If the San Diego Chargers are as splendid as they seemed against the Browns, if they routinely can spit out about four dozen points against a playoff team, with the best receiver in football sitting at home in a snit, the essential drama of the NFL season ended on its first weekend.

Without John Jefferson, the Chargers won by 30 points Monday night, beating a Cleveland team whose defense was anything but inspirational a year ago but a team good enough to almost win the AFC championship. If the Chargers keep that sort of strike force honed, if their defense keeps snipping the Sipes of the league, we can mail in the score of the Super Bowl and get on with basketball and hockey.


Don Coryell tried to suggest otherwise. It was one of those magical nights, the Charger coach insisted, a game when a wonderful offense guesses exactly right and a quarterback could hit Lincoln's nose on a penny from 50 yards.

"These things don't happen often," he said.

In a season?

"In a lifetime."

Long and short, left and right, quarterback Dan Fouts was unerring. For Charger management, he delivered a 2,500-mile message to Jefferson the first series of downs: you can be replaced, by Dwight Scales or somebody else not nearly as gifted but cheaper.

Though Fouts was nearly faultless, completing 15 straight passes during one binge, the most gratifying aspect of the offense for the coaches was the ground game. San Diego now has the capability to be boring, and that might be as significant as anything in its Super Bowl drive.

In recent seasons, the Chargers were the most entertaining team in the NFL but gave up points nearly as swiftly as they scored them. Part of the reason was defense, which former Redskin coach Jack Pardee was hired to correct. But an offense can be helpful by controlling the ball, keeping the defense in the best possible place: off the field.

Now the Chargers can run.

They acquired a very good runner, Chuck Muncie, last season and another, James Brooks, through the draft this season; they seem determined to use them effectively.

"They (the Charger runners and blockers) heard a lot of things about not being able to run the ball," Fouts said. "I think it got to them."

It got to be depressing for the Browns. Muncie rushed for 161 yards and rookie Brooks once bounced off three defenders and carried another into the end zone on a four-yard touchdown run. Brooks is the latest unheralded Auburn back to quickly make a dramatic impact on the NFL.

The Falcons' William Andrews was the first Auburn unknown to slip past everyone but the NFL scouts; Joe Cribbs, AFC rookie of the year last season, was the second; Brooks is the third.

"The first part of the picture," Muncie called Monday's rout. "With Jefferson out, it gives some of the rest of us more of a chance. Everything just went right tonight, and when it does it sorta gets exciting."

It does indeed.

The Browns had the second-best passing attack in the NFL a year ago, so league MVP Brian Sipe could not be stymied completely Monday. But what the Chargers did immediately after the Browns scored was frightening to fans here and thrilling to everyone else.

Cleveland would score, and Fouts would whip some half-acre pass to Charlie Joiner on first down. Zap! The crowd would get caught with a cheer in its throat.

"A credit to our coaches," Fouts said. "It's up to them to have the guts to call those plays." In a nice bit of understatement, he added, "We're comfortable with our ability to move the ball."

They frequently do it with two tight ends. One of them is rookie Eric Sievers of Maryland, who continues his largely anonymous, largely thankless blocking; the other is Kellen Winslow, the most important Charger next to Fouts.

At just under 6 feet 6 and 252 pounds, with quarter-miler speed and wide-receiver moves, he is the latest progression in pass catchers. Sometimes he plays on the line, sometimes off it and, to make the game totally unfair, sometimes in motion.

"I like to get open before the play starts," he said.

After a 19-of-25 show for 330 yards, Fouts wanted to find an open spot to sit. His touch was exceptional; his limp said the game had not been as easy as it seemed.

Fouts said he was unaware of that 15-in-a-row streak, two shy of Bert Jones' 7-year-old NFL record for consecutive completions. The pass the Browns finally knocked down was a relatively high-risk throw over the middle toward Joiner.

Would Fouts have opted for safe flare passes, almost certain completions, had he known he was so close to being a history maker?

Possibly not.

"I like to win, baby," he said.

His bruises took much of the public joy from Fouts. At one point, he shot a half-angry, half-incredulous look at a group of reporters after one of them wondered if 44-point performances might be commonplace this season. He ate the words he wanted to say before they left his mouth, then, exasperated, said, "Everything just fell into place."

Here he was, on a dream night, battered and beautiful, colliding with sporting reality: somebody always wants more.