To tell you how San Diego's offense works, let's start with a picture: Having delivered a stunning blow, Buffalo cornerback Charles Romes stood over his victim and pointed a finger in his face. The victim, San Diego wide received John Jefferson, was flat on his back. A trainer gingerly removed his helmet. For a minute after Romes strutted away, Jefferson lay there without moving. The 50,000 Charger fans in Jack Murphy Stadium were silent.
Then, like a jack-in-the-box, Jefferson popped up off the ground, dancing, prancing. Alive! Not only alive, but well! You could tell because he bounced around to the roar of the crowd, carrying his helmet in his left hand, whipping his right hand overhead in tiny circles as if stirring up the applause. You could tell because as he danced off the field, Jefferson deliberately went past the Buffalo huddle -- and pointed at Charles Romes.
"I'll be back," Jefferson said with a smile.
If Romes had won the battle of the moment, Jefferson yet was certain of ultimate victory, such is his faith in the San Diego offense. It is faith well placed. The Chargers gained more yards this season than any team in NFL history -- 6,410, an average of 400.9 yards a game. They set team and/or league passing records in attempts, completions, yardage and touchdowns.Along with Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner, John Jefferson completes the first trio of receivers on the same team ever to catch passes for 1,000 yards each.
This is the space age of pro football, and the Chargers, more than anyone else, have the right stuff.
New rules make it easier to play a passing game. These rules play into the hands of head coach Don Coryell, long a master of the passing game, and offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs, the front-runner for the Redskin job. Quarterback Dan Fouts, in his eighth season and at the top of his game, has the receivers of his dreams, three fellows who combine experience, size, speed and the gift for catching anything that touches their fingertips.
It took the better part of two hours, but John Jefferson did get back to Charles Romes. On second and eight from the San Diego 33 with less than four minutes to play, Jefferson flew by Romes to take a Fouts pass 17 yards. From the 50 three plays later, Fouts threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Ron Smith.
Because Oakland comes here to play San Diego in the American Football Conference championship game Sunday, the league set up a press conference today. The writers asked to talk to Fouts, Jefferson, Winslow and Joiner -- such is the current state of the football art. And most of the questioners got around to asking about Oakland's defensive backs.
The game is played in the air these days.
Someone asked Winslow, a second-year tight end, to describe the San Diego offense.
"Score, score and keep scoring. Move the ball any way you can. Through the air, on the ground. Teams that win consistently do it both ways. We do. Right, we do. Chuck Muncie and Mike Thomas are good runners."
A smile then.
Muncie at New Orleans and Thomas at Washington have been good runners. Here they may be at their most effective because defenders worry so much about the pass that stopping the run is almost an afterthought. Muncie gained 659 yards, Thomas 484, both averaging over four yards a carry. San Diego's 1,879 yards rushing are 37 more than its opponents managed.
San Diego's signature is the pass. Diagrams of the Charger pass routes, with arrows and O's and crossing lines, seem the work of a mad scientist drawing treasure maps. The Chargers throw an average of 37 passes a game from a jillion formations with a zillion pass routes. To the guy off the street, Winslow admitted, the San Diego offense may seem complex.
"But it isn't really," he said. "You see a lot of balls in the air and it may look tricky or even too much of a gamble. We're throwing mostly control passes, though, little short ones of maybe four yards that, because we're all pretty good runners, too, we turn into 17-yarders. Our philosophy is to create situations where we get single coverage and then it's up to Dan to find the open man.
"And even though we're throwing ball-control type passes, on 80 percent of our plays there is always a deep pass pattern in there somewhere. We have the big-play capability 80 percent of the time. That's what Dan looks for first, to see if the big play is there. . . It works pretty good."
It works nicely because Fouts is an accomplished passer who has matured.With four receivers available on virtually every pass play, Fouts must read defenses quickly. He must be able to throw short and long. Fouts was 348 for 589 this season for 4,715 yards. All those numbers are NFL records.
It works nicely because Fouts' receivers are so good. Even in a crowd of exceptional receivers, Winslow is extraordinary. He is the future today. He is called a tight end. But at 6-foot-5 1/2 and 252 pounds, he played most of the season at wide receiver spots. Beginning with the seventh game, Gregg McCrary did the dirty work of a tight end while Winslow lined up in the slot, in the backfield or split out wide. Winslow caught 89 passes, a tight end record and the best in the NFL this season.
If the injured McCrary is not able to play Sunday, Winslow will move back to a true tight end's job, blocking on the defensive behemoths of Oakland. He played in tight most of last week, too, in the 20-14 victory over Buffalo and worked as a true tight end in both San Diego-Oakland games this season. Each team won at home.
"Not to be bragging," Winslow said, bragging, "but we've done pretty good against Oakland. In the two games, John Jefferson caught 17 passes for over 200 yards, I had 16 for over 200 and Charlie had 13 or 14 for 200. One thing's for sure. The game will be decided on the passing," Winslow said.
Such a smile lit his face.