Ask Dan Fouts about the San Diego Chargers' offense, ask him about Coach Don Coryell, ask him about his receivers or ask him about the Chargers' defense and he will talk for days.
But ask him about Dan Fouts and he becomes quiet. For example, Fouts was asked today how he would describe himself off the field, what he is like when he is not quarterbacking the Chargers into the promised land of the National Football League playoffs.
"I wouldn't describe myself," was the answer. "I get sick and tired of always hearing athletes talk about themselves. And I don't like to talk about myself.
"When you talk about yourself you get labeled. I don't like labels. People say I'm a private person. Or they say I'm withdrawn. Then there are all these negative things put on you. No one person is any one thing."
One thing Fouts has become is an outstanding quarterback. At 28 and in his seventh season in the NFL, both he and the Chargers have come of age. San Diego, out of the playoffs since the AFL days in 1965, were 12-4 this year to win the AFC West. The Chargers play host to the Houston Oilers in a divisional playoff game Saturday.
Fouts was major reason for the Chargers' success. He completed a remarkable 62.6 percent of his 530 passes. Two of his receivers, John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner, gained more than 1,000 yards catching passes and Fouts broke Joe Namath's record of 4,007 yards passing in a season with 4,032 (although he needed 16 games to break the mark Namath set in 14).
"This team has always had the athletic ability," said Joiner, who caught 72 passes. "This year, thanks to Coach Coryell and Dan, we finally put it all together."
Naturally, with the Chargers winning big. Fouts has been the center of much attention. With that attention have come the labels he so dislikes: mountain man; backwoods quarterback, loner.
Actually, Fouts is none of the above.True, he and his wife Julianne and their two children retire to a 20-acre ranch in Oregon during the off-season. But they do not live in a hut, and there are many other ranches around them.
With his teammates, Fouts is no longer.
"Dan is just a natural leader," said Joe Gibbs, offensive coordinator. "In the huddle, he's in charge. The guys like him and respect him and I think he feels the same about them."
Nor is he withdrawn. He tries to be accessible for the numerous interviews and he rarely skirts a question. There are just some subjects he won't discuss, especially those concerning himself.
"Compare myself to another quarterback?" he asked rhetorically. "I would never do that. I wouldn't want to degrade the guy."
Coaches and teammates say two qualities make Fouts a superior quarterback: mental toughness and intelligence. Although he has good size at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he has been nagged by injuries, from sore knees to groin pulls, all season. He does not have an especially strong arm, either.
"But he's as determined a football player as you'll find," Gibbs said. "He'll stand back there is the pocket longer than any quarterback I've seen. He's willing to take a hit and getting hit doesn't mess up his concentration, like with some guys.
"And he's earned the respect of this team. They see him get hit and get up, get hit and get up. The guys know he's paid the price and they work for him.'"
Yet, it is Fouts' intelligence, probably more than anything else, that has made him a star. Coryell says he could not run his "tree branch" passing offense with another quarterback because a quick and intelligent reading of the defense is so important.
"If i had a quarterback with different skills than Dan's I'd have to run a different offense. I'd be crazy not to," Coryell said. "Danny's a great reader. He's good at finding his receivers. cSo this offense is ideal for him."
Life in San Diego has not always been ideal for Fouts. A native of San Francisco, he grew up working for the 49ers as a ballboy, a job he got because his farther, Bob Fouts, was the 49ers' play-by-play broadcaster.During those years, he watched John Brodie graciously handle the 49er fans, even when they booed him off the field.
Fouts played football, basketball and baseball into high school but soon gave up on the latter two.
"I couldn't dunk and I couldn't hit the curve," he said simply. One major school -- Oregon -- offered a football scholarship and he took it.
In three seasons there he passed for 5,995 yards and 37 touchdowns and beat Southern California twice. In 1973 he was drafted on the third round by the Chargers, presumably to back up Johnny Unitas, whose career rapidly was coming to a close.
By the fifth game of the season, it was obvious Unitas was finished. Trailing the Pittsburgh Steelers, 38-0, at halftime, Coach Harland Svare yanked Unitas for Fouts. The rookie completed 11 of 21 passes the second half and the final score was 38-21. Fouts was the quarterback.
Being the Charger quarterback in those days was no picnic. The team was bad and Fouts took much of the blame. Remembering Brodie, he never blinked.
In the wake of the drug scandal that rocked the franchise, Svare stepped down as coach before the 1973 season was over. He was replaced by Tommy Prothro, and slowly the Chargers began to improve. After bottoming out at 2-12 in 1975, they were 6-8 the next year and hopes for 1977 were high.
But when the season started, Fouts was in Orgegon. The word then, as now, was that Fouts was angered by the fact that James Harris acquired during the offseason, was making more money than he was, so Fouts refused report to the team.
That, says Fouts, is not true.
"If I was so obsessed with money why would I sit out three-quarters of the season and not get paid?" he asked. "I did it because I thought we got sold out (by Ed Garvey, the NFL Players Association executive director) on the players' agreement. He gave up our free agency. I thought that was strong. So did my attorney (Howard Slusher).
"I think every human being should have the right to choose who he works for. We started talking about going to court before the Harris trade was even made. I did it because I believe it was strong. That's all. But everybody insists to this day that it was the money."
Fouts testified in court that he wanted his free agency because he felt capable of leading a good team to the Super Bowl and the Chargers were not a good team. He lost and returned to the Chargers. There were, Fouts admits, some hard feelings. they are gone now.
Fouts and the Chargers took their licks the first four weeks of the 1978 season, losing three of four games, and Prothro resigned. Coryell, ousted by the St. Louis Cardinals the previous winter but still a near-legend in this area because of his days coaching at San Diego State, was hired.
Everyone in the Charger organization now says that was the day the team became a winner.
"Coach Coryell has always been a winner," Joiner said. "This team never knew how to win. Coryell's so intense about it that he just transmitted it to us."
He also transmitted it to Fouts and the Chargers won seven of their last eight games in 1978, the only loss coming when Fouts could not play with an ankle sprain.
Then came this year -- wins and records galore. Now, Fouts says, he wouldn't leave San Diego if he became a free agent tomorrow. He has a long-term contract to prove it.
And, most of the Chargers say, as long as Fouts and Coryell are in San Diego together, the team will continue to be successful.
"Dan's a reflection of Coryell," tight end Bob Klein said. "He's intense and fiery just like Don. It's like a father-son thing.
But he's also a sensitive person. It's not just all holler, that makes him a leader. He knows when we need some levity, when to cut up to loosen the atmosphere up. Port of what makes him a great quarterback is the kind of person he is."
Fouts gives credit for his success to men like Coryell and the offensive coordinators he has worked with: John Robinson, now coach at Southern California, at Orgegon; Bill Walsh, now of the 49ers, Ray Perkins, now of the Giants, and Gibbs.
Most of Fouts' feelings these days are good ones. He is happy with his double life: glamorous quarterback six months a year, quiet family man the other six. He also is a fiercely independent individual, undisposed to conform within the conform-or-else National Football League.
Perhaps that became clearest when Fouts was asked if he thought his protracted holdout had been worht the effort.
"If you don't stand up for what you believe in, your're going to spend most of your life depressed. If I think something's wrong, I say so."
One might say that Fouts is his own man. But don't tell him that. He doesn't like labels.