In their first touchdown drive tonight, the San Diego Chargers were charging formations before the Miami Dolphins could get set and burning them with first-down passes on quick counts in a manner that indicated they might blow the Dolphins out of the Orange Bowl with the leading offense in the National Football League.
But rookie quarterback Dave Woodley of the Dolphins forced the game into overtime with an offensive cast that ranked No. 12 in the AFC before he yielded an interception to Woodrow Lowe that set up Rolf Benirschke's 28-yard field goal 7:14 into the sudden-death overtime, giving San Diego a 27-24 victory.
"Woodley was unbelievable for a rookie," said Don Coryell, Charger coach.
"-- in fact, for any quarterback."
Quarterback Dan Fouts of San Diego sympathized with Woodley because of the pressure he was under as a first-year player. "He has a lot of guts. He's going to be a great one."
Woodley was informed afterward in the dressing room that he had the composure of someone about to sit down to dinner. "I may look that way," Woodley said, "But I don't feel that way. I'm afraid I didn't take enough time to set up. I threw behind Tony Nathan (the intended receiver on the interception).
"Five years from now, I may look back and say to myself that I could have been more careful."
Miani Coach Don Shula called the defeat "one of the toughest losses we've had around here in a long, long time."
"You have to feel bad for the players who battled out there tonight."
The score was tied three times, and twice in the fourth quarter the Dolphins got down to the one-yard line of the Chargers, only to discover San Diego also plays defense, the third best in the AFC.
The Dolphins were behind, 24-17, when running back Terry Robiskie was stopped on fourth down, but instead of folding under the pressure, the Dolphins stopped the Chargers again and went 49 yards to tie the score at 24-24 on a one-yard plunge by Del Williams and a conversion by Uwe von Schamann.
The Chargers had the first possession in overtime but the Dolphins forced a punt at the Miami 42-yard line and, after a touchback, Woodley had 80 yards to go for a touchdown.
Woodly's cool style resembled that of sideline veteran Bob Greise. He passed to Nathan for five yards, scrambled for seven himself, and send Robiskie on a draw for five yards to the Miami 37 yard line.
Then he set up to pass deep to wide receiver Jimmy Cefalo or Nat Moore, but spotted Nathan on a shorter pattern and went to him.
The ball hung and linebacker Lowe appeared to have lured Woodley into throwing in his direction because he rushed up quickly, picked off the pass and ran 28 yards to the Miami 12-yard line. On fourth down Bernirske's second field goal of the game ended the suspense for the crowd of 63,013.
Fouts said later, "We are 45 tired guys after that five-hour plane delay on Wednesday that got us into Miami at 2 a.m. Thursday."
"We overcame some real adverse conditions," said Coryell. "It took us a long time to get here and I didn't think we'd ever get out of here."
Mike Thomas, the former Redskin, was ebullient after running for 50 yards and catching five passes for 42 yards. "Tell the Eagles and the Redskins," he said, "I'll be seeing them again in the next couple of weeks."
Fouts hit on 25 of 41 passes for 230 yards and three touchdowns, to Clarence Williams, Charlie Joiner and John Jefferson, but he was well below his average of more than 400 yards a game.
Woodley was sacked four times and intercepted twice but never lost his poise as he completed 22 of 34 passes for 251, including one touchdown, seven yards to running back Nathan, who caught seven throws for 102 yards.
The victory gave the Chargers an 8-4 record, a half-game behind Oakland, leading the AFC West by 8-3.