the best safeties in the league.
But tackle Blaise Winter has a rags-to-riches story that beats them all. Cut by the Green Bay Packers in training camp last season after six years in the league, he shopped himself around last spring. "Some places I couldn't get past the receptionist," says the 30-year-old Winter. "Other clubs told me stuff like 'We're going in a different direction' or 'We know what you can do; we'll be in touch.' I went to see Dick MacPherson at the Patriots. He had been my coach at Syracuse. He said, "You look like you're in great shape. We certainly can use you.' Then he called back and said, 'Sorry, Blaise, but I'm not calling the shots here.' "
So Winter looked in the Green Bay yellow pages and found Image Works, a video company, and he and his wife, Angie, made a five-minute tape that could have been called Blaise Winter Wants To Play Football. With a driving drumbeat, the tape showed Winter doing a few high-intensity workouts, playing for the Packers and running a 40-yard sprint that, if you put a watch on it, turns out to be a 4.95—fancy stepping for a 278-pounder. He sent the tape to most of the teams in the NFL. "The relentless approach," says Winter. "I was desperate. I couldn't have done it without Angie's help. She held me up through many days of tears."
The Chargers liked what they saw. "What I saw most," says Arnsparger, "was determination." So Winter got a chance in the San Diego training camp, and he has been on the field for every Charger snap this season. Base defense, nickel rush, whatever—Winter never leaves the field.
Hunger, determination, depression and redemption: They're all part of this remarkable 9-5 team that knows what the other side of life is all about.