Impatient readers may jump down a few paragraphs for the hard facts on Saturday afternoon's San Diego-Buffalo playoff game that will move the winner within a step of the Super Bowl. But they will miss out on a football thought so daring, so bold -- let's be honest, so brilliant -- that the pedestrian thinkers in football today have not caught on to it yet.
My escape from college was made possible, in part, by the forward pass. As our final act in Football Coaching 101, we gridiron neophytes had to draw up an offensive system, complete with Xs and Os, penciled-in barricades, arrows and dotted lines. My offense was, in a word, perfect.
In my 15-page playbook, every play was a pass.
The coach, who wore his whistle to class, gave me, an A.
Yesterday's liberals are tomorrow's conservatives, as the old offensive lineman from Eureka has reminded us, and I must confess I have grown dispirited over the years seeing everybody "establish the running game." Hopelessly romantic, I yet hold out hope my vision of perfection will be realized. Somewhere there must be a coach locked in deep communion with a computer, the two of them calculating what could happen if you threw the football on every play.
Send everybody deep and air it out 70 times every Sunday. Make the afternoon sky grow dark with flights of pigskin overhead. For our offensive line, bring in Sumo wrestlers, who are quick, mean with their hands and run well in reverse. Let John Riggins ride his tractor, because all we want are whippet backs, not 230-pounders who can't run a post from midfield. Get me a quarterback who can pitch both ends of a doubleheader and six sprinters to catch the falling bombs.
Failing that, get me the San Diego Chargers.
They are the closest thing to perfection. It isn't that the Chargers ignore the reality of running with the football (they carry it 32 times a game). They do pass more often (39 times). But the best thing about San Diego is that the coach, Don Coryell, would throw the thing all day every day if the National Football League rulesmakers would go along with this bold idea he has been talking up for years now.
He wants the field enlarged.
It is now 53 1/3 yards wide and 100 yards long.
Coryell wants it at least 60 yards wide and 120 yards long.
And this isn't some young wise guy's term paper. This is the serious talk of a football coach whose teams have won four division championships in his eight years as a pro.
The National Football League has changed its rules in the last three years to make it easier to complete passes. Defensive linemen no longer can slap the heads of their offensive playmates. The offensive guys can use their hands to hold off the defenders Receivers need worry about only a single bump, that near the line of scrimmage. Because it is practically a capital offense to do harm to a quarterback these days, the pitchers have the peace of mind of an Indian guru.
When Don Coryell coached at San Diego State, he learned that all the studs played at Southern California. If you're not big and strong, it's hard to run with the football. So Coryell had his guys throw it all over the lot. tHe did the same thing with the St. Louis Cardinals, and the liberalization of the passing-game rules three years ago coincided with his hiring by the Chargers.
"I put my hands up like this," he said today, smiling real big and stretching for the sky when someone asked how he felt when the game was changed to make it easier to do what he had been doing for a decade.
Still smiling, Coryell said, "What they ought to do now is make the field 60 yards wide by 120. That would be real easy to do. They say they can't do it."
A lot of stadiums have paying customers in those extra yards Coryell wants for his dotted-line patterns.
"I don't see how come they couldn't knock out a few seats," he said. "Why, look here. We have these big huge men playing on the same size field as high school freshmen do. And they say it would hurt the defenses. Well, good defenses would have even more of an advantage on my field. They'd get to cover more ground."
No more of these piddling 39-37 games, eh?
"I've brought my idea up every year," Coryell said, chuckling, "but so far it hasn't made it to the agenda."
We are surrounded by Allenesque disciples of the mundane. Among them is Coryell's opposite number in Saturday's game, Chuck Knox of Buffalo, whose team is the only one of the current eight survivors that depends on its defense to win. The day of the ball-control team is past. You win now with lightning, not thunder. Except for the Bills, who statistically are the best defensive team in football.
This playoff game, then, is a meeting ground of ideas. The teams arrived at their 11-5 records by opposing means, the Bills limiting their opponents to barely two touchdowns a game while the Chargers rang up nearly four a game. Dan Fouts, the 4,000-yard passer, will pitch against a Buffalo secondary that led the NFL in yards given up.
Buffalo won the teams' first meeting, 26-24, in the fifth game of the season when the Chargers' star running back, Chuck Muncie, made his first appearance after being acquired in a trade with New Orleans. Muncie now is an integral part of the San Diego game plan, having gained 659 yards on 135 carries -- a 4.9 aveage. So the Chargers are a better team with him.
Defensive end Fred Dean, who has had a pulled groin muscle, is expected to play, if not start, for the Chargers. Linebacker Woodrow Lowe will start after sitting out a week with a bad knee. The Bills' only injury problem was with quarterback Joe Ferguson, but his sprained ankle of three weeks ago is reported all right now.
"That first game was no fluke," Coryell said. "The Bills' pass defense is just exceptional, but we're out to score and we'll do what we do best -- which is throw the football."
"We've matured as a defensive team this season," Knox said. "And when we start thinking of a game, we think first of what we can do defensively to win. Ball control has been important to us, both offensively and defensively, but we know that against the Chargers we have to do more than just control the ball. We have to put points on the board."
Coryell expects a close game that could be decided by a turnover. In that case, Buffalo has an edge. It is plus-three on takeaways this year while San Diego is minus-nine.
Someone asked Chuck Knox about Coryell's absolutely inspirational idea for expanding the football field, an idea that would bring nearer the glorious day when Joe Theismann goes 46 for 78 and John Riggins doesn't touch the ball.
You'd have thought someone asked to see the coach's tutu.
"We would wind up playing volleyball," Knox said.