Curse you, San Diego Chargers. A jigger of loser's cocktail -- beer mixed with tears -- in your faces. You have set football back at least 20 years, possibly spoiled it for the '80s.
This is not the lament of someone who had his wallet cleaned when the Houston Cripples upset the Chargers in the semifinal round of the American Conference playoffs Saturday. The loss was considerable, though: only the hope that a team could be successful and also entertaining.
Lots of us had been silently rooting desperately all season for the Chargers, for Air. Coryell to strafe the entire Afc, the bomb the Steelers on Sunday and then bury whatever NFC team had the audacity to show up for the Super Bowl.
In truth, there had been an unwitting conspiracy of sorts in the NFL to make their route to the Super Bowl as uncomplicated as possible. But this sleek strike force, surely the offense of the '80s, self-destructed on little more than a pothole on the runway.
How else to describe the Oilers? Without the galaxy's best runner, without their regular quarterback and without their best receiver, the Oilers might not beat Michigan in a postseason game. And some of the players who did play played after taking painkillers, suggesting the team's motto should have been: "Win one for Upjohn."
No reasonable person could not have been touched by the Oilers' courage, by Bum Phillips for refusing any temptation to play Earl Campbell and possibly ruin his career, by safety Vernon Perry very likely dominating a playoff game like no defender ever.
But then compassion and admiration are tackled by reality. What Redskin fan two days after that heartbreaker in Dallas did not suddenly scream: "We blew two touchdown leads twice!"
The Chargers leave us limp with frustration today.
The reason is that they seemed to offer an alternative to the Gospel of Winning Football, a choice not an echo. Stagg surely first preached the theme Lombardi and nearly every other wildly successful coach spread throughout the land: you . . . will . . . establish . . . the . . . run.
Coaches are incorrigible copycats. If a team won the Super Bowl with a nine-man defensive line and 3-foot-6 linebackers, some of football would recruit dwarfs immediately and the rest certainly would within two years. w
Most teams exist almost entirely on the 48 Sweep the Packers ran into the ground in the '60s, dutifully sending bull-necked teens with dental braces around end every play because Lombardi said that was the only way to attack.
And so it seemed.
Until Don Coryell arrived in San Diego.
Coryell is the Hans Kung of football, the fellow who questions traditional thinking, who wonders if an offense just might work if it passed more often than it ran. Some others have grasped his ideas, but remain largely anonymous.
Coryell's radical ideas gained national attention when he became coach of the St. Louis Cardinals. His teams were a joy to watch, with dazzling plays that also made sense. But Coryell would retreat into a shell during the playoffs, perhaps not trusting his instincts after all. Then he left the team after a bitter fight with the owner.
He reemerged in San Diego early last season and, with quarterback Dan Fouts, had the Chargers passing everyone silly by season's end.
In the offseason, the NFL owners tinkered with the rules. They allowed receivers to run their routes without fear of decapitation after five yards. They allowed blockers more freedom to ward off defensive linemen.
The Chargers struck with the sudden impact the lightning bolts on their helmets suggested. Everybody but those rhinos on the offensive line scattered off the ball and out for a pass.
It was wonderful.
San Diego won the AFC West. But vindication for Coryell, the football coach's seal of approval for all those odd thoughts that kept dancing in his mind, would come only with victory in the Super Bowl.
That is the way with all coaches whose ideas run counter to football orthodoxy. George Allen's way of building a pro team, trading draft choices for proven veterans, seems unarguably sould. Yet his Rams and Redskins failed in the playoffs, so he is an NFL pariah.
The Chargers seemed ready to explode for the playoffs. And the depression, the rejection of Coryell's theories, will be nearly universal, not because San Diego lost, but how. Air Coryell struck quickly and decisively at the beginning of the first and third quarters, then sputtered and fell harmlessly to earth.
Somewhere, Lombardi must be chuckling. His disciples are chirping: We told you so. Didn't we say three things could happen on every pass play and two of them were bad?
Yes, but the one that also can happen is so invigorating, such a welcome change. And for the Chargers to be beaten by Bum's bums, plucky though they might be, was a mighty blow.
The Steelers vs. Houston will be interesting. But only Pittsburgh will offer imagination. Splendid as Campbell is, the mind can tolerate only so many teams spending weeks and months deciding whether the halfback should run left or right.