The game stories properly will say San Diego won today on Dan Fouts' 50-yard pass to Ron Smith with barely two minutes to play. That is the concrete reality. Less tangible but no less real is the idea the Chargers won on a pass Smith dropped into the other team's hands.
Wide receivers are the matadors of pro football. Their work is deadly art.
They are the most graceful of creatures in flight, yet they must fly into the dark unknown of clotheslining linebackers and call-me-Assassin safetymen.
The Charges were down, 14-13, with about 10 1/2 minutes to play. They were only 26 yards from a touchdown after stealing a pass from Buffalo, It came up third and nine, and Fouts put up a soft masterpiece of a pass, the ball floating toward the left sideline, the ball sailing smartly as if computer-guided to a meeting with Ron Smith.
Ron Smith hasn't seen many passes this year. With the Rams last season, he caught a 43-yard touchdown pass that was the catalyst to a playoff victory over the Cowboys. In the Super Bowl, he caught another touchdown pass, this one for 24 yards giving the Rams a short-lived 19-17 lead over Pittsburgh.
The week this season started, the Rams traded Smith. "I just wanted to get out of the Rams," he said, "because of all their problems. I wanted to come here to establish myself as a wide receiver."
He is 23 years old, a third-year pro from San Diego State, where they throw passes eternally, just as the Chargers do. Billy Kilmer used to say he got enough to drink just catching Sonny Jurgensen's spills. Smith figured that any team with John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow could use another wide receiver to catch whatever they were too tired to.
But he hurt his back. He got the flu. So he caught passes in only two games this season, a single catch in the sixth game, three more in the 10th game.
With victory his to produce on Fouts' guided-missile feather midway through the third quarter today, Ron Smith dropped the ball. Stretching high as he sprinted near the 10-yard line, Smith let the ball slide through his fingers. The Buffalo safetyman, Bill Simpson, intercepted it.
Even cowboys get the blues, Wide receivers, too. Because quarterbacks know their catchers, Dan Fouts went to Ron Smith right there on the sideline and told him, "Don't worry about it. You ran a good route. The pass was a little too high."
And Fouts said the most important words, words to stroke the bruised ego of the matador: "I'll come back to you if they use the same coverage."
Smith was made glad by Fouts coming to him. He felt good about it. He thought, "I owe Danny one now." Out loud, he said, "I won't drop it again."
The next time the Chargers ran a series of plays, they started 69 yards away from a touchdown with 3:59 to go.
If there is anything in football more thrilling than watching San Diego play catch with the game on the line, it has escaped discovery here. Ball control, schmall control. Get me a reservation Air Coryell.
Fouts dumped a little pass to running back Mike Thomas for two yards, then hit Jefferson for 17.
Now there were 50 yards to go in less than three minutes.
A run gained nothing.
A second-down pass to Jefferson was knocked away.
Third and 10, with 2:28 left.
Joe Gibbs is the San Diego offensive coordinator. He sits in the press box and calls in the plays to the sideline, to be signalled out to Fouts.
"I called trip left-844 wide," Gibbs said.
A pass play beautiful in its simplicity, 844-trips uses four first-class wide receivers. Jefferson, Joiner and Winslow lined up on the left side. Ron Smith stood alone at the right, 10 yards outside the tackle.
Jefferson, on the line, goes four steps forward and cuts right. Joiner, in the slot, goes four steps and cuts under Jefferson. Winslow, from the backfield, goes four and cuts to the sideline.
Smith goes eight steps and cuts for the middle, running a post.
"We had hit Jefferson so much over on the left," Gibbs said, "that the Bills probably said they would take him away."
That leaves three other receivers, all at different depths.
It is up to Fouts to pick one.
"The one we always hope for," Gibbs said, "is the first one. That's Ron in this case. That's the big play option. We build that into almost all our patterns, and this time we got it. We'd get it maybe one time in 20 because it's only one time in 20 that we'd get this kind of coverage."
Smith, at the line of scrimmage, couldn't believe his eyes.
"The Buffalo secondary all rotated toward Jefferson and those guys," Smith said. "That left only the safety to cover me, man to man. And I don't think there is any safety that can do that. They should have had a corner on me. I knew it was all over then. It was just up to Danny to throw it to me."
Ron Smith didn't drop it this time.
Fouts sat in a big old leather chair in front of his locker 30 minutes after delivering a strike to Smith as he streaked past the forlorn safetyman for the 50-yard touchdown. Fouts held a big cigar, still in its wrapper.
"About the second step in my drop I knew I was going to Ron," Fouts said. "You want the home run in that situation, and the home run was there. They left Ron single-covered, and that's the way you draw it up."
Fouts flipped his cigar away.
It spiraled to a soft landing right next to his beer can.