Throwback Thursday: ‘Super’ Chargers entertained fans while being decades ahead of their time

The NFL included several notable teams as the decade of the 1970s drew to a close. The Pittsburgh Steelers were in the middle of a six-year run that saw the franchise win four Super Bowls. On their way to being known as “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys played in five Super Bowls during the decade. The Raiders were at the peak of their power, while Don Shula’s Dolphins remained a formidable foe after winning back-to-back Super Bowls earlier in the decade. 

While they didn’t win a championship, the Chargers of the late ’70s and early ’80s provided a dazzling display of offensive firepower. The Chargers’ entertaining brand of football made them one of the league’s most popular teams. It also created a love affair between the franchise and San Diego, as “Charger Power” T-shirts became part of every San Diego native’s wardrobe. Perhaps most importantly, the Chargers played an instrumental role in showing fans and other teams the limitless possibilities of offensive football, particularly when it comes to passing. Their success, along with their popularity during that era, provided a template that future teams and offensive gurus would embrace. 

While they may have changed cities, the 2021 Chargers embody the spirit of their predecessors. The current Chargers possess one of the league’s top offenses, a unit that includes quarterback Justin Herbert, running back Austin Ekeler and receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. The unit has helped the Chargers get off to a 4-1 start entering Sunday’s marque matchup against the 4-1 Ravens

Let’s take a look back at the “Super” Chargers of the late ’70s and early ’80, starting with the season where everything came together. 

‘Air’ Coryell comes to town 

September 25, 1978 is remembered in San Diego for two very different reasons. Just after 9 a.m. that morning, Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1982 crashed in a San Diego neighborhood after it collided with a private aircraft. The 144 total casualties made it the deadliest air disaster in California history. 

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” former Chargers running back and special teams gunner Hank Bauer said in an NFL Films documentary on the 1981 Chargers. “Driving to the stadium and felt what I thought was a sonic boom. Over the radio, they say there is this terrible plane crash, total devastation in a major part of San Diego proper.”

That was also the day the Chargers hired Baurer’s new coach. After a 1-3 start, San Diego’s brass decided a change was necessary. The team dismissed Tommy Prothro and replaced him with Don Coryell, who came to San Diego following a successful five-year run with the Cardinals. Prior to coaching the Cardinals, Coryell put together a 104-19-2 record during his 12-year run at San Diego State, which gave him instant credibility among local football fans. In order to level the playing field against college powers USC and UCLA, Coryell decided that a passing-first offense would give the Aztecs an advantage. Coryell took that philosophy to the NFL, where in St. Louis he led the Cardinals to their first playoff appearances in over a quarter century. 

A man whose passion for coaching knew no boundary, Coryell made a quick and lasting impression on his new players in San Diego. 

“In comes this whirlwind, Don Coryell,” recalled quarterback Dan Fouts. “I remember him saying, ‘You guys are 1-3. You haven’t won in a long time. People think I’m crazy to take this job. Well guys, I’ll tell you what, we’ve all got to be a little crazy to play this game.’ And with that, we all started laughing and we never stopped laughing until it was over.” 

The Chargers won just one of their first four games under Coryell. But they won seven of their final eight games of the 1978 season to finish with a 9-7 record, the franchise’s first winning record since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. 

“The most important thing to me about Don Coryell was that he actually cared about us as players,” Fouts said. “Don was always a guy that made you feel important. Your contributions to the offense or to the team or the meetings or to the locker was part of the deal, and we were all part of this together. That is just him as a human being.” 

‘Charger Power’ takes over the NFL  

Finding and creating mismatches was a key component to Coryell’s offensive philosophy. Along with having the confident Fouts as his quarterback, Coryell had the league’s most prolific receiving duo in John Jefferson and Charlie Joyner. Both players went over 1,000 yards receiving in 1979, while Fouts won his first passing title. The Chargers’ offense was complemented by a defense that collected 28 interceptions and recorded 42 sacks. The ’79 Chargers put the league on notice in Week 12, when they drubbed the defending (and eventual) champion Steelers at home, 35-7. 

Before they could face the Steelers for a right to go to the Super Bowl, they first had to beat an Oilers team that had been in the previous year’s AFC title game. Despite the absence of quarterback Dan Pastorini and Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell, the visiting Oilers stunned the Chargers after picking off five Fouts passes. 

“For them to come into San Diego and beat us as they did, you’ve got to give them credit,” Fouts said. “They played better, and I wish I had played better. We were just off, and I was just off a lot.” 

History, but more heartbreak  

Prolific in 1979, Coryell’s offense was historically great in 1980. That was the breakout year for Kellen Winslow, a 6-foot-5, 251-pound tight end who created constant mismatches for Coryell and headaches for defensive coordinators. Winslow, Jefferson and Joyner were each named All-Pros while becoming the first trio of teammates to each go over 1,000 yards receiving in the same season. The trio helped Fouts win his second straight passing title, as Fouts threw for over 600 more yards than his closest competitor. 

In the playoffs, the Chargers edged the Bills in the divisional round before hosting the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. Led by quarterback Jim Plunkett and a running game that churned out 138 rushing yards, the Raiders raced out to a 28-7 lead. The Chargers fought back to make it a one-possession game in the third quarter, but a pair of field goals kept the Raiders in control in route to a 34-27 upset win. Two weeks later, the Chargers watched from home as Oakland dismantled the outmatched Eagles in Super Bowl XV. 

“You look and you go, ‘Damn, how’d that happen?'” Bauer said, looking back at the Chargers’ playoff losses. “It’s such a journey to even get into the playoffs. It’s hard. Going to a Super Bowl is hard.” 

An epic win, a chilling loss 

Right from the start, the 1981 season would be unlike any other in Chargers’ history. Two of the team’s biggest stars — Jefferson and pass rusher Fred Dean — held out the season’s first two games due to contract disputes. The Chargers traded Jefferson to Green Bay and Dean to San Francisco. They found a replacement for Jefferson in the form of Wes Chandler, who was acquired via a trade with the Saints following the Chargers’ ugly Week 4 loss to Denver. The Chargers never overcome the loss of Dean, however, as the unit allowed the third-most points in the league. 

“Weirdest thing I ever heard somebody say is that they felt that offense scored too quickly,” Fouts said. “Which I still do not understand because isn’t that our job is to score, and do we really have any choice as to how quickly we score? Can we really take eight minutes off the clock, or is it better to do it in three plays?” 

Finger pointing contributed to the Chargers sitting at 6-5 and on the verge of missing the playoffs. An intense yet productive team meeting got the Chargers back on track, as San Diego won four of its final five games. A 23-10 win on “Monday Night Football” against the Raiders gave the Chargers the West division crown. Fouts won his third straight passing title while leading the NFL’s top-ranked scoring offense. Joiner and Winslow each went over 1,000 yards receiving, while Chandler tallied 852 yards in 12 games with the Chargers. San Diego’s passing game was complemented by the thunder and lightning combo of running backs Chuck Muncie and James Brooks. Muncie ran for 19 touchdowns, while Brooks amassed over 850 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns. 

The Chargers’ third straight trip to the playoffs began with a road game against the Dolphins. The only thing warmer than the Miami heat was the Chargers, who scored 24 unanswered points in the first quarter. The first touchdown was a 58-yard punt return from Chandler that included a block by Bauer, who that season recorded a NFL record 52 special teams tackles. 

“My job was to peel out to the outside and kick out the contain man,” Bauer recalled. “I couldn’t have broken a pane of glass with that block, but I got between me and the guy, and suddenly I felt this whoosh right under my butt, and there he goes, off to the races.” 

The Chargers were unable to maintain that pace and were eventually caught by the Dolphins, who executed a perfect hook-and-latter during their run of 24 answered points. From there, the game turned into a battle of attrition, with Fouts looking often to his biggest weapon. Despite dealing with dehydration, Winslow 13 passes for 166 yards that included a go-ahead, 25-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter. Undaunted, the Dolphins took their first lead before the Chargers received one of the greatest individual efforts in postseason history. 

Trailing 38-31 late in the fourth quarter, Fouts looked for Winslow in the near corner of the end zone. 

“When I dropped back, I saw that Winslow was double covered, but that never scared me throwing to Winslow,” Fouts said while laughing. “So I felt that if I could buy a little time, I know I could just loft it up softly and he could catch it. But he had nothing left at that point; he could not jump. So the ball sailed over his head, incomplete, in my mind.  

“We’ve run that play 1,000 times. James Brooks’ job on that play is to block the weak side linebacker, and then if nobody comes, just stay in and block. Well JB saw me running, he ran down the field to the back of the end zone.” 

Fouts’ pass sailed past Winslow’s outstretched arms and into the hands of Brooks. 

“To this day, it’s the most incredible single play I’ve ever been a part of, because it was an overthrown, incomplete pass. And yet it was a touchdown to tie one of the greatest games ever.”

One of the NFL’s greatest games went to overtime after Winslow blocked the Dolphins’ game-winning field goal attempts with four seconds left in regulation. 

In overtime, completions to Chandler and Joyner set up Rolf Benirschke’s game-winning field goal, thus ending what is known as the “Epic in Miami.” Shortly after the game’s conclusion, the picture most synonymous with that era of Chargers teams was taken when an exhausted Winslow was helped off the field. 

A week later, the Chargers woke up in Cincinnati, Ohio, but it may as well have been Alaska. The Chargers would face the Bengals in the coldest game in NFL history, with a minus 59 degree wind chill and 30-40 mph winds. 

“I get out and I go down the tunnel, and it hits you just like someone threw 100 knives at you,” Bauer said. “And I run right back into the locker room and I go, ‘Well, first of all, start taking off everything you’re putting on because you can’t move and [it is] not going to help.'”

“I still have frostbite in my right big toe because of that and in my right thumb when it still gets cold,” added Winslow. “How Dan played that game with no gloves is beyond me.”

Fouts and counterpart Ken Anderson were the only players who didn’t wear gloves in a game that is known as the “Freezer Bowl.” Fouts attribute’s Anderson’s ability to throw tight spirals through the unforgiving wind was the main difference in the game. 

Winslow admits that the unprecedented conditions may have also played a factor in the Chargers’ 27-7 defeat. 

“We were so focused on survival that maybe we didn’t play up to the level that we could have,” he said, looking back. “But you give Cincinnati credit. They made the adjustment. They were going to show us how tough they were, and maybe they did. They won the ball game.” 

The Chargers of that era would never make it back to another title game. Age, injuries, player turnover and an eventual ownership change ended the most thrilling ride in San Diego sports history. 

The Chargers’ enduring legacy 

Coryell’s offensive philosophy of finding and creating mismatches became a staple of offensive game plans. Passing attacks also became a more prevalent part of the game, as more and more coaches realized that you can win a championship with a pass-first philosophy. 

“There are teams today still running that offense,” Winslow said. “When the Rams won the Super Bowl (in 1999), I could step into their huddle and run their plays. It’s the same offense.” 

The Chargers never won a Super Bowl, but Fouts believes that he and his teammates left a lasting impact in San Diego and across the football landscape. Years before the fantasy football boom, the Chargers showed where the future of professional football was heading. 

“We’ll be judged based upon our failures but also on our entertainment value and how people remember us,” Fouts said. “People remember the San Diego Chargers as a team that they enjoyed watching. All I care about is the fans. If they liked it, great. Some will be critical, some will say, “Ah, they never won the big one.’ But you know what? We tried, and we had fun trying.  

“We did leave our mark. We will not be forgotten.” 

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