It was a day for record breaking, for long, lazy passes soaring into the hazy air over the Los Angeles Coliseum, a day of despair and redemption for a beleaguered young cornerback and for a daring defense that set up the game's longest play. And, finally, it was a day for a brutal, punishing infantry assault to overrun an L.A. Raider team that had a chance to step into a tie for the AFC West lead.
The San Diego Chargers, reeling under the weight of three straight losses, which had put them at the bottom of the division, journeyed north on Sunday and hung one on the Raiders 30-23, winning a game that, coach Bobby Ross said, "we simply had to have."
It had been a miserable October for Ross and his Chargers. They were blown out by the Sea-hawks—the Seahawks—on Oct. 3 and were shut down by the Steelers a week later. On Oct. 17 against the Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego became fourth-quarter-comeback victim number 27 for a hobbling Joe Montana. The Chargers were 2-4, and people were saying that their AFC West title last year was an illusion, built on a soft schedule and a lot of luck.
"So close," the Chargers' fine defensive right end, Leslie O'Neal, was saying last Saturday. "This game is built on a series of plays where you come so close. A guy lays out to make a catch and he doesn't stretch far enough, and he misses it. A quarterback is two inches off your grasp, and you miss the sack. One thing builds on another, and before you know it, you're 2-4.
"Just once, I'd like to go into a game, or a season, feeling like we don't have to play over our heads to win. You play the Raiders, and the quotes you read from them are 'We'll win if we play Raider football.' No one says that kind of thing about us."
Raider football. A relentless defensive line that attacks the pocket. On Monday night, Oct. 18, L.A.'s last time out before the Charger game, the line was merciless in its treatment of the Broncos' John Elway, sacking him seven times, which gave the Raiders 26 for the season, best in the NFL. Then there's the deep strike, another Raider trademark. Can any team match the speed of this gang of sprinters? Tim Brown; the little-used but still fleet Willie Gault; Alexander Wright, who won the NFL's fastest-man contest in the off-season; Rocket Ismail, down from Canada; and the newest terror, rookie James Jett, whose 29.3-yards-per-catch average has you checking for a misprint.
Jett burned the Broncos for a 74-yard touchdown, and a week before that he had hit the New York Jets for a 42-yard score, so terrorizing the cornerbacks that they had subsequently played way back and allowed quarterback Vince Evans to mount the game-winning drive by throwing underneath the coverage.
And now it was Jeff Hostetler who would burn the Chargers, throwing to a 400-meter relay team that could probably whip half the countries in the Olympics. "Might be a good promotion for the off-season," Ismail said last Friday. "I'd run the leadoff leg and hand the stick to Willie Gault. He'd pass off to Ace [Wright], and then we'd let Jett bring it home."
"How about James Trapp?" Ismail was asked of the rookie defensive back, an alternate on the last U.S. Olympic team, who runs a sub-4.2 40.
"Oops, forgot about him," Ismail said. "We'll give him the leadoff leg, and I'll run in the prelims, in the qualifying."
The scary thing for the Chargers was that the Raiders' strengths hit them exactly where they were weakest. The offensive line that would have to control the L.A. pass rushers had lost three starters, one by trade, another to free agency and the third, left guard Eric Moten, to knee surgery. Ex-New Orleans Saint Stan Brock, 35, hired for insurance, was now the starting right tackle, and the guy next to him, Joe Milinchik, was plagued by sore knees.
On the other side of the ball, things were just as gloomy. Both of last year's cornerbacks were gone—Gill Byrd to knee surgery and Anthony Blaylock to the Chicago Bears—and their cover linebacker, Jerrol Williams, was out with a shoulder injury suffered against the Chiefs. And here were the Raiders and their let-'er-fly brand of football.
Well, the Charger offensive line held up just fine against L.A., which had only one sack, for three yards. San Diego presented an ever-changing array of formations: sometimes three tight ends and a single wideout; sometimes its regular two-tight-end, two-wideout, one-back set; sometimes three wides or two backs.
Against the Charger defense, though, Hostetler was having a career day. The first pass that left his hand produced a 71-yard touchdown, with Brown on the receiving end and left cornerback Donald Frank stumbling and watching. In the third quarter Brown sprinted away from the pack for 38 yards and a 17-10 Raider lead. Then, a few minutes later, it was Jett's turn. Hostetler launched a nose-up missile, and Jett settled under it 55 yards downfield for a first-and-goal at the Charger five. A running play picked up two, and it was time for a little psychology. In the old days the Raiders would have massed their troops and punched it in, but L.A.'s Achilles' heel this year has been the running game. Raider rushers entered Sunday's game ranked 26th in the league, and they gained only seven yards in the first half against San Diego.
So coach Art Shell sent in three wide-outs, and the Chargers countered with cover jack eight, a zone coverage that used to be an NFL no-no when a team was backed up against its goal line but is standard fare these days. Brown, who had already caught 156 yards' worth of passes, was lined up wide left. He was the responsibility of right cornerback Scan Van-horse. Jett was slotted inside Brown, and staring him in the face was Frank.
Brown slanted inside. Jett cut across the middle, left to right, but instead of trailing him, Frank passed him off to the safeties and broke off to double-cover Brown. "I had a feeling Hostetler would look to Brown," Frank said. "I knew I had to make something happen, to make up for the long one I was burned on."
Hostetler tried to hit Brown on the slant, Frank grabbed the ball in the end zone, and the result was a 102-yard touchdown on the interception. "I don't think Jeff ever saw me," Frank said.
Hostetler's arm would account for 532 yards on the day—424 for the Raiders, breaking by five yards Cotton Davidson's 29-year-old club record, and 108 yards for the other guys (middle linebacker Gary Plummer's interception moments later would account for the other six yards).
What clinched the game, though, was something the Chargers can do and the Raiders can't: hold the ball on the ground. L.A.'s ground game failed early in the fourth quarter when the Raiders had a first-and-goal on the five with San Diego up 27-17. Two runs netted two yards, and then Hostetler threw incomplete as he was hammered by O'Neal. The Raiders had to settle for a field goal.
With 9:55 left to play and the ball on their own 20, the Chargers loaded up with three tight ends and began a 15-play drive, 13 of which were runs. With a fireplug rookie, 5'10", 245-pound Natrone Means, carrying the ball nine times, the Chargers pushed to the L.A. 20 eight minutes later, and John Carney's 38-yard field goal put the game away.
In the press box Paul Wiggin, an old Cleveland Brown defensive lineman and now director of pro personnel for the Minnesota Vikings, who play the Chargers this week, winced every time Means hammered into the line. "I know what those Raider guys are going through," he said. "You just want to cry. Every pounding is like another nail in your coffin."
"We had our shots," Raider owner Al Davis said. "We had the ball twice on their five and couldn't get it in."
"You need a running game," he was told.
"Never mind running the ball," he said. "What we need is a win."
A win, Baby. Just a win.